Little Big Man in a Team of Giants

Holland or Morocco, Europe or North Africa – Ibrahim Afellay had to make a tough choice. He decided on "Oranje" and is now living his dream: playing in the European Cup. André Tucic profiles the young footballer

Holland or Morocco, Europe or North Africa – Ibrahim Afellay had to make a tough choice. He decided on "Oranje" and is now living his dream: playing in the European Cup. André Tucic profiles the young footballer

Born in Utrecht to Moroccan parents, Ibrahim Afellay was only two years old when Holland last won the European Cup with their current coach Marco van Basten. Twenty years have passed since then, with Afellay growing up into a world-class footballer.

The boy’s done so well that he’s now wearing the number 20 on his orange shirt at Euro 2008 and smiling away on sticker number 267 in the official Panini album.

He’s living the Dutch dream of winning the second major cup in the country’s football-crazy history. And it may well be more than just a dream, with Holland playing their way to ecstasy over the past few days.

Afellay, though, has been mainly watching from the sidelines. But even being on the team is a huge honour for the midfield player from PSV Eindhoven – the only PSV player on the Dutch squad.

Afellay has spent a total of nine minutes on the Euro 2008 pitch so far, substituted for Dirk Kuijt in the first match. And he almost scored – if only the ball hadn’t hit the blasted bar. The next game saw Afellay back on the reserve bench though, and he’s been there ever since.

The call of a forgotten mother country

But that’s no shame in the Dutch team – which beat World Cup champion Italy hands down 3:0 and gave second-place France a similar 4:1 drubbing.

He faces tough competition in the midfield, with stars like Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuijt and Rafael van der Vaart vying for a place on the pitch. So for the moment "Ibi" will just have to lean back and enjoy the ride, hoping to play a part here and there.

The Dutch team(photo: AP)
Even the B-team is too good for Europe: Imbrahim Afellay (front, centre) with the Dutch team just before their 2:0 win against Romania

​​Afellay is still at the start of his career on the national team, with just under ten games for Holland. But things could well have looked very different, as "Ibi" was also selected for the Moroccan squad.

That was after the 2005 U-20 World Cup, where he first donned an orange shirt and played in two remarkable games against Japan and Australia, before sustaining an ankle injury. That certainly set off alarm bells in the Moroccan camp.

Afellay hadn’t yet played on the Dutch A-team, so he was still eligible to opt for Morocco. But unlike the North Africans, Holland made a conscious effort to woo the promising right-footer.

He was nominated for the Dutch A-team shortly after the U-20 World Cup, but didn’t come to play. So the Moroccans would still have been in with a chance to turn him around – in theory, at least.

Dynamic power

But all attempts came too late; Afellay had already made his mind up. January 2007 saw his first appearance in the Dutch squad, debuting in the Euro 2008 qualification round match against Slovenia. And his qualities came to play in this very first game.

Experts rate him as a powerful and dynamic player who can really speed up the action on the pitch. But he’s often impulsive and gets the odd yellow card now and then for complaining. It’s hard to believe he could be that explosive.

With his big brown eyes and only 70-kilo bodyweight he looks rather harmless. That was no different in his younger days, but he’s always won out over taller and heavier players because of his brilliant ball skills. And it was those skills that took him from the amateur side USV Elinkwijk Utrecht to Eindhoven in 2003.

Talent of the Year

Only weeks later, Afellay played his debut in professional football, at the tender age of 17. His final breakthrough came two years later, and he has been a permanent fixture in PSV games ever since.

He was event voted Dutch Talent of the Year last year. Not surprising, seeing as he’s one of the driving forces of the Dutch title-holder in the central or right midfield, helping PSV to win three championships in a row.

Despite interest from all the big-name clubs, Afellay has extended his contract up to 2011. He should have the opportunity to develop and grow in Eindhoven, gaining regular Champions League experience. Maybe that will score him another spot in the 2010 World Cup sticker album – and more time on the pitch for Holland.

André Tucic

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire


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