The careers of Ibrahim Afellay and Wesley Sneijder have much in common: The two Utrecht-born players both took their first steps with local amateur clubs in the city before joining a top Dutch team and developing over time to become the best midfielders in the Eredivisie; then they moved to the Spanish league. However, the duo have only played together at international level with Holland. In fact, while the current Inter schemer wore the shirts of DOS Utrecht, Ajax and Real Madrid, his fellow Utrecht native joined Elinkwijk Utrecht, PSV Eindhoven, and now, Barcelona.
Afellay is two years younger than Sneijder; yet when the midfielder made his debut for PSV’s first team on 4th February, 2004, at the age of 17, he was widely considered the PSV Academy’s answer to Ajax’s golden youth product. In Holland, the Dutch player of Moroccan descent followed Sneijder’s footsteps, tracing his fellow Utrecht native’s progress. When Sneijder left Ajax for Real Madrid in the summer of 2007, he left as, undisputedly, the Eredivisie’s finest midfielder. In the last two seasons, Afellay has had that mantle too. The Dutch league began to seem too small for his ambition and quality. A move abroad, as it had been for Sneijder, was just a matter of time.
Of course, there are differences between the Dutchmen. 2010 was, for Sneijder, the year every player spends an idle moment dreaming about. Four trophies won – the Champions League, Serie A, Coppa Italia and FIFA Club World Cup – with Inter and reaching the World Cup final with Holland. Afellay must hope Josep Guardiola can help him to continue to replicate Sneijder and work the same wonders Jose Mourinho did with the 26-year-old.
The Afellay deal, for just €3M due to the player’s contract expiring at the end of the current campaign, arrived at just the right time for both Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven. The Catalans were looking for an attacking midfielder who could replace – if necessary – stars like Xavi or Andres Iniesta, or even be deployed on the wing. Barcelona’s poor financial situation, which was a contributory factor in their decision to take shirt sponsorship from the Qatar Foundation – the club’s debts are around €480M – however, would not allow them to snare their main target, Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas.
Finances are a touchy subject over at the Philips Stadion too. Last summer, the Dutch side had debts of €17.5M, and could not count on Champions League income. Since 2009, PSV have been forced to shed their highest earners: Jeremie Brechet, Edison Mendez, Danko Lazovic, Timmy Simons, Andre Ooijer and Carlos Salcido have all departed. This January was Afellay’s turn, despite the fact that last August PSV turned down an offer from Hamburg, due to the midfielder’s concerns about the state of the Bundesliga club and how he would be utilised. However, with Afellay’s contract running to an end in June, PSV could not allow their star to depart for free. Barcelona’s offer was not quite as high as expected, but the Philips-backed club had to make the best of a bad situation.
Afellay bid farewell to PSV on 22nd December, 2010, in the home clash against Roda Kerkrade; he remains the best 2010/11 Eredivsie performer. The 24-year-old spent eight seasons in the first team, winning four Dutch titles, one Dutch Cup and one Johan Cruyff Schaal (the Dutch Super Cup). Moreover, in 2007, Afellay was awarded the Johan Cruyff Award for the Young Player of the Year. According to the rules of the accolade, every winner can choose the location of a Cruyff Court (a public playground which provides a safe area for local children and other members of the community). Afellay chose Al Hoceima, a Moroccan city to which his family can trace their roots.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing for Barcelona’s newest signing though. Injuries and growth spurts hampered the Dutchman during his first year as a professional. Until 2008, Afellay regularly missed between seven and ten Eredivisie matches every season due to injury niggles. For the same reason, he missed the two UEFA Under-21 Championships Holland won in 2006 and 2007. Unlucky though is a word Afellay does not want to hear: “I lost my father when I was six. My mother had to break her back to bring up her five children. So, being sidelined for a month or two is not what I would call bad luck.”
With PSV, “Ibi” – as he has become known – developed into a complete player, one who can operate in a variety of positions. In a 4-2-3-1 system, Afellay can play as an attacking midfielder, or even as a sitting midfielder – as he has this season under coach Fred Rutten, playing behind the quartet Balazs Dzsudzsak-Ola Toivonen-Jonathan Reis-Jeremain Lens. Barcelona’s new boy can also move to the left flank, as he often does for Holland, due to the concurrent presence of two genuine number 10s, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. So far, Afellay has picked up 30 caps with the Oranje, although he has mostly been used as a substitute. Last October, the midfielder picked up his first two international goals in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Sweden.
Afellay’s great adventure in the Catalan capital – he is the 21st Dutch player in the history of the club – began with a article in Spanish daily El Perodico joking: “The first three balls Afellay touched during his first training session were far better than all Winston Bogarde’s performances in his time at Barcelona.”
Nobody expects Afellay to become the next Cruyff, but an impact similar to that of Marc Overmars or the De Boer brothers at the Camp Nou would be more than enough to delight the Catalan faithful. Afellay is capable of such brilliance, as he continues to track Sneijder with relish.
Fonte: Inside Futbol