Hachim Mastour exclusive: 'I've found my smile again after suffering from depression'
| Last updated
"I've been through difficult times," Hachim Mastour says, over a decade after scouts from Europe's elite lined up on a bobbly touchline in northern Italy to watch him play. "I suffered from depression but I came out of it stronger. I've found my smile and pleasure in football again."
Armed with years of experience in the often-unforgiving world of football, a level-headed Mastour is reflecting on a career like no other from his relatively new surroundings in Rabat — Morocco’s surprisingly tranquil capital city.
He has kindly agreed to speak to us ahead of a 339-mile flight to the Adrar Stadium in Agadir, where he will go on to feature for Moroccan first division side Union de Touarga in their Botola Pro clash against mid-table rivals Hassania d'Agadir.
It is a far cry from the San Siro, or even the Estadio La Rosaleda – home of former La Liga club Malaga, a team he joined on loan in 2015 — but Mastour was desperate to start from scratch and "recreate himself" in his mother’s native region.
Last season he helped minnows Renaissance Zemamra achieve an unprecedented promotion to Morocco's first-division and in the summer, Touarga gained thousands of followers on social media thanks to their new high-profile arrival.
In the past, Mastour has often shied away from interviews given the line of questioning that will inevitably come his way but thanks to a number of factors, including his faith and support system, the man Stephan El Shaarawy once described as being "destined for greatness" is ready to open up to an English outlet for the first time.
“Looking back I am happy with everything," he tells SPORTbible. "Every step in life has led me to be the person I am today. God has a plan for everyone. We need to work and be patient because you never know when it might be your time. Life changes quickly.”
There's no getting away from it. Mastour, who will turn 26 in June, is living a very different life to what many predicted in 2012, when he signed for Italian giants AC Milan and changed the landscape of football through a certain up-and-coming platform called YouTube.
But despite everything, he has rediscovered his love and appreciation for the game – something that seemed almost impossible a few years ago. "I suffered a lot," he once said. "The world of football is not easy."
Hachim Mastour is sat reminiscing about a day that would change his life forever.
"It was my first match wearing those red and black colours. Wearing that shirt for the first time was unique, a special sensation. You feel the greatness of the club on your skin and it's beautiful. I felt like a superhero.”
On the afternoon of October 15, 2012, a three-minute and 20-second video was uploaded to YouTube called: "Hachim Mastour, esordio con la maglia del Milan", a title that translates to "debut with the Milan shirt".
He was already the talk of the town after impressing at youth level for local side Reggiana but this level of exposure was different. It allowed millions from around the world to appreciate his special talent on a mobile phone or desktop.
"I played that match with a smile on my face and it went well,” he remembers. "I chose Milan because it was the project that convinced me the most."
Mastour, who was born to Moroccan parents in the province of Reggio Emilia, is downplaying his performance that day.
As well as scoring twice against Albinoleffe, he was by far the best player on the pitch — a dream debut that happened just weeks after AC Milan beat several of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City, to his signature in a deal worth around €500,000.
At the age of 14, Mastour was being thrown into the deep end against older opposition on a weekly basis; all while a number of different clips continued to go viral online, including a video of him doing kick-ups with an orange and a ping-pong ball during an interview with Sky Italia.
Filippo Galli, who was AC Milan’s youth director at the time, praised the skilful playmaker as “perhaps technically the best we have ever had come through our youth ranks,” while Filippo Inzaghi applauded a "talented player with the right attitude on the pitch."
Under-17s coach Omar Danesi even went on to suggest Mastour would “definitely” play at the San Siro one day but warned that he should be “allowed to grow with calmness” given his age.
Was he allowed to grow and develop at the Rossoneri, like Danesi said? It was difficult.
He delivered moments of individual brilliance at youth level, earning compliments from the likes of Kaka, who called Mastour "a true talent that has something special" but the Brazilian, like many others at the time, called for patience after the teenager was introduced to first-team training.
As he tried to improve his overall game, the negative aspect of fame – away from the pitch – was taking its toll.
"Let's put it this way: the media attention surrounding my move to Milan ensured that clubs and advisors saw me more as an opportunity to make a profit than as a sporting opportunity that you have to be patient with," Mastour told Tuttomercatoweb in 2019. “That damaged my athletic development, especially because I just wanted to play."
That already-hefty weight of expectation only increased in the summer of 2014, when he featured in a freestyle skill battle against Neymar for energy drinks brand Red Bull. It was a commercial that would once again elevate his brand to new heights and while on shoot, the Brazilian said he was "waiting" for him in Barcelona.
That video also emerged around Clarence Seedorf's decision to include Mastour in AC Milan's match-day squad for their final game of the 2013/14 season against Sassuolo. To say things were moving quickly would be an understatement.
On that morning of May 18, 2014, he enjoyed breakfast with Adriano Galliani, the Milan CEO, and manager Clarence Seedorf before being taken to the changing room, where he was applauded by the entire first-team squad. A trademark goal in training followed.
"I tried to learn as much as possible," Hachim recalls. "I got to train with champions and idols. It was a dream."
A few hours later, the teenager sat down next to former Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien on the subs bench as photographers and reporters crowded around Europe’s hottest prospect before kick-off. At 15, he was expected to eclipse the great Paolo Maldini and become the youngest-ever Milanista to have played in Serie A.
"There are no words to describe it," he recalls about that night. "I had goosebumps as the bus made its way towards the San Siro. Having my family in the stands and hearing my name shouted from the speaker and from the Curva Sud… I will never forget it."
But after all the fanfare and build-up, Clarence Seedorf decided against bringing him on as Milan edged a 2-1 win. "Mastour is 15 years old, the game asked for other things, but for him to be already on the bench was important," Seedorf explained after the full-time whistle. "He has great talent, but we want to create a certain route with him.”
The route? Mastour was released in 2018 without making a single first team appearance following unsuccessful loan spells at Malaga and PEC Zwolle.
Five years after being declared the future of AC Milan, he was cast aside to find another club. The Moroccan even asked to play with the Primavera instead of training with Milan's first team during his final year in Italy, but it was seemingly too late.
So, what happened? It’s a fair question. On the pitch a proposed two-year loan deal at La Liga side Malaga was cut short after the midfielder made just one substitute appearance for Los Boquerones. The transfer was said to be a personal request of Malaga’s owner and president Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani.
Mastour then played 150 minutes for Eredivisie side PEC Zwolle before returning to AC Milan in 2017 with a year left on his contract.
"He can do anything with the ball; that was clear two years ago on YouTube," then-Zwolle coach Ron Jans said when Mastour arrived on a season-long loan. "The biggest danger is the huge expectation. He's so young. We want to bring him into the shelter but I think we can get good out of him."
Later on that season, Jans was quoted as saying: "He can do wonderful things with a ball but he must start adding more depth to his game.”
On his return to Milan, then-manager Gennaro Gattuso – renowned for his no-nonsense man-management style – made headlines when he said Mastour had became more famous for making videos than playing.
"We've talked a lot lately," the Italian said at the time. "I even threatened him because he became more famous for making videos than playing, but he doesn't do that any more because I told him I'd knock his teeth out. I think he has to take stock of his mistakes."
Mastour remembers that conversation well. “It was all a misunderstanding. The first week he [Gattuso] didn't speak to me, he observed and then called me into his office and complimented me on the seriousness of my work. I listened to his advice carefully. He spoke to me a lot and I thank him very much."
Off the pitch, Mastour has previously admitted that media expectation and off-the-field commercial activities damaged his growth at such an important period of development.
When quizzed on why he never reached his potential, the 25-year-old is comfortable with the question — almost like he has been asked it so many times before.
“Times have changed," he tells us. "Every era has its own process. At the time it was unthinkable that a 15-year-old kid would reach the first team, especially in a team like Milan's, which had a roster of champions in every position. For me, the fact that I trained alongside people I used to play with on the PlayStation makes me happy today.
"I have learned to always see the positive side of things," Mastour added. “Everyone has their own path and history. We often want things but only God knows if that is good for us or not. I like to think that I’ve opened the door to young people and future generations because from then on, it was more common to see young guys landing in the first-team."
Mastour, who was once approached by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez after impressing in a friendly game against Los Blancos, continues to speak on the constant attention he received in the early stages of his career, and the lessons learned along the way.
“I've never lived the life of a normal person," he says. "You need to have a lot of mental strength, dedication and above all the pleasure in working hard. Fame reached me early and expectations and stress are part of the game, especially if you have qualities.
"The first to expect a lot from me is myself so I don't pay attention to the rest. It's important to surround yourself with positive energy because the quality of thoughts determines the quality of life one has. I have made many sacrifices to pursue my dream and I'm proud of it."
As you can probably gather by now, the former Morocco international, who is still the youngest player to feature for his country at 16 years, 11 months and 28 days old, has come to accept his turbulent journey in football and is very content.
But there have been difficult times. In the past, Mastour admitted to meeting people who "don’t see you as a boy trying to make his dream come true but as a money machine."
He suffered a lot but managed to overcome what was a really tough period in his life.
“I've been through difficult times. I was depressed," Mastour says. "I got out of it thanks to my family, as well as willpower and faith. Faith helped me a lot. God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear. Every problem and obstacle we have in our journey can be overcome. If it's in front of us, it is for a reason.”
Since leaving Milan in the summer of 2018, Mastour has played for Greek Super League outfit Lamia, as well as Italian sides Reggina and Carpi, but the midfielder has rediscovered his love for the game in Morocco – a country that gave him his first international cap as a teenager.
“Life in Morocco is beautiful," he grins. "I recommend it to anyone who wants to visit it and have a life experience."
Mastour is far from the finished product but his ambitions to improve, both on and off the pitch, are clear throughout our chat. Once upon a time, the pressure of becoming the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar rested heavy on his young shoulders. Now, he plays the game with a smile.
“I have played in many parts of the world and I have learned something from every place," he says. "I have enlarged my life, both on a human and professional level.
"I don't know the word fail, because every event we go through is part of our journey. You fail when you are not a good person, with a white heart, who does not help others without expecting something in return. God has given me a talent, and I am grateful for it. There will be many more chapters in my life and we will see where I get to."
What does the future hold for Mastour? “I'm 25 years old, the road is still long and I'm working to achieve my dream and goal. I'm giving it my all. I believe it. Time will tell.”