‘He can’t change himself right now’
Jonna ter Veer
editor of NOS Sports
Jonna ter Veer
editor of NOS Sports
Footballers often go down after their careers end, but Mohamed Ihattaren hit the ground running several times early in his career. “He is not at the stage where he can be helped,” says Glenn Helder, the ex-football player who made the wrong choices privately and partly recognizes himself in what is happening to Ihattaren now.
“Although it’s worse for him now: the pressure is higher and social media puts all your deeds in the spotlight. If smartphones had existed in my time, I’d still be in jail now…,” he says with a wink.
Ihattaren is one of the greatest talents Dutch soccer has produced in the past decade. Bright was with Vitesse in the 1990s. Until his gambling addiction came to light and he eventually ended up in jail from Arsenal and Oranje, for threats, assault and firearm possession.
On Sunday, Ihattaren was arrested in Amsterdam after a conflict in the relational sphere. The police announced that the 21-year-old detainee, without naming Ihattaren, has since been released. He is still considered a suspect.
He was also arrested in November for a threat. The big question is whether he can continue his professional life at Juventus after the recent developments.
Wanting to, not being able to
Helder’s story is one of self-destruction and helplessness, a cry for help. No one could help him, he tells himself.
“It’s like expecting someone who makes the same spelling mistake ten times in a dictation not to make it the eleventh time. If you can’t do it, you don’t change it. Besides, I was shit-faced.”
“I’m sure even Ihattaren can’t change himself now,” Helder says. “Van der Vaart, Vanenburg, Sneijder, Nouri’s brother, he got the jackpot of personal coaching. He doesn’t just fuck it up, the boy wants to change, otherwise he wouldn’t ask for help. But he doesn’t keep it up.”
It is also quite something to be put on a pedestal so young, when your brain is not even fully grown, Helder knows. “All of a sudden you have money and status, people have sky-high expectations of you. Everything you do is magnified in the media. You are a child in an overly mature world. Dealing with that responsibly is quite an art.”
Yet most soccer players manage to do this. Why does it go wrong for Ihattaren?
A stable environment helps, Helder knows. But it’s also about your character and a “healthy head.
You’re ashamed of how you dealt with the opportunities in your life. I had everything, but what did I do? I helped destroy myself.
The former soccer player does not know the details of Ihattaren’s situation, but is certain that his father’s death was a risk factor for the drift. On that, Ihattaren himself said earlier that you should “think of a Moroccan family as a tree, of which the father is the trunk and the mother and children are the branches.”
Ihattaren put away his emotions about the loss. Helder recognizes that. “I wasn’t stupid, I was well brought up and yet I made the wrong choices. I did everything to avoid having to deal with my feelings. Whereas: all I should have done is been grateful that I had a talent, that I could make money from it. I should have shown character not only on the field, but also off it.”
He watches with sorrow as Ihattaren, too, forgets to look himself honestly in the eye. Helder didn’t succeed at the time either.
“It started small. I never drank and smoked. But when Vitesse bought me, that summer I started stepping, smoking and drinking heavily. I kept performing on the field. That was my salvation. But also my disaster. ‘Top purchase Helder,’ the newspaper De Gelderlander headlined after I scored three goals in the first game. I was rewarded for bad behavior.”
Helder’s holdout was his coach, Herbert Neumann. “He motivated me and gave me the guidance I needed. I didn’t want to disappoint him on the field. If your trainer doesn’t see you for who you are and doesn’t understand you, it’s not going to be anything.”
Meanwhile, private problems were piling up at Helder. “I was a gambling addict. Gamblers are the biggest liars around. Not only to those around them, but also to themselves,” Helder explained his downfall as a professor.
“You feel ashamed of how you handled the opportunities in your life. I had everything, but what did I do? I helped destroy myself. I was happy when things came out and I rock bottom hit.” When you have nothing left to lose, he says, all you can do is win.
Although Ihattaren still has a long way to go, he thinks, there is still hope.
“I wish someone had been really hard on me for once. If I met my 25-year-old self now, I would shake him first – and that’s putting it very mildly.”
“Then I would tell him: Glenn, after your career with the Dutch and Arsenal, you will go to jail for seven months and then you can lug boxes at DHL. I get angry again when I think back to my younger self. The regret I have, I don’t begrudge anyone. I hope Ihattaren never has to write a biography like mine.”
Is Ihattaren ultimately salvageable? Yes, Helder thinks, because everyone can change. Everyone is salvageable.
In the case of Ihattaren, he thinks he needs to hear his father’s voice again. In other words, he should not listen to the devils on his pillow, but to the angel on his shoulder.
“That’s what I would tell him: listen, your father is proud of you. He’s not there anymore, but he’s always there. He sees you and knows that few are blessed with such a golden left leg as you. Take strength from his pride.”