Tottenham Hotspur's Champions League tie last week at the Santiago Bernabeu was only a few minutes old when Real Madrid’s Marcelo flashed over a cross towards the Spurs keeper’s back post. It looked a lost cause, as the ball sailed over Karim Benzema’s head. Arriving late into the box, however, was Achraf Hakimi, an 18-year-old making his debut in the tournament for Real Madrid.
Achraf—or "Arra," as his Real Madrid team-mates call him—hadn’t even signalled for the ball, as if he was too timid to demand it. As he raced to retrieve it before it went out of play, it landed at an awkward height. On the second bounce, he managed to dropkick a cross back towards the penalty spot, where Cristiano Ronaldo crashed a header off the post. It was a brilliant piece of ingenuity from Achraf who hardly put a foot wrong during a busy, 90-minute shift.
"He had a lot of the ball; he didn’t look out of place at any stage," El Pais journalist Pablo Perez said. "He incorporated very well in attack. He didn’t suffer much in defence. He had no fear of getting on the ball, of defending against Harry Kane or Christian Eriksen. He did everything well."
Football fans around the world were amazed at how assured he played. He’s still only a kid, playing in one of the most intimidating stadiums in the world, yet he was hungry for the ball. Real Madrid’s cognoscenti weren’t surprised at his performance, though. He’s been earmarked for special things going back a while. He joined Real Madrid’s academy, La Fabrica, in July 2006. He has all the hallmarks of a classic Real Madrid full-back.
"He’s very attack-minded," Almeria’s current manager Luis Miguel Ramis said—Ramis coached Achraf for six months at Real Madrid’s youth academy. "He does things quickly. He’s fast. He covers a lot of ground. Physically, he’s very powerful with endless stamina; over 90 minutes he’s no problem shuttling up and down the wing for the entire game. He never tires.
"When Achraf plays, he’s a very similar player on the ball offensively to Dani Carvajal. They are both very insistent—very attacking. Achraf has had a very good career so far, a rapid progression, but defensively he still has to improve. The same happened with Carvajal when he went to play in Germany (with Bayer Leverkusen, 2012 to 2013)—he improved a lot in aspects of his game until he returned and assumed a position on the first team."
Ramis adds that Achraf’s familiarity with the Real Madrid way has made it easier for him to adapt to the first team. "He’s been in Real Madrid since he’s very, very young. He’s been immersed in the philosophy of Real Madrid—of being adventurous, how to get forward, how to compete. It’s just another step in his career."
Perez makes an interesting comparison. He notes how nerveless Achraf has played at the Bernabeu, where he also made his full La Liga debut in a 2-0 win against Espanyol earlier in the month, in comparison with Danilo’s performances last season in the same position. Danilo—who joined Manchester City from Madrid during the summer for £26.5 million, per the BBC—had a torrid few months when he first landed in Madrid as a marquee signing from FC Porto the previous summer.
"Danilo arrived in Real Madrid as one of the best right backs in the world," Perez said, "but he didn’t function because of the media pressure, his [hostile] reception at the Bernabeu; in some games, he was whistled at by fans. He played with fear. It’s the pressure that playing at Real Madrid puts on a player.
"Arra has the favour of the Bernabeu because he’s a youth academy player. The public give him a pass. He doesn’t show signs of being affected by the pressure. He’s only 18 years old; to play against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League is not easy, but he doesn’t show signs of fear."
Several factors have played into the hands of Achraf in getting onto Real Madrid’s first team so fast. He was due to be loaned out to Alaves this season, a deal that was firmed up in May, per Marca. The move fell through at the last minute when Pep Guardiola at Manchester City picked up Danilo in the summer, which left a gap in Zinedine Zidane’s squad. Zidane had faith in Achraf’s ability to step up.
Achraf has an important connection with Zidane. His French manager has long been keeping a close eye on Achraf’s progress. Achraf has played alongside Zidane’s son, Luca, on La Fabrica teams since the pair joined Real Madrid 11 years ago, per El Pais (in Spanish).
During the offseason, when Zidane pressed Achraf about staying with Real Madrid’s first team rather than going on loan to Alaves, Achraf was unsure.
A stint at Alaves offered the chance of regular top-division football, but when Zidane told him that he’d be guaranteed 20 games through the season with Real Madrid, all doubts dissipated. "Where do I sign?" he reportedly said to Zidane, per Onda Cero (h/t DefensaCentral.com, in Spanish).
Carvajal’s misfortune, in contracting a viral infection that will likely keep him out of the game for two months, has been fortunate for Achraf. It opened another door. Achraf has seized his opportunity. He offers Zidane a more attacking option than, say, Nacho, who patrolled the right side of defence for Real Madrid against Eibar on Sunday.
Achraf has also been lucky that he is playing with Real Madrid at a time when the club’s philosophy has shifted. It is giving youth its chance. Casemiro, Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez have all graduated to Zidane’s team from the club’s youth academy. They’ve made the path easier for Achraf.
"The club is in a different moment," Perez said. "It is trusting in Spanish talent. Clubs like PSG and Man City have more money. Real Madrid can’t pay every year €180 million or €200 million on Galactico players so what they do is to try to invest in young talent. There has been a great generation who have come through from the "cantera," the youth academy.
"Five years ago if you said to the fans of Real Madrid or a member of the board that a player of 18 years old from the cantera would be playing on the right side of defence, they would have laughed at you. It was not possible. It’s new model of Real Madrid. Achraf is another example of this new bet."
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Achraf. He found himself in a dark hole last season. For several months in autumn 2016, he was unable to play for Real Madrid’s Castilla, the reserve team, or youth teams. He was on a list of players FIFA was investigating at the club, as part of a swoop to weed out underage foreign kids who were on their books illegally. Why Achraf—whose parents are Moroccan—ended up on the list was a mystery, as he was born in Getafe, one of Madrid’s satellite cities.
Rabie Takassa works as a scout for the Moroccan Football Federation. He has been tracking Achraf’s career since 2009 and has known him personally since 2013. He said the FIFA playing ban was difficult for Achraf to endure: "It was a complicated time for him because he didn’t know when FIFA would give him the green light to play again. I tried to cheer him up a little bit, saying that everything would be OK, that FIFA made a mistake.
"Nobody understood the decision of FIFA. Real Madrid and his family gave all the papers required showing he was born in a hospital in Madrid, that he studied here, that he spent all his life growing up here. He has been playing at Real Madrid since he was seven years old.
"I think FIFA was only checking rare names from immigrants more than where the boy was born, which is what happened with him—they saw a Moroccan name and he was punished without deserving it."
Even though Achraf was born and raised in Spain, Takassa moved swiftly to convince him to declare for Morocco’s football team. Achraf obliged. He made his international debut for Morocco in October 2016, coming on as a sub against Canada in a 4-0 win. He is the first Real Madrid player to play for Morocco. Achraf said the decision to opt for Morocco was never in doubt.
"The boy feels Moroccan and Spanish at the same time," Takassa said. "He’s grateful to the opportunities Spain has given him. He chose Morocco first because his parents are Moroccan. He goes every year to Morocco. The second thing is that we were interested in him since he was very young. It makes sense that when you are 14 or 15 you will play with the people who are more interested in you.
"It’s true that it would have been easy for him to play for Spain, for its under-23 team, to play for titles, but we said in less than a year and a half, you would be a full international for Morocco. We also used the point that he could play at the World Cup in Russia with Morocco, who is one step away from qualifying next month. If he played for Spain, he would have to wait many more years to realise such a dream.
"The boy is very happy about having taken this decision because things are going very well at the moment with Morocco. The truth is since he was young he always asked me: ‘When will Morocco call?’"
It didn’t take long for Zidane to call him up either.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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