YouTube can be both a blessing and a curse for the modern footballer. In the case of Hachim Mastour, the latter has proven to be the case. That’s for later, though. This story does not start on the world’s biggest video platform but in Reggio Emilia.
From an early age, it was clear that Mastour was destined for a life in football. Few players had impressed world football’s leading scouts than the young Moroccan did in the late 2000s.
A skilful attacking midfielder with a box of tricks and excellent ability with the ball at his feet, there was plenty to like about the talented youngster. There was also miles of footage to demonstrate why a boy from Italy was garnering so much attention.
With Italian law preventing any clubs, namely Inter Milan, making their move, they all had to sit back and admire. And the Moroccan youngster gave them plenty with which to do so. At the Torneo Memorial Roberto Ielasi, he bagged five goals and delighted everyone with his ability on the ball. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Juventus, and AC Milan all joined Inter on the list of those tracking him.
After much toing and froing, Milan made the biggest push to get him ahead of the competition. Coupled with Arrigo Sacchi’s recommendation, they opened their cheque books and paid €500,000 to make Mastour their man and beat the competition to his signature. It was here that his troubles began.
A big price tag such as that meant he was burdened with expectation. Clubs spend money and expect to see that spending prove to be fruitful. Players have to live up to the price tag they’ve commanded. There’s also the expectation from the fan base. They’ve seen their club, in whom they trust to do the right thing and spend money well, pay a significant sum for a teenager. Milan fans, owners, and everyone in between expected Mastour to produce. Preferably he would do it sooner rather than later.
YouTube added to the pressure. As the news of his signing and fee broke, fans flooded to watch him and learn who this kid was. What they saw was an exciting young player with a skillset most senior players could only dream of. Expectations hit a new and unhelpful level.
While Mastour had to wait for his chance to prove himself, his career continued to hit new heights by the time he was 15-years-old. Not only did he begin to feature for Italy’s Under 16 squad, but he also found himself starring alongside Neymar. Sadly for Mastour, it wasn’t on the pitch but in a promotional video for Red Bull.
Freestyling alongside the then Barcelona star, Mastour showed everything that made him such a precocious talent. His status as a YouTube star hit peak levels, the video going viral and amassing millions of views. His career also hit a new height. By the end of the season, he found himself on Milan’s bench, with special dispensation from the league to do so.
That, though, was as close as Mastour got to the first team. Filippo Inzaghi replaced Seedorf, but the new AC Milan coach was not tempted to throw the youngster into the mix. Despite Mastour impressing in pre-season, the furthest he got was the bench once more.
Inzaghi named him among the substitutes for his first game but never looked at him again. Instead, the youngster was sent to the Primavera side in the hope he would impress there. That was what he did, bagging his first goal and showing signs of development.
The issue was, Mastour now found himself caught between two worlds. He was too good for youth football but not good enough for the first team. Like most youngsters, he needed a loan move to develop his skills and learn the game. Ask anyone involved in the sport, and they’ll tell you its part and parcel of the game. Young players need game time at a club to develop an understanding of what it’s like to play at a higher level. The time had come for Mastour to do the same.
Super agent Mino Raiola, CEO Adriano Galliani and manager Siniša Mihajlović cooked up a deal and sent him to Malaga. It’s fair to say the La Liga side were happy to get him, so much so that they insisted on an option to make the move a permanent one. Javi Gracia, though, was not impressed. He handed Mastour five minutes of playing time, and the loan was ended in unceremonious fashion.
Mastour was supposed to return to Milan as a conquering hero, ready to take the club by storm. The opposite was the case. Milan tried another bite at the loan cherry, this time sending their youngster to PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands. The Eredivisie has been the breeding ground for talent for decades and continues to be one to this day. It is a league with a style that suits players like Mastour down to the ground and can help them hit that next level to make the jump to first-team status. Zwolle was supposed to be the place that happened for Mastour.
Like Malaga, they were certainly keen. “He can do anything with the ball, as we have seen two years ago on YouTube.” The greatest danger is the huge expectation. He is so young, we want to keep him in the background, but I think we can get the best out of him.” The truth was that Jans could not. One star, four substitute appearances and 150 minutes later Mastour was back at Milan. Jans later admitted that Mastour lacked the depth to his game.
And that proved to the principal issue. While Mastour had skills to burn, he didn’t have anything beyond that. When the game opened up, the youngster shrunk into his shell. It’s what makes the difference the likes of him and Neymar, his one-time Youtube rival. Whereas Neymar had an end product, Mastour had nothing. It’s what separates the best players from the rest and the street footballers from the pro ballers.
The Brazilian also benefited in other ways. At Santos he had spent several years developing his game, learning the ins and outs of professional football in the Brazilian Serie A, growing into his body and his ability. The exposure was crucial to his development. Mastour had none of those benefits. He had all of the pressure, added to significantly by his lifetime enemy YouTube, but none of the opportunity to become more than just a player who could get himself out of a tight space.
He was afforded neither the time, patience or experience to develop in his crucial years. Consistency had also been elusive for him. Neymar, in comparison, had all those things and was 22-years-old with 223 games under his belt before he made a move to a big club. The difference was striking.
His mentality also played its part. Javi Gracia noted that, during his time at Malaga, Mastour showed little willingness to integrate himself into the team. Nor did he wish to do anything but focus on his own game. One might suggest that YouTube fame and big price tag had gone to his head. If he did develop an ego, that’s likely bruised by now.
His Milan contract ended with little fanfare, and after a brief spell in Greece with Lamia, where he also failed to impress, he’s out of contract once again. Where he was once the man that every big club in the world wanted, he’s now on the scrap heap in his early 20’s. Further proof that YouTube skills and status does not promise football stardom.