Achraf Hakimi, Hakim Ziyech, and the rise of Moroccan football
Around 5 years ago, nobody would have expected Morocco to qualify for the world cup. Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire were the powerhouses of African football, possessing the likes of Samuel Eto'o and Didier Drogba, but as time progressed the Moroccans have slowly established a competitive squad. Part of the reason for their recent success has been the emergence of young Moroccan players in Europe's top flight leagues.
Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid, joined Real Madrid's youth set-up at the tender age of 8 and made his professional debut for the club 11 years later. Zinedine Zidane decided to call up the youngster to the Los Blancos squad as a backup for Dani Carvajal, and he quickly impressed all with his defensive skills when needed. The 20-year-old is currently on loan at Borussia Dortmund, where he already has 3 assists.
Hakim Ziyech, a more prominent Moroccan player, has graced the Eredivisie with his presence. The Dutch-Moroccan player rose through Heerenveen's youth academy before going on to be a vital player in the first team. Just 25 years old, Ziyech is already one of Ajax's star players, scoring 22 goals in just over 70 club appearances.
Another Moroccan rising through Ajax's first team set-up is Noussair Mazraoui. Born in Liederdrop, Mazraoui made over 50 appearances for Jong Ajax (Ajax's youth team) before breaking into the professional squad. This season, Mazraoui has become the club's starting right-back and has even gone on to score a goal against Benfica in the Champions League.
Although not very young in terms of a footballing career, the center-back duo of Romain Saïss and Medhi Benatia have been tearing it up in Europe. Saïss roamed around France, representing Le Havre and Angers SCO before becoming an integral part of Wolverhampton Wanderer's EFL Championship win and promotion to the Premier League.
Benatia, on the other hand, racked up just about 80 appearances for Udinese before spells at Roma, Bayern Munich, and Juventus established him as one of the world's best defenders.
Head coach Hervé Renard certainly has a lot of potential and experienced players at his disposal, and the Moroccan team should be strong contenders for next year's Africa Cup of Nation tournament in Cameroon.