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The Almost-Greatness of Ibrahim Afellay

Ibrahim Afellay
Credit: Getty Images

Ibrahim Afellay is a name known by many, despite playing just 21 times for Barcelona and having played at such other teams as Stoke City, Schalke 04 and Olympiacos. Afellay is one of the latest to have suffered from the ‘wonderkid’ curse. Others who have succumbed to this curse include Bojan Krkic and Freddy Adu but Afellay’s story is worth sharing now – the others having been done to death in the past.  

Ibrahim Afellay was born in Utrecht in the Netherlands to Moroccan parents, who emigrated to Holland in the 60’s. Afellay’s father passed away when he was young, leaving his mother to look after both him and his brother Ali. Ibrahim Afellay’s football career began with local side VSK before signing for the youth of USV Elinkwijk, a team in the Hoofdklasse, the second highest division in Dutch amateur football. Afellay played for Elinkwijk from the age of 4 up until he was 9 before, at the age of 10, PSV Eindhoven snapped him up for their youth academy.

It was not until eight years later, however, when, at the age of 17, Afellay made his first team debut for the Dutch side. Afellay would go on to spend six years in the first team at the Eredivisie side, playing 217 times in all competitions, scoring 38 goals and winning four consecutive league titles between 2004 and 2008. In 2007, Afellay was named Dutch Football Talent of the Year; joining the illustrious likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. It was at this point in Afellay’s career and especially after a 13-goal season in Eredivisie in 2008/09, that Afellay started being labelled as a wonderkid and a real talent for the future. The young Dutchman was exciting to watch and clubs from around Europe began to be interested in signing him.

In 2010, Ibrahim Afellay was selected for the Netherlands’ World Cup squad for the tournament in South Africa. At the age of 24, many eyes were on the Eindhoven man as this could be his chance to finally win a big move abroad. Although, perhaps to his disappointment, not playing a big role in the competition, making just three substitute appearances in the matches against Denmark, Japan and Slovakia, the team made it to the final, where they were eventually defeated by Spain. Afellay hadn’t made a name for his self individually but the whole team had caught the eyes of many around the world.

In the summer of 2010, Afellay began the final year of his contract with PSV. After attempted contract negotiations, PSV simply couldn’t offer Afellay the chances he wanted and clubs from around Europe came sniffing. In October 2010, Afellay announced that he would not be renewing his contract with the Dutch side and, to avoid losing him on a free, PSV took the decision to sell him in the upcoming winter transfer window. Eventually, Barcelona managed to sign the Dutchman for a modest fee of £2.7m.

After making 16 appearances in his first half-season with the Catalan giants, things were looking on the up for the Dutchman; as if his hype and expectation was firmly on the road to being met. However, things were not to be. In the 2011/12 pre-season, Afellay suffered a hamstring injury that would see him miss the start of the season. He regained fitness and played two matches before suffering an ACL injury in September, which would keep him out for 7 months. By the time he had regained full fitness, Pep Guardiola saw no need for him in the upcoming games and Afellay’s growth looked stunted.

In the two years that followed, Afellay’s career began to take a downward turn. It was decided by Barcelona that he was to be loaned out, spending a season with Schalke in the Bundesliga before returning for a season, where he made 2 appearances in all competitions, and then being sent out on loan to Greek side Olympiacos. Following his spell in Greece, Afellay was released from his contract at Barcelona and would join Premier League club Stoke City on a free transfer.

Afellay was released by Stoke City at the end of January 2019 after three and a half years with the English team. Afellay played a full season in his first year with Stoke before a succession of serious injuries meant that he played just 19 times for the club in all competitions in the 2016/17, 17/18 and 18/19 seasons combined.

Afellay’s story is a cautionary tale but also a sad one. After being tipped for greatness, fitness and injury problems heartbreakingly meant that Afellay failed to achieve what he could have. At the age of 32 now, it is clear that Afellay will not be getting any less injury prone and we can only hope that he finds a new club and has some good luck to see out a few more seasons before hanging up his boots.

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