Achraf Hakimi endured Fifa ban to emerge as Morocco’s World Cup ace

It is a mistake that has never really been fully explained. “He didn’t expect it and didn’t understand what had happened,” Achraf Hakimi’s brother Nabil recalled. “They had a game near Bilbao and when they got there they told him he couldn’t play.”

Fifa’s decision to ban Hakimi in September 2016 as part of its investigation into whether Real Madrid had illegally signed underage players from overseas certainly came as a shock to everyone, not least the teenage full-back who had just made his first-team debut for Zinedine Zidane’s side on their pre-season tour.

“I think Fifa was only checking rare names from immigrants more than where the boy was born, which is what happened with him,” said Rabie Takassa, who works as a scout in Spain for the Moroccan Football Federation, in an interview in 2017. “They saw a Moroccan name and he was punished without deserving it. 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. It was a complicated time for him because he didn’t know when Fifa would give him the green light to play again.”

Along with Zidane’s sons Enzo and Luca, Hakimi was back a few weeks later in Real’s reserve side and made his senior debut for Morocco the following month in a 4–0 win against Canada. He had represented the Atlas Lions at junior level and Spain’s attempt to persuade the attacking right-back who grew up in Getafe – a suburb of Madrid – to accept a call-up for their under-19s a year before had fallen on deaf ears.

“I discovered him in 2010 and I’ve been keeping an eye on him since then,” Takassa said. “We’ve spoken with him regularly and the federation’s technical director travelled to Madrid to see him. We’ve outlined our project, which is very competitive, and I don’t think he’s ever had any doubts.”

Hakimi will win his 58th cap, at the age of 24, in Morocco’s historic showdown against Spain in the last 16 of the World Cup on Tuesday. It will be a poignant moment for the Paris Saint-Germain player, who celebrated the famous victory over Belgium in Group F by kissing his mother in the stands and will now attempt to go one better than the 1986 side that lost to West Germany at this stage. “I love you Mum,” Hakimi tweeted after the match, accompanied by photos of them embracing.

Saida Mou, Hakimi’s mother, used to clean houses in the Spanish capital, and her husband was a street vendor. “We come from a modest family that struggled to earn a living,” Hakimi said in an interview when he joined Borussia Dortmund on loan from Madrid in 2018. “Today I fight every day for them. They sacrificed themselves for me. They deprived my brothers of many things for me to succeed.”

At the last count, there were almost 900,000 Moroccans living in Spain, making them the largest foreign community legally settled in the country. Hakimi is by no means the only member of Walid Regragui’s cosmopolitan squad who was born overseas.

Only 12 – the fewest of any nation in Qatar – were born in the country they are representing in an illustration of Morocco’s large diaspora. The winger Sofiane Boufal and Romain Saïss, the captain, were, like Regragui, born and raised in France; the midfield general Sofyan Amrabat and Hakim Ziyech grew up in the Netherlands; and several of the squad were born in Belgium, such as Genk’s emerging talent Bilal El Khannous. The reserve goalkeeper Munir was born in Melilla, an autonomous city of Spain on the north African mainland.

Even with Ziyech’s return after he announced his international retirement following a disagreement with the former coach Vahid Halilhodzic, Hakimi remains the team’s star. Having become the first Moroccan to play for Real Madrid, in 2017, his brilliant two-year spell in the Bundesliga earned a move to Internazionale, where he thrived under Antonio Conte and won the scudetto. Hakimi turned down a move to Chelsea to join PSG for an initial €60m last year and has developed a strong understanding with Lionel Messi. But his qualities are no less appreciated by Regragui, particularly after the assist for Morocco’s second goal in the final group match against Canada, when his brilliant pass from his own half set up Youssef En-Nesyri to score.

“Look at Hakimi – he played injured to the very last minute; all Moroccans should praise him every day,” Regragui said after Morocco sealed top spot in Group F.

The thigh injury he sustained in the opening match against Croatia is being carefully managed by Morocco’s medical staff but there is little doubt Hakimi will be ready to face the country of his birth.

“Here in Paris you play for the team of the city, but it’s not the same to play with the team of your country,” Hakimi said in an interview before the World Cup with Vogue Arabia that also featured his wife, the actor Hiba Abouk, who is best known for her role in El Príncipe, a TV drama set in Ceuta, another Spanish autonomous city on Morocco’s north coast.

“Millions and millions of people are going to support you because you play for them. It’s like you play for your grandfather and their grandfathers. You play for a lot of people, a lot of Moroccans.”