There is no surer sign of financial difficulty than when a big club, one that is used to being at the top come season’s end, decides that it is time to look inwards for new players. For such clubs, the reality is this: no matter how much money they spend on their youth system, it is only in extreme cases that they choose to take a chance on some of those players that they have developed for years.
Those extreme cases are two; either the presence of an exceptional talent or, as mentioned, the impending inability of a club to spend their way out of trouble.
Sometimes it works. The recent revivals of Borussia Dortmund and Monaco owe a lot to players they found in their own back yard, who flourished when given an opportunity. On other occasions, this method has been far less successful.
There is a fairly simple reason for this. Apart from the availability of talented young players, other factors need to be in place. Diminished expectations and willingness to be patient are important, as they help relieve the pressure when results don’t go exactly as expected and mistakes are made. The right coach is also vital, as is the club’s continued support of the man in charge.
Both those elements were missing when Milan’s situation forced them to try to build a competitive team on the cheap. Supporters expected the club to continue investing, protesting when it failed to do so. And the coaches kept on changing. Precisely the kind of environment that will burn out a young player not of the right mental fortitude.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, for one, excelled despite the criticism toward the team. Within the space of a few weeks, he transformed from a strange gamble taken by Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic to the future of Italian goalkeeping; someone good enough to take Gigi Buffon’s mantle as the nation’s finest number one.
Others’ stories did not pan out quite as well.
When Milan spent a rumoured €500,000 (although some sources pushed the figure closer to €1 million) to take 14-year-old striker Hachim Mastour from Reggiana, they were snapping up a talent judged to be among the world’s best. On top of that, there was the added bonus that they were stealing him away from the reach of neighbours Inter, for whom he had already played in a series of friendly tournament, but whom he could not join at that stage because of international rules limiting the transfers of minors.
Within months of moving to Milan, Mastour became something of an internet sensation. An interview that he did with Sky Italia, where he was shown doing kick-ups with a ping-pong ball and cherry, became something of a viral hit. Shortly afterwards, RedBull pitched him in a freestyle battle on Youtube with Neymar. Again, this was widely shared, enhancing Mastour’s reputation even further.
Amid all this, there was the actual football that took place on the pitch. Unsurprisingly, Mastour shone for Milan’s youth teams – on those occasions that he did play – highlighting breath-taking skills that often saw him beat entire defences all by himself. Italy, the country where he was born, called him up to play for their Under 16 side and he put on the Azzurrini shirt on six occasions but then Morocco, the country of his parents, stepped in. Eager not to miss out on a potential talent in 2015, they gave him his debut in the closing moment of a 1-0 win over Libya, making him their youngest ever senior international player, aged 16-years-old and 363 days
His elevation at Milan was even more eventful. At 15-years-old, with the team in deep crisis after the dismissal of Massimiliano Allegri and his replacement Clarence Seedorf struggling, Mastour was promoted to the first team.
But it was not a normal promotion. First, having been granted shirt No. 98, he had breakfast with club administrator Adriano Galliani and Seedorf, before being taken to the changing rooms where he was applauded by the entire first-team squad. To round off a bizarre morning, he then trained with the first team for the first time – in front of the Milan TV cameras. Naturally, he also scored a goal.
The widely publicised expectation was that he would make his debut on the final day of the 2013-14 season against Sassoulo, making him the fifth youngest player to put on Milan’s shirt.
There was also plenty of praise for him. Omar Danesi, then coach of Milan’s Under-17 side, said that “it is impossible to take the ball from Hachim. He can run at breakneck speed. He has grown so much this year, especially in his work with the rest of the team.”
Those words were widely shared; but Danesi’s subsequent warning less so. “He is very young and there is a lot of scope for improvement,” the coach commented. “For the talent he has, he is definitely a player to play at the San Siro [for Milan]. But he is very young and should be allowed to grow with calmness.”
There were other lone cautionary voices. Among them was journalist Andrea Schianchi, who used his column in the La Gazzetta dello Sport to point out that “Italian football is specialist in the crowning of a fenomeno [note: fenomeno is the word typically used to signify prodigy], to launch them and then to forget them in a provincial dressing room.”
Mastour never did make that first appearance in Red and Black. Seedorf was gone soon afterwards and, even though his successors on the Milan bench, Christian Brocchi and Pippo Inzaghi, kept him in the squad, the closest he would get to a debut was pre-season friendlies.
This period of suspended reality came to an end the following summer when Malaga came in for the youngster. Again, there was nothing straightforward about the move. First off there was the way in which it originated, a special request by the rich Qatari businessman Abdullah al-Thani, who had just taken over the club. As a minor, however, Mastour couldn’t simply transfer from one club to another. A special request was lodged with FIFA to grant permission but, this being the summer of 2015, the organisation was in a state of chaos after the resignation of Sepp Blatter, so their consent took far longer than expected.
Eventually everything was settled and Mastour moved to Spain on a two year loan deal. His career was ready for lift-off.
At least that was the impression. A five minute cameo against Real Betis in November was not enough for him to showcase his talent, but at least it was it was a professional debut. That’s how it was read at the time, yet as time went on, it proved to be a token gesture and by the end of the season, it would remain his only appearance.
Despite being described by the Malaga Coach Javi Garcia as someone who “shows signs of being a promising player”, he clearly was never part of Garcia’s plans and didn’t do enough in training to change his mind. A handful of appearances in friendly games with Atlético Malagueño, Malaga’s second team, was all he could muster.
Clearly this was far from the ideal situation, so in the summer his loan was cancelled and he returned to Milan. Palermo were strongly rumoured to be interested in Mastour, but a deal failed to materialise, so eventually he had to make do with a move to PEC Zwolle.
On the face of it, the move was ideal for him. The Dutch club had few ambitions, so there was little pressure on Mastour to perform. It was going to be a platform to launch his career, a place where he could learn and develop his talent.
And yet, apart from a start against Herenveen, he was limited to playing just a few minutes here and there with the fate of the game already decided.
As a youngster, Mastour had shown incredible ability to dictate play, not only through his technical ability, but also his capacity to read the flow of the game. Thrown in amongst men, all of that disappeared. In this environment, skill by itself was no longer enough, physical strength was also needed and Mastour didn’t have enough of it.
Or, as the Zwolle coach put it, “he can do beautiful things with the ball, but his game needs more depth to it.”
And so, in the summer of 2017, when his old sparring pal Neymar moved to Paris St Germain for a world record fee, and AC Milan finally shrugged off their financial shackles along with any thoughts of investing in a long-term project, Mastour was faced with few prospects other than remaining in the periphery at the Rossoneri. There was even a rumour that his contract was going to be cancelled, but that proved to be unfounded. Currently, he is still training at Milanello, but with a contract that only runs till next summer, his time is running out.
“He’s our future,” Adriano Galliani had said of him when he was initially elevated to the first team. Now it remains to be seen whether Mastour even has a future himself, certainly when it comes to his career at Milan.
Perhaps the most telling comment was that made by Mauro Bianchessi, the man formerly in charge of the AC Milan youth sector’s scouting network. “Mastour is the strongest player that I’ve ever had,” he said, before going on to warn “but if quality is not supported by a desire to work hard and respect the rules, one risks failure.”
Mastour is still only 19-years-old and time remains on his side. However, the risk of failure looms large and the responsibility for this situation lies not only with a frighteningly young footballer, but all those who failed to support Mastour and presumed to crown him before he had kicked a senior football.
Words by Paul Grech: @paul_grech