Morocco’s top scorer, Hakim Ziyech, was born in Dronten, in the center of the Netherlands. Ziyech initially appeared to opt for his birth country, telling an interviewer in 2015 that for him, “the decisive factor is the Netherlands often leads to big tournament.” Then the Dutch failed to reach the 2016 European Championship, and he had a change of heart.
For Mahi, who like Ziyech represented the Netherlands at the junior level, the decision was a case of fulfilling his father’s dreams. “I think with the heart,” Mahi said, “and the heart was for Morocco.”
There are practical concerns with committing to an African side over an established European one, though. Travel can be daunting and conditions challenging. And since the major African continental championship was played every two years in January, making oneself available for it — and missing club games as a result — can create major conflicts between players and their European teams. A lost place in the squad after a month away can have serious professional consequences.
For some players, however, identity matters more. Europe has seen a rise in the past decade of nationalist sentiment, and of political parties critical of previously open immigration policies. Some of those forces have made electoral gains, including the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, whose leader, Geert Wilders, has repeatedly targeted the nation’s Moroccan minority with racist language. While campaigning last year, Wilders described Moroccans as “scum.”
Maurice Crul, a professor from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam whose research topics include the children of immigrants in Europe, said the current crop of players deciding their national team allegiances was part of the post 9/11 generation, a group that “became aware their religion is not wanted.”
That has pushed groups already on the margins of European society because of poverty, or language, or culture, further away from the mainstream. “It’s a big issue that this generation felt excluded from the very start of their lives,” Crul said.