Ibrahim Afellay plays for FC Barcelona in their Champions League final against Manchester United on Saturday. Though he hasn’t yet had much field time at the European level for the club, ‘Ibi’ is already a star. The Dutch footballer has become a role model for children from Moroccan immigrant communities in Barcelona and back home in the Netherlands.
To what does Ibi owe his popularity?
According to talent scout for Ajax Amsterdam Mohammed Boussatta, Ibi enjoys a good image. “It’s the way he presents himself in the media, what he’s like in public and how he treats his family. Despite getting to the top, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from,” says Boussatta.
Apart from looking after his mother and other relatives – his father died when he was young – Ibi is recognized as someone who provides for the wider community. He funded a project to lay artificial turf on some spare ground in Al Hoceima. Now kids in the northern Morocco town can kick a ball around.
When he was young, Mr Boussatta himself used to kick a ball around. The Ajax scout shared a small square in his Amsterdam neighbourhood with future soccer stars such as Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. He would also see a whole generation of Dutch-Surinamese footballers grow up, including Clarence Seedorf.
So, will there be a generation of Dutch-Moroccan footballers in Ibi’s wake? Mr. Boussatta is optimistic.
“I think they’ll be even better, because Moroccan kids still play a lot on the street or on odd patches of ground. That’s why they have so much skill: there’s a mix of Brazilian technique, African mentality and Dutch tactics. That makes a player like Afellay, and those who’ll follow him, even more interesting.”
Sociologist Iliass El Hadioui is a fellow member of the Moroccan-Dutch community. According to Mr El Hadioui: “Afellay is still a kid; he comes across as nice. He behaves ordinarily – the way he’s still connected to the neighbourhood in Utrecht where he grew up and to his religion.”
“The way he still observes Ramadan is especially important, that he still fasts even when he’s playing top-level soccer. It’s physically draining. While other players choose the easier way, he practises his faith in terms of spirituality and religion. That’s won him lots of points with Moroccan kids.”
Beyond the field
Mr El Hadioui has done a lot of research into the street life of kids from Moroccan and Turkish communities in the Netherlands. According to the sociologist, they find ‘macho’ sports such as kick-boxing and football important because opponents can be outplayed and humiliated.
Ibi appears to have popularized the game among Dutch-Moroccan youth. His story has allowed young men in his community to realise they can also succeed beyond the football field, says Mr El Hadioui.
Role models evolve naturally
Youth from the Moroccan immigrant community figure relatively high in Dutch crime statistics. Can Ibi do something about that? Mr El Hadioui doesn’t think the footballer should necessarily take part in a government campaign to steer them away from trouble or towards bettering their quality of life. “Role models evolve naturally,” he said.
“As soon as the government or some other group makes use of them in a campaign, the kids on the street know that it’s cooked up. I think that would be counter-productive.”