Hearing the full-time whistle Samuel Eto'o knew where to head. Anzhi just beaten AZ 5-0 in Alkmaar, but there was no mood to celebrate, instead he had to see him up close and offer a few words to a talent without limitations that left a huge impression. Adam Maher.
It was “men against boys” manager Gertjan Verbeek decried. Maher, who turned 19 in July, burgeoning reputation not only stayed intact but enhanced. Eto’o was impressed, telling him face to face, before asking to swap shirts. The whole scene took the young Dutchman aback. Here stood a triple European Cup winner, one of the finest forwards of the last decade, eulogising him. He’s used to compliments by now but not in this fashion. It didn’t stop on the field.
Guus Hiddink, manager of Anzhi, described him as “special” and possessing unquestionable quality. Aptly named – surname translates from Arabic as “skilful” – Maher has been at the forefront of Dutch football since emerging towards the end of 2010. Last season culminated with being awarded ‘talent of the year’, a prize Johan Cruyff votes on, who labelled him a “deserved winner”. Maher felt “honoured”. Prime Minster Mark Rutte, who presented the award, described him as a reference. Maher, in an interview earlier in the year, is happy with his new found status. “I’m now an example because I’ve worked hard to get where I am.”
A few days later AZ lost heavily in Eindhoven, but Maher – despite his side down to ten men – shone brightly, scoring a brilliant golazo, fearlessly taking the game to an obviously stronger PSV. It’s this trait, more so than his strong technical attributes, Eto’o admired.
In a short space of time he’s become indispensable – as an individual and team player – his sharp concentration and maturity beyond his years, despite age, has turned him into a leader. Martin Haar – Verbeek’s assistant – favourably compared him to Cesc Fàbregas, others however suggest he’s more akin to Andrés Iniesta, on the grounds he’s a similar type of playmaker: intuitive, vertical, fast, fleet-footed, adventurous and intelligent. The way he glides between the lines – the “dancing butterfly” in AZ’s midfield – spatially conscious, creative, eye-of-the-needle passing and dribbling.
An interviewer, after AZ eliminated Ajax in last season’s KNVB Beker, brought up a piece of skill he executed which reminded him of Iniesta. “He performed the same action last night against Real Madrid,” Maher said with a grin. Imitation can often be the sincerest form of flattery. In this case not many can execute, or attempt to, a piece of Iniesta brilliance. Maher sure does come close.
He’s also shown the discipline to play in a deeper role, as a controlling playmaker, with added defensive responsibilities. His role model, despite above comparisons, is Xavi. “I watch how he plays, passes the ball, Iniesta is similar, but Xavi is the man,” closer to home Ibrahim Afellay who he’s developed a bond with.
Last month he made his Oranje debut against Belgium, cited as a future mainstay by Bert van Marwijk, potential successor to Wesley Sneijder, but this was at a time when doubts lingered over his international career. Maher was still eligible to play for Morocco land of his birth.
A short time before Van Marwijk named his Euro 2012 squad Maher declared his allegiance to Oranje. “It’s good for my personal development to play World Cups and European championships. I’m making a lot of progress when I’m surrounded by these players,” he told De Telegraaf.
He didn’t make Euros squad but new boss Louis van Gaal is an admirer, handing him a second half start in Brussels, again displayed a quick understanding in a new environment: one of the better performers on the night. However he wasn’t called-up for the World Cup qualifiers against Turkey and Hungary. “It was a disappointment, but Van Gaal explained to me why. I’m not playing as an attacking midfielder.”
A case of needs must at AZ, has come at the wrong time for Maher, his versatility can also be a hindrance. Nevertheless it won’t be a permanent fixture as he will soon return to an advanced role. It was in that position he made everyone sit up and take notice.
“Rightly so he’s being praised,” Wim Kieft said before his Jong Oranje debut against Scotland. “The only question is how he handles it.” No problem according to Mike Kolf, his youth team coach at A.V.V. Zeeburgia, and he’s proven right.
Maher’s modesty is a trait instilled by his father who advised him to “stay humble and be patient.” He’s also grounded: “My parents have done everything for me. I’m so grateful. I will reward them.”
Kolf remembers watching him play for local side SV Diemen. He was the smallest player on the pitch but was an irrelevance. “When he received possession things started to happen. He had something different.” It wasn’t long before Kolf invited him to Zeeburgia, which he accepted, as quickly as he settled Ajax came knocking. "I had trials there. It wasn’t like I rejected them.” But they weren’t serious enough unlike AZ.
Like many Dutch footballers he was immersed in street football where much of his technical ability was honed. “He always had the solution before the ball arrived,” Aloys Wijnker head of youth development at AZ enthused. It wasn’t long before he alerted the attention of AC Milan, Manchester City and Lyon; after excelling at a youth tournament held in France, but any move was rebuffed by his father.
Wim van Zwam, Oranje U15 coach, remembers a moment against Ireland. “I can still hear the sigh of excitement from the crowd,” after Maher demonstrated a ‘typical’ brilliant first touch. “A pure football talent,” Van Zwam added. He would give him the captaincy when they next met at U19 level. “He’s unperturbed, takes responsibility and doesn’t have a big mouth.”
Maher made his senior début December 2010 coming on as a substitute in a Europa League tie against FK BATE Borisov – where his impact was instant – grabbing his side’s third in a 3-0 win. At the age of 17 years and 147 days he became the youngest Dutchman to score in European competition.
His breakthrough season (2011/12) saw him score five league goals in 34 games. A further three from 13 played in Europe. It’s his creativity, and all-round game, that sets him apart. A highlight was a last minute winner at the Polman Stadion, home of Heracles, crowded inside the penalty area he weaved – ball seemingly glued to his feet – seconds ticked down, but found enough space and power to stab past Remko Pasveer. Jozy Altidore’s reaction from the bench spoke a thousand words.
It was against the same opposition, albeit at home, he performed an audacious ‘no look pass’ that had everyone talking. “It was a bit Barça-esque,” Maher said laughing after their 3-1 victory. “Before I received the ball from Roy [Beerens], I knew where Maarten [Martens] was so there was no need for me to look.” A brilliant example of his intuition – naturally gifted – there’s something childlike about the way he goes about business, but remains honest. Although striving to be the best being carried away is not far away. “I’m sometimes careless,” adding nonchalance is part of who he is and game, being allowed to express himself has paid dividends for AZ, that’s unlikely to change.
A move looked on the cards this summer, but not abroad, putting development first he named PSV and Ajax as potential destinations. This didn’t sit well with Verbeek – who Maher credits as responsible for his rapid development – suggesting, on basis of recent league performances, PSV would be a sideways step. He stayed. AZ remains his focus as well as improving himself: getting stronger, faster and better.
“I can be important here. I’m ambitious, if I wasn’t, I might as well stop now.” Next summer promises to be interesting but until then Eto’o, and everyone, can enjoy the rise and rise of a star in Alkmaar.
Mohamed Moallim is a Dutch football expert who mostly writes for the magazine and blog FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @jouracule. Comments below please.