How far is too far? Recent reports suggest Morocco’s miscalculated answer to this question resulted in its losing the scramble for Mohamed Ihattaren.
Rabat – Why did Mohamed Ihattaren ditch Morocco in favor of the Netherlands? Many fans of Morocco’s Atlas Lions have recently asked, rather chagrined that Morocco had lost its battle to lure one of the most promising young players that could add more depth and attacking urgency to the Moroccan national team.
According to recent reports, citing both the player himself and some members of the Ihattaren family, Morocco’s footballing authorities abrasively and aggressively played their recruitment card in the Ihattaren affair. As a result, instead of winning the player’s sympathy, they repulsed both him and his family.
Twice, Ihattaren, the rising Dutch-Moroccan star of the Dutch football league, had told both his countries—Morocco and the Netherlands— that he needed more time to think about his international career.
Insisting he had been “happy and much honored” by the interest from Morocco and the Netherlands, Ihattaren said he needed some breathing space “to reflect on my career as an international.”
While this temporarily calmed the ardor of both the Moroccan and Dutch football federations as they competed to win over the player, Morocco felt especially invigorated. As Ihattaren’s statement came directly in response to calls that he represents the Dutch U21 team, Morocco took the move as a subtle shift in its favor. The Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) saw in the move an invitation to push a little bit more, to go the extra mile to convince the player and his family.
Then came the final announcement that shocked in Morocco and caused delight in the Netherlands: The adoptive country, rather than the fatherland, had finally convinced the young player that they were the best choice for him. Chief in Ihattaren’s final decision, at least from his statement explaining his motivations, was the point that familiarity (with a group of players with whom he has a history of playing for youth squads) and continuity (playing to honor that history at the elite level) meant that his personal fulfillment dictated that he chose the Dutch team.
“I played for the Netherlands for the under 14s [team] and I won the European Championship with the Under-17 team with the Oranje. It’s good that I can continue,” he explained.
But, as is often the case in such cases, there were whispers that the official explanation was a tree that hid a much bigger, unexplored forest; that many things had been left out, unsaid; that, somehow, something was amiss. There was more to the story or, some simply insisted in Morocco, something may have gone wrong with Morocco’s strong-looking bid to secure the Ihattaren deal.
Morocco’s footballing authorities had capitalized on patriotism and Europe’s mounting Islamophobia, two particularly compelling selling points, to lure the PSV Eindhoven prodigy away from the Oranje, as the Dutch national team is called. The Dutch, meanwhile, had insisted on gratitude and continuity, subtly reminding the young player what his choice of national team would mean for a country that adopted him, invested in his talents, and helped him hone his skills and live his dream.
In response, the young player insisted he needed time to think, to assess, to listen to his parents and entourage; but mostly to his heart.
According to a recent family revelation, however, a faux pas from the Moroccan federation was the final straw. In its strong desire to recruit the young player, family sources have insisted, the FRMF went too far, doing more than it should have to broadcast its selling points to the Ihattaren family.
“It was unbelievable,” Yassine Ihattaren, the player’s big brother, told Dutch outlet AD on November 33. The brother was speaking about FRMF’s “instrumentalization” of a family issue, the death of Ihattaren’s father, to convince the player of how deadly serious they were about having him play for Morocco.
FRMF may have thought this—massive financial investments in, and notable presence at the funeral of the player’s father— was a good move. As far as FRMF saw it, the gesture highlighted the human dimension of their interest in securing the services of “a son of the fatherland.” To the Ihattaren family, however, it was “unbelievable” that FMRF had no qualms in “instrumentalizing” that episode.
“They came at my father’s funerals to discuss my brother’s national team choice. This was a sad day reserved for condolences. That is why we chose to distance ourselves from these people,” Yassine, the player’s big brother, insisted in his AD interview.
Worse still, some Moroccan outlets have cited Ihattaren himself as saying that FRMF’s massive presence at his father’s funerals especially raised eye-brows in his family because they had never been contacted by FRMF before that funeral day. FRMF had showed up to the funeral out of nowhere, hoping for the better to come out of what Ihattaren and his family now considered as “too much interest.”
“They tried to use my father’s death to influence my decision. This led me to make another choice,” Ihattaren has been quoted as saying. He is also said to have insisted that another FRMF faux pas was that they selected him as part of a long list of players to represent Morocco in qualifying games for the CAN 2021 and the 2022 World Cup without even informing him.
These revelations are set to elicit mixed, conflicting reactions among Atlas Lions fans. For those who have been critical of FRMF management since extravagant spending failed to buy success at the recent CAN, the Ihattaren family revelations constitute a vindication of what critics see as the failed leadership running Moroccan football.
For other, more nationalism-inclined Atlas Lions fans, however, the revelations may come across as yet another tired excuse by a dual citizen who, having chosen to play for a country other than the “motherland,” now finds lame pretexts to explain his “betrayal.”
When Ihattaren announced his final decision weeks ago, some said that this was further proof that Morocco should focus on homegrown talents rather than diaspora players that only choose Morocco when they have scant prospects of playing for their other country.
Without taking sides in the debate over who Morocco’s footballing authorities should focus on or how to best convince dual citizenship players, the loss of Ihattaren was a serious blow to a Moroccan squad struggling to add more creative vigor and urgency in its attacking buildup.