Sunday 21 September 2014

Yassine El Ghanassy: Prodigal Son or Lost Cause?

It almost passed as a footnote in this week’s Belgian football news: “The Roads of AA Gent and Yassine El Ghanassy part”. The nº 2 in the Belgian league is releasing the 24-year-old winger from his contract. These things happen every day in football. Then why is this case of special interest? Because El Ghanassy is – or was – a player with a talent rarely seen on Belgian football fields, the "white blackbird" most teams hope to discover once every decade or so. AA Gent found one. And now they seem happier without him.

For those unfamiliar with El Ghanassy, in the 2010-2011 season, when he was 20 years of age, the Moroccan Belgian was probably thé hottest sensation in Belgian football, gifted with dribbling skills and assists unseen to any team in the league. A creative genius, the kind of player who can unlock any game all by himself. It did not take long for him to be called up to the national team and to be linked to clubs of the likes of Manchester City. Forget about Anderlecht, this kid was not going to be around in Belgium for long.

El Ghanassy’s creative genius comes with a dark side though. He’s not much of a team player – to put it euphemistically – and he systematically seems to drive his chairman and managers crazy with his caprices and apparent lack of sérieux. The last manager at AA Gent to give the youngster a real chance, Rednic, at the end of last year, watched the winger return home once before a league game after he had learned he would not be in the starting eleven. During another episode, El Ghanassy insisted on taking a penalty although Rednic had expressly assigned another player. Loan spells at West Brom and Heerenveen had been in vain in terms of helping the fickle youngster mature, it seemed.

When Didier Drogba first arrived at Chelsea, he was disappointed to find that, in spite of having signed a lucrative deal at a highly professional club, he was left on his own when it came to arranging tedious practical details, such as finding a flat or a school for his kids and things as mundane as contracting a mobile phone operator. Naturally, Chelsea probably reasoned, he had more than plenty of money to hire people to take care of such things for him. But for someone who did not speak the language, it turned out to be demoralising and quite a distraction: "After all these worries, I didn't feel like integrating [at Chelsea] or multiplying my efforts", Drogba is reported in Soccernomics to have said. Needless to add such a state of mind in turn affects performance, which the club is likely to care very much about and is otherwise willing to pay a lot of money for in wages.

In football, as elsewhere, employers often still reason that they are paying their employees enough to take care of their own problems. It is very difficult, though, to buy someone’s loyalty, or satisfaction with you as an employer and there’s always a club able and willing to pay more to the best players. Since Drogba's early experience, Chelsea has taken strides. When signing Eden Hazard, for instance, it also signed his younger brother, Thorgan – last year’s winner of the Belgian golden boot and currently on loan at Mönchengladbach. This is about recognising that behind a millionaire football player, there is also a person with normal needs and concerns. In a similar move, Chelsea signed the three Belgian Musonda brothers. So (some) clubs are learning. Still, my guess is that, instead of the final €10,000 Hazard is to receive according to his new €250,000 p/w deal at Chelsea, the club may have offered him something that would have cost them less and he may have valued more.

Although I am not familiar enough with the specifics of the case of El Ghanassy, it would seem it is not just about understanding his wants, but that he rather has serious issues and that AA Gent did make some efforts to help him with those. What is for sure is that releasing him from his contract after three loan spells is not what they must have had in mind when, in 2011, it became evident they had stumbled upon a nugget of gold. Moreover, in the almost parallel case of Ilombe Mboyo, AA Gent had been able to offload the even much more troubled youngster for a Belgian-league record fee of around €4.5m.

Whatever came before, El Ghanassy is now a free agent. I’ll be curious to see which club will sign him and how long he’ll be without one. At age 24, he will still have quite some potential; when at Heerenveen, for 4 months in 2013, in 14 appearances, he scored 5 goals and had 3 assists. The predictably unpredictable winger may be of interest to a wide range of clubs. The critical success factor will be whether any interested club has the knowhow – rather than the financial muscle – to turn this lost cause into a prodigal son story. 

This task will not be for the faint of heart: although the risk of non-performance can be mitigated, e.g. by performance-based contracts, it could upset the dressing room to have an enfant terrible who gets special treatment. But then some players may require more love than others and as long as the guidance is potentially equally available to others who may be in need of it, it may well be preferable over assuming players have the money to get all the help they need outside. So, who’s up for the challenge?

Source: gva.be