Morocco’s footballer Hakimi: From ‘difficult moments’ to stardom

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For Madrid-born Hakimi, the road to the top has been long, winding and bumpy [Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]

Born in Spain, Hakimi from a very young age was touted as a star prospect. He delivered on Tuesday.

Fortune favours the brave. Just ask Achraf Hakimi.

After Morocco and Spain punched through 120 minutes of no goals in the World Cup 2022 round of 16 match, the Paris Saint-Germain right-back was called upon to take a penalty kick, a kick that could rewrite Morocco’s footballing history.

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With the nerves of an entire nation – and neutral fans – on edge, Hakimi stepped up, leaned left, wrongfooted Spain goal-keeper Unai Simon, and dispatched a perfectly executed Panenka.

It was a legendary chip shot that elevated an already stellar international career into permanent Moroccan footballing lore.

Happy but difficult upbringing for Hakimi

For the Madrid-born Hakimi, the road to the top has been a long, winding and bumpy one.

He was touted as a star prospect from a very young age and was scouted by Real Madrid. But even though Hakimi joined Europe’s most successful club at the age of eight, he had to scratch and claw for every bit of success that came his way.

Like 800,000 others, Hakimi is part of the significant Moroccan diaspora in Spain. He grew up in a lower-income household in Madrid’s industrial suburb of Getafe. The daily commute to Real Madrid’s Castilla academy exposed him to much higher standards of living, yet he still describes his childhood as “happy” with some “difficult moments”.

“My mother was a cleaning lady and my father was a street vendor,” he said on the Spanish TV programme, El Chiringuito. “They gave up their lives for me. They took many things away from my siblings in order for me to succeed. Today, I play for them.”

It was around this time that a teenaged Hakimi began putting together scintillating performances in the UEFA Youth League that catapulted him into local notoriety.

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The winning penalty scored by Hakimi [Matthew Childs/Reuters]

It was also around this time that he caught the eye of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation.

Because the Moroccan diaspora across Europe is so big, there is talent littered across Spain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands that the Federation works with scouts to detect and convince to play for Morocco.

“We scouted Achraf Hakimi when he was playing with Real Madrid’s U17 team.” Nasser Larguet, then the Federation technical director, told FourFourTwo magazine in 2018.

“He was constantly in touch with our scouts, asking when our next training camp or match was. I, personally, made him the promise that if he continued to work as he had, he would soon join the senior national team.”

Sure enough, Hakimi would make his national debut in 2016 at the age of 18, citing sentimental reasons for the decision. Although he flirted with the idea of playing for Spain and made a handful of appearances for the Spanish youth team, Hakimi ultimately never felt like he fit with La Roja.

“My culture is Moroccan. At home, we spoke and ate Moroccan and I am a practising Muslim. Honestly, I didn’t have to think about it so much,” he said in an interview with L’Equipe magazine. “I used to watch Morocco matches with my father who always told me about the legendary players of the past.”

In 2017, as he was ready to break into senior football, Real Madrid were in the midst of a historic run in the UEFA Champions League that would see them win three consecutive continental titles.

Under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane, he made nine La Liga appearances and scored two goals, and that was enough for him to secure a national team spot at the 2018 World Cup.

The tournament in Russia was a frustrating experience for Hakimi and the Atlas Lions. Despite outplaying Spain, Portugal and Iran, the side was eliminated in the group stages.

With a World Cup under his belt, Hakimi was ready to take a big leap in his career and cement a starting role at Real Madrid.

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Hakimi moved to French football club PSG in 2021 [File: Pedro Nunes/Reuters]

Disappointingly, the club sent him out on a two-year loan to Borussia Dortmund. Motivated to prove that he was good enough, Hakimi took the Bundesliga by storm, scoring 12 goals and delivering 17 assists in 73 matches across two seasons.

Real Madrid still refused to call on his services.

The constant rejection spurred him on in Italy with Inter Milan, the club he joined in 2020 and where he was an integral part of the Antonio Conté side that brought a scudetto back to the blue and black side of the city for the first time in over a decade.

Finally, in 2021, after a long trek through adversity, Hakimi was finally recognised for his talent when he made a blockbuster move to French champions PSG in a move worth approximately $83m.

It may sound peculiar to say that a 24-year-old is a veritable leader of a national team, yet Hakimi’s regularly excellent play has been one of the few constants Morocco supporters could hold on to over the past three years.

When players like Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui clashed with former managers, Hakimi’s behaviour was always unanimously beyond reproach. Former Morocco manager Vahid Halilhodzic, who is from Bosnia, even used him as a measuring stick for possible prospects during a routine press conference.

Moroccan defender Achraf Hakimi (R) is greeted by his mother at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match against Belgium at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 27, 2022
Hakimi, right, is embraced by his mother at the end of the World Cup match between Belgium and Morocco [Fadel Senna / AFP]

“Hakimi’s body fat percentage is 7 percent, while other Moroccan players who play in the domestic league have a fat mass that varies between 13 and 16 percent,” Halilhodzic said.

As the North Africans struggled to score goals at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, it was Hakimi – a defender – who stepped up and compensated, multiplying his lung-bursting runs down the flank and scoring two crucial goals.

His unfailing ability to step up when the team needs him has become the norm for the Moroccan faithful. That is why no one was surprised to see him take the crucial penalty kick against Spain on Tuesday evening.

And that is why he’ll be relied on, once more, to elevate his game and help take Morocco to a World Cup semi-final.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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