El Hamdaoui coming of age at Ajax
Mounir El Hamdaoui is one of the modern game’s great entertainers. Blessed with exquisite technique, he has been described as "an artist" by no less than Louis van Gaal.
The 26-year-old has an undeniable penchant for the spectacular, regularly using his right boot to wondrous effect. Indeed, that reliance on his favoured foot has been the source of some gentle teasing from the very same Van Gaal: “Let’s just say his left has a lot of room to improve,” said the coach who helped El Hamdaoui get back on track when he was in charge at AZ.
After he made the move to the Alkmaar outfit, the forward blossomed, and he has racked up no fewer than 61 goals in 92 Eredivisie matches over the last three years. The turnaround began on 31 August 2007, the final day before the transfer window slammed shut, when AZ took a gamble on the former Excelsior prodigy, whose progress had been stalled by two injury-hit campaigns. Van Gaal brought El Hamdaoui on board fresh from a nine-month stint at Willem II, and failed spells with Tottenham Hotspur and Derby County, and he began by suggesting the newcomer spend a year on loan at Tilburg.
Then aged 23, El Hamdaoui refused, convinced he had already wasted enough time on his route to the top. “His first season was difficult as the competition for places was a lot tougher than at Willem II, and Mounir was lacking physically,” Van Gaal told FIFA.com. Without ever tying down a first-team place, the Rotterdam-born marksman nonetheless posted seven goals in 23 outings, confirming the potential he had shown for Excelsior at the outset of his career, where he plundered 32 goals in 74 matches.
El Hamdaoui soon began to feel similarly at home in Alkmaar. Life in the Tottenham reserves and a succession of injuries could easily have taken their toll on his mental state, but he was determined to bounce back, and did so emphatically in a memorable 2008/09. Weighing in with 23 goals, he was crowned top scorer and Eredivisie Player of the Year as AZ became Dutch champions. Like his team, the darling of the AZ Stadion faithful had taken on the division’s traditional powers and won.
El Hamdaoui made his debut for Morocco in 2009, and not even Van Gaal leaving for Bayern that summer could interrupt his progress. A further 20 goals in 2009/10 confirmed his worth and Ajax swooped for his services in July, paying cash-strapped AZ €5m to bring him to the capital. The move reunited El Hamdaou with Martin Jol, the coach who had frozen him out at Tottenham five years previously.
“Getting a player like that for such a low price is a massive coup,” remarked Van Gaal, who remains one of El Hamdaoui’s greatest admirers. “He’s incredibly talented and very gifted technically. His left foot isn’t that good, but what he can do with the outside of his right boot equals what a left-footed player could. He’s one of the most dangerous forwards I know. He scores goals and can pass the ball when he has to. Mounir is also a great passer, not just a goalscorer. In fact, he’s multi-talented. He can play in any attacking position.”
Currently joint top of the Eredivisie scoring charts with 11 strikes so far this term, the Moroccan has experienced less success in the UEFA Champions League. The partner of Luis Suarez in Ajax’s front-line has managed just one goal and one assist in Europe’s premier club competition this season, yet no-one at the Amsterdam ArenA is about to forget his crucial strike in the 2-1 second-leg play-off win over Dynamo Kiev. And despite having failed to register in his last three Eredivisie appearances, he could hope for no better opportunity to display his skill than Tuesday’s home meeting with Group G rivals Real Madrid.
El Hamdaoui has long since learnt to cope with critics and survive more fallow spells, not least when turning out for Morocco. While he has continually shone brightly on Dutch soil, 'Hamdagoal' has not always enjoyed a chorus of approval back in the land of his ancestors. Unlike Marouane Chamakh, who was also born overseas, El Hamdaoui is still waiting to capture the imagination of the Moroccan public.
His missed penalty in a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier against Togo did little to endear him to supporters, and it took him a long time to start building bridges after that. Reconciliation finally came when he buried the decider in a CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2012 qualifier against Tanzania on 9 September, and that goal could well prove a turning point. His partnership with Chamakh is now being viewed as the key to Morocco’s salvation, with both players committed to firing the side back to the apex of the African game.
Given that lofty ambition, what better preparation could anyone ask for than a chance to tackle Real Madrid?