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From Chelsea flop to World Cup hero: Hakim Ziyech's magical Moroccan renaissance

6:00 pm AEDT 6/12/22
Hakim Ziyech Chelsea Morocco GFX
The winger looks to be on the way out of Stamford Bridge during the winter window, but he won't be short on offers now given his form in Qatar

Just a few months ago, Hakim Ziyech was in international exile and wasting away on the bench at Stamford Bridge. Now, he's a hero in Morocco once again and almost certain to secure a move away from Chelsea during the January transfer.

The World Cup is wonderful like that. It can propel a teenager towards superstardom. Or, in Ziyech's case, kickstart a career that was on the verge of total collapse.

Ziyech's problem, of course, has never been a lack of talent. His attitude, though, can be infuriating. He knows it too. "I speak my mind, I demand explanations, I want a reason," the Netherlands-born attacker admitted to De Telegraaf. "That's why I am perhaps a difficult guy to work with. But that's how I am."

Marco van Basten once described Ziyech as "unmanageable", and many of the winger's former coaches would doubtless agree. Yet it's worth noting that the Dutch legend retains a huge amount of affection for a complex character he coached at Heerenveen.

As recently as October, Van Basten admitted to Ziggo Sport that it was "sad and a shame that someone of Ziyech's calibre is playing so rarely."

Indeed, coming into the 2022 World Cup, Ziyech had played a grand total of 270 minutes for Chelsea during the first half of the season, starting only twice. Rumours were rife long before he set off for Qatar that new Blues boss Graham Potter had already given the green light for Ziyech to be sold in the upcoming winter window.

The club is unlikely to have too much trouble finding a buyer now, not with Ziyech having reminded everyone of his quality by playing an integral role in Morocco's progression to the last 16, where they will face Spain on Tuesday.

Of course, what's truly remarkable about this particular renaissance is that Ziyech actually retired from international football earlier this year. He was at loggerheads with then-Morocco coach Vahid Halilhodzic, with the pair having fallen out in June of last year.

According to the Bosnian, Ziyech had feigned injury to get out of a friendly – a claim vehemently denied by the player. The net result was that Ziyech was left out of Halilhodzic's squad for the Africa Cup of Nations.

"I don’t select a player who can unbalance the group," he told reporters. "Not even if his name is Lionel Messi. Ziyech’s behaviour does not fit the national team. He doesn’t want to train, doesn’t want to play. He doesn’t take it seriously. I’m not going to beg him to come back."

And Ziyech certainly wasn't going to seek forgiveness for a crime he insisted he hadn't committed. Consequently, he announced his retirement from international football in February, going so far as to accuse his coach of "lying".

"It's my final decision," he declared. "I will not return to the national team. I understand and I feel sorry for the fans."

Some of the supporters certainly weren't happy with the outcome of the stand-off, with some protesting Ziyech's omission.

However, simmering tension between Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) president Faouzi Lekjaa and Halilhodzic – and not just over the Ziyech affair – eventually led to the manager being dismissed in August.

In came Walid Regragui, fresh from leading Wydad AC to AFCON Champions League glory last season. The first native coach in Morocco's history immediately recalled Ziyech and made him central to the team's World Cup bid. Regragui is now reaping the rewards.

After Morocco had battled their way to a 0-0 draw with Croatia in the tournament-opener, Ziyech turned on the style, upstaging Kevin De Bruyne in a shock 2-0 win over Belgium that featured an assist for Zakaria Aboukhlal.

He then netted his first World Cup goal in the 2-1 defeat of Canada that saw the the Atlas Lions progress to the last 16 as winners of Group F.

Ziyech humbly claimed after the Belgium victory that he hadn't deserved the Man of the Match award, but his importance to this side has been there for all to see in Qatar. He's utterly integral to their attack. In the group stage, he created more chances (seven), had more ball carries (43) and played more passes into the box (17) than any other Morocco player.

Perhaps more significantly, Ziyech has impressed with his relentless work-rate and commitment to the cause.

"He is incredible, the spirit he has, coming back to the national team," Regragui enthused last week. "A lot of people talk about him, say he is crazy and difficult to manage, that he can't help the team. But when you give him love and confidence, he will die for you."

Something for his next manager at club level to bear in mind, perhaps...