Before Achraf Hakimi had even yet to emerge from the tunnel and take his first steps on the hallowed pitch of the Santiago Bernabeu, he had made history. In uniform and penciled in on Zidane’s team sheet to start at right-back against Espanyol, Achraf had officially become the first Moroccan international to ever play for Real Madrid. That pressure alone would be burdensome for any 19-year-old, but now he was also standing shoulder-to-shoulder amongst some of the greatest players this game has ever seen.
Since joining La Fabrica at the age of seven, this day was one many at the club envisioned could become a reality. The truth is, potential alone is often the prerequisite for youngsters to reach such prestigious academies, yet it is often impossible to predict what will become of them once they set off on their journeys. Achraf’s adjustment to the pressure cooked atmosphere of Valdebebas would come easier than most; having grown up just down the road in Getafe — he was more than familiar with his surroundings.
Unbeknownst at the time, Achraf had formed an important connection with the man who would eventually grant him his senior side debut. Zinedine Zidane’s son, Luca, also joined the academy the same year, naturally seizing the Frenchman’s attention through all his years of development. Seemingly everything seemed to be going according to plan for Achraf until, at the age of 16, an investigation by FIFA would shake the very foundation of Real Madrid’s development system. As part of a probe to unearth underage foreign players who were on their books illegally, Achraf was barred from featuring for Real Madrid Castilla, the reserve team, or youth teams.
The club and his family went as far as to supply definitive proof that he was born in a hospital in Madrid and had been with the club since the age of seven, yet FIFA seemed to be more preoccupied by the Moroccan sounding name than any actual facts of the case. It was during this exodus that a scout from the Moroccan Football Federation approached Achraf with the invitation to declare for the birth nation of his parents. Although hesitant at first, he was sold on the allure of becoming a full international quickly and featuring in the 2018 World Cup. His debut for the Atlas LIons would come in a 4-0 win over Canada and he has not looked back since.
Achraf would eventually be reinstated for his club, however, question marks surrounded his imminent future. In the summer of 2017, Real Madrid had all but packed his bags, as he was destined for a loan-spell with Deportivo Alaves. Seemingly right before the clock struck midnight, Pep Guardiola and Manchester City swooped in and signed Carvajal’s back-up — Danilo. Still salivating for consistent game-time, Zidane promised the youngster he would get his opportunity to shine if he stayed.
An unforseen viral infection would send Carvajal to the sidelines for an indefinite period in late September, immediately thrusting Achraf to the front of the line as choice for starting right-back. In the aforementioned match against Espanyol and, to a larger degree in the Champions League against Tottenham, Achraf displayed an insatiable hunger for the ball and the lung capacity of a marathon winner. Although he would suffer the occasional lapse defensively, this is to be expected from an inexperienced player thrown into the lions den of the Bernabeu.
All it takes is a few minutes of watching him play to see why so many around the club believe he can be the second coming of Dani Carvajal. As a right-back who loves to get forward, Achraf has often been among the top scorers in his age group despite playing in defence, with his attacking ability derived from his experience as a winger in his younger years. Like his Spanish counterpart, he is excellent at carrying the ball up the pitch, exuding the type of confidence that is only possible with sound technique and unwavering belief in your abilities.
The burgeoning star has now firmly planted his flag as his nation’s right-back of the future and the present. In charge of domineering a back-line that surrendered a solitary goal in eight games of qualification has only emboldened the belief of his people. With impending markings against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco standing in his way, Achraf will need to take his game to the next level if the Atlas Lions are to shock the world and advance to the round of 16.
By: Justin Sherman
Photo: Getty Images