Mazraoui's special journey to reach a glorious milestone

Mazraouiheracles
Mazraouiheracles

Noussair Mazraoui has joined 'the 100 Club' after coming back off the bench against AZ. This right-back's journey to reach that glorious milestone is a particularly special one. Mazraoui has picked himself back up several times in the face of (physical) adversity.

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His story is actually unusual for an Ajax player, making it through from the youngest youth teams all the way to the first team. Mazraoui was by no means a dead cert in the youth teams. Ever since he first arrived from Alphense Boys at the age of seven, no one has doubted his talent, but he was never one of the favourites tipped to go far.

Struggle
But maybe that's also a good thing. It’s cathartic, said Mazraoui in 2018. "I know what hard work is, I didn't always have an easy time of it at the Youth Academy. I was with Jong Ajax but not under contract. I was firmly on the bottom rung, but climbed my way up and now I want to keep on going. Higher and higher."

And he certainly was going higher. Mazraoui played so well at Jong Ajax, he caught the eye of Erik ten Hag. His debut appearance for the Ajax first team was the result. And his reward for struggling in the Youth Academy for more than ten years followed in due course, on 4th February 2018. The young player from Alphen aan den Rijn came on for David Neres against NAC (3-1 victory).

"My debut for the Ajax first team was incredible," says Mazraoui, looking back at that summer of 2018. I had the shirt framed. It was originally supposed to go on the wall in my room, but my parents were so proud, it now takes pride of place in the living room."

He would go on to stay with the first team for the remainder of that 2017/2018 season. In fact, Mazraoui always played midfield, which is where he usually played at the Academy, too.

The breakthrough
Mazraoui certainly made a good impression that time he came off the bench to play midfield. However, it turns out that switching to right-back was the catalyst for his real breakthrough.

When Joel Veltman was seriously injured, it was Mazraoui who came into the frame as a right-back. He took his first steps playing in that position for the Ajax first team at home against AZ on 29th April, 2018. He was given preference over Rasmus Kristensen and Luis Orejuela, having played at left-back just once shortly before.

It was the prelude to a great 2018/2019 season. Mazraoui had been in the opening line-up right from the first games in the UEFA Champions League preliminaries. Against Sturm Graz he makes a good impression early on, with his drive forward and a well-placed assist to Dusan Tadic.

Undoubtedly, his greatest moments from that magical season, when they reached the Champions League semi-final and won the double, were the crucial fixtures against Bayern München and Benfica.

Setbacks reaching the hundred
But the rise to prominence that Mazraoui started with his debut would plateau for a while in the summer of 2019. After playing in the Africa Cup for Morocco, he missed part of training for the new Ajax season.

He's also off injured between 17 August and 2 October 2019. Meanwhile, Sergiño Dest makes a breakthrough at right-back. For the remainder of the aborted 2019/2020 season, Mazraoui shuffles between being on the bench, injury, midfield and right-back. He misses the last three fixtures in the season due to injury. After that, the Covid pandemic stands in his way to the 100 Club.

Once football returns to the Netherlands, Mazraoui wins back his old position at right-back. Dest leaves for FC Barcelona. Mazraoui will make his third goal for Ajax in the Champions League on 25th November, 2020, when he makes it 2-0 at home against FC Midtjylland.

Just as Mazraoui finally gets back in, and is once again in fine form, things go wrong for him again. An apparently harmless incident turned out to be the cause of more than two months off the field. A ball hit him in the eye and caused a threatening injury to his sight.

Milestone reached
It proves a difficult time, with an unconventional recovery. "I was told I was not allowed to do anything for six weeks, especially for the first few weeks. Normally you dive straight into the gym when you have an injury, and really get down to work there. Then you say 'I will come back stronger' and all that, but this was just lying around at home and pedalling around on granny bikes.”

Meanwhile, he sees his replacement Devyne Rensch doing an excellent job and Ajax running up a string of victories while he is away.

But Mazraoui stages a comeback once again. Just as all the prizes are being handed out, he returns. After coming back off the bench twice, he has finally made it to the 100 Club. "It scares me a bit. Three years and now the hundredth," he says about it all. "I am particularly delighted to be back on the team just as the prizes are being handed out. I'm really looking forward to lifting that League Cup for the 35th time."

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