Last July, Valencia completed the signing of Zakaria Bakkali on a five-year deal. The Belgian joined the Spanish side from PSV Eindhoven. Following a thrilling start for the Dutch champions two years ago, the pocket-size winger endured 18 months of living hell.
A contract dispute, injuries, no regular competitive football... Bakkali hit rock bottom, things couldn't have gone any worse for the 19-year-old. Fortunately, he now has the chance to get his career back on track at the Mestalla Stadium.
Bakkali's first kicks came in Liege. At the age of nine, local giants Standard snatched the wonderboy from arch-rivals FC Liege. At the time, the Rouches' academy had already built up a great reputation with the likes of Fellaini, Witsel and Defour all coming through their respected youth ranks.
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He spent four years developing his skills in East Belgium before joining PSV Eindhoven in 2008. For the club's youth teams, the right-footed youngster grew into a key player often influencing games thanks to lightning fast runs and brilliant technical ability.
One of his many highlights came in Manchester's 2011 Nike Cup; thanks to his dazzling displays in the tournament, Bakkali earned the title of "best young player in the world". Of course, such an honour attracted a bunch of agents and clearly caught the eye of several big-name clubs including Manchester City.
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He came quite close to signing for the Sky Blues at the time although his father eventually persuaded him to stay in Eindhoven and sign a new deal. Consequently, he spent the following season maturing with Jong PSV.
It was in August 2013, after having featured in the Champions League qualifiers against Zulte Waregem, that Bakkali finally made his awaited Eredivisie debut against ADO Den Haag. However it was a week later, in his second league game, when the Belgian hit the headlines as he became the youngest player ever to score a hat-trick in the Dutch top flight against NEC.
After just four competitive games, his prowess earned him an international call-up from Marc Wilmots. Unfortunately, he picked up an injury in training and had to pull out of the squad.
Therefore, the winger only made his debut later that year against Wales. Due to his Moroccan roots, Bakkali could also have opted to represent the Atlas Lions but instead chose the Red Devils.
In January 2014, for the first time, matters started to go downhill. With 18 months left on his contract, PSV opened negotiations with the player to extend and improve his deal. Despite promising initial discussions, both parties failed to reach an agreement.
The club's representatives blamed the Belgian, claiming he repeatedly changed his mind and would not keep to his original word. From that moment on, Bakkali was granted just over 30 minutes game time by Phillip Cocu as relations between club and player further declined. A few months later, during the summer transfer window, the Dutch club had reportedly agreed to sell the wonderkid to Atletico Madrid.
Once again, the deal stalled owing to issues with personal terms meaning Bakkali had to see out his contract at the Phillips Stadium. PSV made a final attempt to convince him in September but the youngster turned down their last extension offer. Marcel Brands, the club's director of football, then declared that the 19-year-old would never wear the red and white shirt again. Thus Bakkali didn't play a single competitive match last season.
His misery was compounded when he later picked up a nasty groin injury preventing him from maintaining his fitness level for several months.
Fortunately, even after a wasted year, European powerhouses had not forgotten the name. Bakkali received multiple offers from all around the continent (Lille, Stoke, Atletico, etc.) and was allowed to join anyone of them as a free agent.
Ultimately, the winger chose Valencia. Up until now, after an encouraging start, it would appear the youngster is on the rise again. His decisive assist in last weeks' clash against Sporting Gijon illustrates his revival perfectly. However, his non-inclusion in this year's Champions League squad may come as a real disappointment.
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