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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon 2019 players: Hakim Ziyech - The Rise Of Series

4:31 PM IST 13/06/19
Hakim Ziyech, Ajax
After a stellar season with Ajax, the Morocco playmaker now has his sights set on the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon)

The 'Afcon Rise of' Series is a collaborative initiative between Goal and 3 Kilo featuring up-and-coming writers. 3 Kilo is a development agency that creates opportunities and skills development projects for the youth of South Africa.

All roads lead to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations for Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech.

Born in central Netherlands to Dutch-Moroccan parents, Ziyech has been making a name for himself with Dutch Eredivisie champions Ajax Amsterdam. This season, he netted 21 goals in all competitions and played an integral role in his club reaching the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League.

He has an educated left foot, searing pace and boundless energy, all of which will be on show at this year’s Afcon tournament with the Atlas Lions.

  Hakim Ziyech's early life  

Ziyech's story started off in fairly unglamorous surroundings. The youngest of eight children, his love for football came from playing in the streets of the Dutch town of Dronten with his four older brothers, all of whom were gifted players in their youth.

However, tragedy struck when Ziyech was only 10-years-old when his father passed away suddenly. Even after being picked up by the youth system of SC Heerenveen, the player's personal problems proved to be a challenge during his football development.

Despite his talent, he was on the verge of being cut loose when he met Aziz Doufikar, the first ever Moroccan professional footballer to play in the Netherlands, who stepped in to guide and mentor the teenager.

With his off-the-pitch issues under control, he earned a call-up to play his first professional match for Heerenveen in 2012 at the age of 19.



  Hakim Ziyech's club career  

After breaking into the first team at SC Heerenveen, Ziyech scored a respectable 13 goals in 46 appearances for the club and attracted the attention of fellow Eredivisie side FC Twente. In August 2014, they paid a transfer fee of €3.5 million to bring the young winger to the city of Enschede. He soon started showing what he could do, scoring 11 and assisting 15 goals in his first full season at his new club, helping them to a respectable 10th place in the 2014/15 Eredivisie.

Ziyech's second season at FC Twente was even more impressive. He shone for a team that really struggled in the division, but despite Ziyech's return of 15 goals and 12 assists, they only managed a disappointing 13th place and it was clear that they would not be able to hold onto a player that had clearly outgrown the club. 

In 2016, Dutch giants Ajax paid €11 million to bring him to the Amsterdam Arena, and he was an instant success, winning the Gouden Schoen (Golden Boot) in his first season and then playing an instrumental role in Ajax's 2018/19 Eredivisie title win and their run to the Uefa Champions League semi-finals after which he was voted Ajax's Player of the Year.

Ziyech's performances in the Eredivisie and the Champions League over his two-year spell at Ajax have attracted the attention of Europe's best clubs, including Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal. According to Ajax sporting director Marc Overmars, the Dutch club will allow the 26-year-old to leave when a top club comes calling.


  Hakim Ziyech's international career


Being a Moroccan living in the Netherlands, Hakim was eligible to represent either nation and in his youth he played for the Dutch at U19, U20 and U21 levels. However, in 2015, Ziyech made the decision to commit to Morocco at international level.

The news was not received well by everyone, with Marco van Basten, the Dutch national team’s assistant at the time, labelling the Dutch-born star as ‘’stupid’’ for choosing to represent the African side.

Van Basten was quoted by The Guardian saying: ‘’How stupid can you [be to] choose Morocco if you are in contention for the Dutch national team?’’

These comments later came back to haunt Van Basten as Ziyech went on to qualify for the 2018 Fifa World Cup with Morocco, and Van Basten’s Netherlands failed to do so.

It has not been all plain sailing for Ziyech and the Morocco national side. He fell out with Moroccan head coach, Herve Renard, and vowed to never play for the national team for as long as the French tactician remained in charge.

However, the pair appear to have patched up their differences with Renard taking the blame for the rift after admitting he made a mistake.

’He has never shown bad character, he never reacted badly, on the contrary, he remained impeccable," Renard acknowledged.

Hakim now enjoys the full confidence of the coach and will be looking to help his team to their first Afcon victory since 1976.