OVER THE COURSE OF TIME, football has seen its share of starlets burst onto the scene. And with every passing year, their age tends to be a bit younger as modern football leaves the door open for any youngster to prove his worth at the top level. For many, their normal career trajectory tends to align with the average professional: rise through the academy ranks, spend a loan stint away for further seasoning, before eventually returning to a spot with the first team. Yet for others, an opposite journey is mapped that often presents a hurdle which, in order to convince the world of your ability, must be surpassed.
We’ve all been privy to the hotshot who was predestined for stardom. The one outclassing those his or her age, moving a step or two quicker; possessing a little something extra in the arsenal and attracting spectator curiosity.
In 2017, social media tends to overhype individual players based on short clips without any real context. Plenty critically-acclaimed stars become casualties of impulse judgments and unfair assessments based on little scouting. The “can’t miss” label that often finds itself recycled, refurbished and finally, pawned off to yet another talent who must wear it.
Out of this group, in spite of mounting pressure, only a select few rise to the occasion and blossom into the stars many assumed they’d become. Others, however, fail to live up to initial hype. Competition not only catches up but also passes them by, leaving a prospect’s career in limbo. Much of the same can be said about Italian-Moroccan sensation Hachim Mastour and his tumultuous footballing journey to date.
Mastour, from the class of ’98, was born in Reggio Emilia, Italy to Moroccan parents. At an early age, it became clear that football was his passion, and with that, he made it his dream to become the world’s greatest player.
In northern Italy, the suave attacker launched his playing career, signing with local academy US Reggio. While there, he peaked the interest of Inter. However, due to federal rules, he was barred from leaving Reggiana before his 14th birthday, limited to wearing Nerazzurro only in tournament play.
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At the Torneo Memorial Roberto Ielasi in January 2012, Mastour showcased his immense ability, burying five goals during the competition. As a result, Inter’s scouting directors continued their pursuit of his signature on 15 June – his 14th birthday. But, lying in the wait, Europe’s biggest admirers entered the sweepstakes; Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Juventus and AC Milan were all enamoured by his mesmeric dribbling ability, superlative ball control and flair. As one of football’s hottest and most sought after commodities, Mastour was spoilt of choice.
Acting CEO Adriano Galliani and youth director Mauro Bianchessi made the strongest push, hoping to beat their Milanese enemy to the punch. Legendary AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, who headed the Italian youth national programme at the time, had inserted Mastour into the call-up list. The Prophet of Fusignano’s endorsement was all that was needed as the Rossoneri pulled the trigger, signing Mastour in July 2012 for €500,000.
Upon arrival, he got his feet wet by training with the Primavera side, but shortly after moved in with the Allievi Nazionali due to a rule preventing any player before the age of 15 to feature for the Primavera. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be long before Hachim became a household name in the prospect world.
For the youth side during the 2012-13 campaign, Mastour tormented his opposition at every turn, becoming “almost impossible to mark for players in his age group”, as Fabio Balaudoof for uefa.com discovered. Soon, word got out on the internet of his special ability. YouTube became his virtual playground as his sublime dribbling and trickery spread like wildfire, eventually – alongside a perennial superstar – becoming his claim to fame.
Freestyling as the newest athlete in the Red Bull brand, the precociously talented Mastour locked into a juggling battle with Brazil and Barcelona superstar attacker Neymar. “It’s like a dream come true to meet Neymar,” admitted the teenager in the energy drink advert. The video went viral after hitting the web on 31 January 2014, and to date has amassed over nine million views on YouTube.
Life as a footballer couldn’t have been better for the youngster who was well on his way. As a result of his brilliance from the number 10 role with the under-16 side, famed Milan poacher Filippo Inzaghi granted him a call-up to his Primavera side in March 2014, where he’d go on to make two substitute cameo appearances before Clarence Seedorf summoned him into his first team squad in May 2014 for the final matchday of the Serie A season against Sassuolo.
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Little argument was to be made over Mastour’s potential at 16. Until this point, he’d done everything imaginable to put himself in a position to succeed. Filippo Galli, Milan’s youth director, expressed nothing but optimism about the club’s top jewel, on the record as saying: “Nobody at the club has any doubt about his ability. We need patience but he can leave a mark in the first team.”
On his 16th birthday, Mastour penned his first professional contract with the club, describing the feeling of playing with the first team as unbelievable: “I’m training with great players that I was watching on TV until last season. It’s a dream come true.”
On the North American tour that summer for the International Champions Cup, Mastour appeared briefly off the bench against Manchester City. Pleased with his approach and attentiveness, Inzaghi included him on the bench for his competitive managerial debut with the Rossoneri for the 2014-15 campaign.
Mastour’s time with the first team was short-lived, however, as he returned to Cristian Brocchi’s Primavera side for the remainder of the year, where he’d score his first goal, a mazy run capped with a ruleta and a finish flirting with that of Zinedine Zidane.
But somewhere along the way, it became clear to many that his bag of tricks, once able to beat any marker in his path, were no longer were enough to excel at the next level. Heavier demands of top-flight football exposed some of the holes in his game. For the first time in his career, no longer could he rely solely on his feet. Mentally he needed to evolve and expand his repertoire.
Breaking into the first team proved to be much harder than most would’ve thought for Mastour, even if AC Milan were starved of attacking playmakers. The reality was that a return back to the youth side would prove nothing in projecting what type of talent they had in Mastour. Super agent Mino Raiola, Galliani and new coach Siniša Mihajlović declared a loan move as urgent. First team challenges and opportunities would do Mastour well, and on 31 August 2015, Spanish outfit Málaga took him in on a two-season loan – with an option to buy – at the request of the club owner.
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Immediately, manager Javi Gracia recognised that Mastour showed little effort to coexist within the team, and limited him to only five minutes during the season. Málaga prematurely rescinded his loan, sending him back to Milan where the majority of the fan base cast him as nothing more than a YouTuber. Still, PEC Zwolle of the Eredivisie – in a league renowned for allowing technically gifted players to marvel – and coach Ron Jans fancied their chances to tap into his potential by taking him on loan last summer.
Somewhat aroused by the vision of his scintillating footwork fleeting around the final third, Jans stated: “He can do anything with the ball; that was clear two years ago on YouTube.” But that’s just it. Football isn’t based on a highlight reel of juggling cherries or tennis balls. Performances on the pitch do all the talking, and from what we’ve seen, Mastour’s has not made all that much noise.
YouTube has proven to be both a blessing and curse for Mastour. Today, social media tends to overhype certain players. Trendy GIFs and short compilations often highlight only the flashes of brilliance in an individual’s game, while disguising their glaring weaknesses. Either they shine like a star or labour like Sunday League reserve players. And for a while now, the common concern most have with Mastour’s game is that it’s entirely one-dimensional; it lacks depth, substantiality and, most importantly, an end product.
In playing 150 minutes over five appearances for Zwolle, the 18-year-old found himself looking for ways to break the internet, rather than contributing to the attacking phase or covering defensively. A luxury at the lower levels, that same time and space simply does not exist with the big boys.
Mastour risks becoming the football equivalent of the musicians who strike gold with a catchy tune and lightning-quick fame. The one-hit wonders who dazzle audiences around the world until the novelty finally wears thin. Suddenly, the flavour of the month no longer tastes the same to the public. If their formula is left unchanged, they fade out of the crowd and morph into a distant memory; casualties of their own inability to progress.
The flashy dribbles and tricks can no longer be his safety net. There comes a time where Mastour, now 18, will need to evaluate his future, buckle down, be willing to learn and evolve. It’s a case of adapt or die. If his dream is to reach the pinnacle of football and shake the freestyler stereotype, then there is only one place where it can be achieved: on the pitch
By Matthew Santangelo @Matt_Santangelo