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Mohamed Ihattaren, seeing celebrities as human beings, and why football isn’t always beautiful

“You? Quitting football? That’s not an option.” Gerald Vanenburg to Mohamed Ihattaren

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Pre-Season Friendly”Ajax Amsterdam v SC Paderborn 07” Photo by ANP via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This piece was written a few days before Mohamad Ihattaren was arrested on Tuesday, Nov. 22. So far, there has been very little reported about the charges that Ihattaren is facing. All we know is that the police arrested him for “making serious threats” to someone but then released him from custody the next day. Ihattaren’s agent said his client is ready to resume training “as soon as possible.”

“I want you to watch this Netflix documentary with me tonight.”

I trust my wife with my mind, body, and soul and, thankfully, she also has a great taste in movies and documentaries. So when she told me about an interesting documentary that she wanted to watch with me, we got on Netflix and turned on Jonah Hill’s fascinating documentary “Stutz.”

As the award-winning actor admitted during the documentary and in subsequent interviews, the concept behind the film was ambitious, risky, and unusual. The film was about his therapist Phil Stutz, Hill’s relationship with Stutz, and mental health in general.

Hill talks quite candidly with Stutz about how he helped him overcome the worst moments in his life and shares the tools that Stutz taught him to cope with these dark days. He even manages to get Stutz to open up about his own mental health, childhood, and personal life.

Like I said, it was an unusual documentary, but I applaud and appreciate Hill for taking such a big risk to talk about the difficult topic of mental health. Given how horrible and mean people on the Internet are nowadays, and how much he has struggled with anxiety and mental health in his own life, this was probably not an easy thing to do.

But my biggest takeaway from that documentary was that it humanized Hill for me. We only see the glamorous sides of celebrities: the dazzling outfits they wear during award shows, the nice cars and mega-mansions they own, their award-winning performances in movies and shows. We see these people as bigger than life and they seem untouchable to us.

Regular people (i.e mere mortals like us) live in a normal world over here; but celebrities live in an amazing utopia somewhere over there. Yes, they’re humans like us, but they’re so different in every other way that we have to remind ourselves that they still in the same world we do.

And that’s what I mean when I say that this documentary “humanized” Hill for me. It reminded me that he’s a person just like me. He struggles with anxiety, fear of what others think about him, insecurity about how he looks, trauma from being bullied as a kid because he was fat, grief from a loved one passing away, and all the other things that regular people deal with every day.

Documentaries like “Stutz” reminded me that no matter how much success a person might have in his life, (s)he’s still a real person with real feelings and real struggles.

Football isn’t always beautiful

I started with this story because I think that the story of Mohamed Ihattaren, the highly-rated 20-year-old Dutch midfielder who will return to Juventus in January after his short loan at Ajax Amsterdam, isn’t necessarily one about football, but more about humanizing footballers, celebrities, and other superstars.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Ihattaren’s struggles during his loan spell at Sampdoria and the nasty fight between him and the club that led to his departure and his loan deal with Ajax. It was an overall bad time in his life/career that seems to have emotionally scarred him.

“There I was, a 19-year-old sitting in a hotel room. Alone, abandoned, and left to my own devices. All kinds of appointments and promises weren’t fulfilled. It was as if I didn’t even exist. I wasn’t paid and nothing was organized for me, not even a bank account or insurance.

All signs seemed to point to the fact that I was undesired. I become emotional on the pitch [during training] and after training I called a friend of mine who was at the hotel and asked him what time we could fly back [to the Netherlands].

I departed at 1:30pm and never returned to [the city of] Genoa. I lost all faith.”

[Translated from this article]

When he joined Ajax on loan, Ihattaren was in terrible physical condition. Then-coach Erik ten Hag spoke about how he was “barely capable of completing a sprint,” he was overweight, and people made jokes about his physical condition. Ihattaren said he felt embarrassed and wondered if there was any point in trying to continue with his career. With his father passing away when he was 17, he was also missing that emotional support system in his life.

Ajax v Paderborn - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Pieter van der Woude/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Regardless of his bad shape, in almost every Dutch article I read about the youngster, coaches and staff always talked about three things:

  1. How they truly wanted to see Ihattaren succeed;
  2. How he apparently got involved with some dangerous people and some form of organized crime (and that this was likely the reason for his footballing struggles);
  3. How they were dedicated to doing everything they could to help him play football again.

“You? Quitting football? That’s not an option.”

Text message from Gerald Vanenburg to Mohamed Ihattaren

On that last point, Ajax made sure to surround Ihattaren with a coaching team whose task was to specifically work with the youngster through an individualized training program. From fitness coach Gerald Vanenburg to psychologists, dietitians, conditioning trainers, and sleep specialists, Ajax was determined to ensure that “Project Ihattaren” would be a success. Ajax deliberately made a very low-key announcement about the player’s arrival at the club and specifically instructed the media to leave him alone and not interview him.

There was also no lack of Dutch current and former footballers who urged people to not give up on the youngster. Speaking about Ihattaren back in February this year, Ajax U-23 coach John Heitinga said that “the focus and preparation is there ... it’s a player who has arrived here with one goal and that is to succeed.” The now-disgraced Marc Overmars reminded people of how early in his life and career the player still is:

“We’re talking about a 19-year-old kid. Kids make mistakes, although you do have to take ownership of your mistakes. He realizes this. We [Ajax] will do everything we can to make him successful.”

Former Feyenoord (and, curiously, Chicago Sting) midfielder Willem van Hanegem also came to the player’s defense:

“There must be people that can get him [Ihattaren] to play football again. People that say that nothing will ever become of him again just because he hasn’t played football for six months are completely out of their minds.”

[Translated from this link]

And for a while, it looked like Project Ihattaren was a success. He lost weight, got back to full fitness, was smiling again, and finally played some first team football again, albeit for the Ajax U-23 team. (In fairness, Ihattaren is still only 20 years old.) When his teammates left for vacation, he continued to train.

“I’m glad that at the age of 20, rather than at 25 or older, I’ve already experienced all these things in my life. I’m grateful for everyone who supported me. Not just Gerald [Vanenburg] but also my family, my mother, my sister, everyone around me.”

[Translated from this link.]

New coach Alfred Schreuder praised the young midfielder for his hard work and performances with the U-23 team, including a fantastic hat trick in April against VVV-Venlo (a game in which he played with now first-team player and Ghana international Mohammed Kudus). Things were looking up and everyone was optimistic about Ihattaren’s success.

But then things changed.

Criminal activities

Suddenly, Ihattaren disappeared from the training ground.

Ajax reported that he was missing due to fitness reasons but it soon emerged that the real reason was because he received threats from gangsters and other criminals due to his marriage with 18-year-old TikTok star Yasmine Driouech. Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that eyewitnesses saw him visiting one of these criminals in prison. Ajax feared that a physical attack of some type would happen if he came to training and, in order to ensure the safety of the club’s staff, asked Ihattaren to stay home.

And his marriage with Driouech? Less than two months later, Ihattaren reported on social media that he’s single again and that the couple have separated.

“At the Kanaleneiland in Utrecht, which is where I grew up, I didn’t realize how thin the line was with criminality.”

— Mohamed Ihattaren

Although things eventually calmed down a little and the player was able to return to training, he didn’t get a squad number with the first team and wasn’t registered for the Champions League squad. His fitness went back to zero, he was no longer in the lineup for the U-23, and parted ways with his agent. His new agent is Mo Nouri, the brother of Abdelhak Nouri, the player who suffered a cardiac arrest during a friendly game in 2017 and tragically sustained permanent brain damage.

Ajax v Paderborn - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Pieter van der Woude/BSR Agency/Getty Images

In October, Ajax coach Alfred Schreuder said that he hadn’t spoken to the player in two months and effectively admitted that Project Ihattaren had come to an end. “We’ve done everything we could as a club,” he said. “I don’t see this as a failure, especially not a personal one. It’s a shame how it all ended.”

As Ihattaren prepares to return to Juventus in January, yet another former Dutch international has offered a helping hand and to mentor him through this difficult period of his life. Ironically, his guardian angel is a former Interista: Wesley Sneijder.

“I’m coming with him [to Juventus]. We agreed that he’s doing this for himself, not me. He says that he’s willing to put everything else to the side for this opportunity [to return to Juventus]. I’m glad that he’s seen the light. I can see in his eyes that he really wants this... It’s been a tough period for him but he admits that he’s also made mistakes and takes responsibility for this. He realizes that this is his last chance.

‘Remember, you are only a man child’

We see kids like these as superstar footballers. If they don’t succeed, they’re failures and we criticize them for their “negative body language,” “immaturity,” lack of focus, social media activity, and everything else.

But we forget that they’re human beings. Specifically, we forget that they are children. Research suggests that the average human’s pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for “decision making, reasoning, personality expression, and social cognition” — only fully develops by age 25. So yes, they really are children.

And children, more than anyone, need social support systems to help them succeed. Ihattaren alluded to this in an interview earlier this month when he talked about how hard it is to talk openly about his problems in the Moroccan community:

“In the Moroccan community you cannot, purely out of respect, talk to your mother and siblings about everything. I didn’t want to come crying to my mother every time I was going through a rough patch in my life or had messed up. But with [my agent] Mo [Nouri] and the rest of the family, I feel completely safe to talk about all my problems. And when you talk about your problems, you can fix them.”

He also admitted that as a young footballer, he would (and still does) sometimes get what he called “an error” in his head. [Note: I think he’s referring to when people “snap” or “see red” when they get very angry.] “My father knew that,” he continued, “and forbade me from reacting to an opponent, teammate, referee, or coach. Only when we were in the car on the way back from the game was I allowed to react. And out of respect for my father, I did as I was told.”

Just like with Jonah Hill and his therapist Phil Stutz, stories like these humanize celebrities and famous footballers. They remind us that behind the great movies and award-winning performances, behind the brilliant footwork and amazing goals, there are human beings who struggle with the same things that you and I do every day.

Their fame doesn’t make them immune to the heartbreaks, failed marriages, anxiety, mental instability, and other problems of the human condition. They too love and want to be loved; hurt and, unfortunately, hurt others.

The problem is that when they act out and disappear from training we only discuss footballing reasons for these failures. “He just couldn’t handle the pressure of a big club.” “He just doesn’t have what it takes to be a top-level footballer.” “His petulance on the pitch will always to hold him back.”

But I hope that with this story of a famous actor on one hand and young footballer on the other, I’ve persuaded you, dear reader, to always remember that behind all the glamor of famous individuals, whether they be in sports or in Hollywood, is a regular human being.

A human being just like you and me.

“I will always want to hold my last name up high with pride.”

— Mohamed Ihattaren