Stockholm Syndrome

Elbouzedi declining Libya call-ups as he keeps Ireland 'dream' alive

The decision to take his club career to Sweden has paid dividends for the former Ireland U21 winger.

zak-elbouzedi-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-fourth-goal Ryan Byrne / INPHO Zack Elbouzedi celebrates after scoring for Ireland U21s against Sweden in November 2019. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

FOR ZACK ELBOUZEDI, the journey home for Christmas was a rare case of looking forward to getting back to the Irish weather.

“It was minus 15 [degrees celsius] in Sweden,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to be going around in a t-shirt. It’s a different level of cold over there and it takes some getting used to.”

Back in Dublin for the festive period, Elbouzedi has been reflecting on a year that delivered the best spell of his club career despite its inauspicious start.

He came into 2021 with just two substitute appearances to show for Lincoln City’s first 20 games of the League One season. It was becoming increasingly clear that he wasn’t part of Michael Appleton’s plans.

By the time Lincoln’s push for a place in the Championship ran aground with a play-off final defeat to Blackpool at Wembley in May, Elbouzedi had already contributed to a successful promotion bid elsewhere.

While on loan at Bolton Wanderers – who went up from League Two – he played 14 games. Yet having arrived at a time when Ian Evatt’s side were embarking on a superb run of form that would transform their season, the winger had to be content with being used mostly from the bench.

Still under contract to a club where he had no future, Elbouzedi was heading into an uncertain summer. Then came a call from a somewhat unlikely source.

Bartosz Grzelak cared little for how the previous 18 months played out for Elbouzedi in the lower tiers of the English Football League. Grzelak, the manager of leading Swedish club AIK, had seen his potential first-hand during a couple of games in 2019. 

lincoln-citys-zak-elbouzedi-scores-his-sides-first-goal-of-the-game-during-the-papa-johns-trophy-third-round-match-at-lner-stadium-lincoln Alamy Stock Photo Elbouzedi scores for Lincoln City against Accrington Stanley. Alamy Stock Photo

After starring for the Ireland U21s against their counterparts from Sweden in a 3-1 away win, Elbouzedi chipped in with a goal and an assist in a 4-1 victory in the return fixture in Tallaght. In his role as the Swedes’ assistant coach, Grzelak took note. 

“Even though I finished last season getting promoted with Bolton, I wasn’t really starting games and it looked like things weren’t going to work out with Lincoln. 

“If you had told me then that a few months later I’d be playing in front of 45,000 people and qualifying for Europe, there’s no way I could have believed it,” Elbouzedi says of his move to AIK, who paid an undisclosed fee to bring him to Stockholm on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

“But I’ve always believed in myself. I’ve had tough times in my career but I’ve always tried to stay positive and work hard. A lot of people in my position last summer might have downed tools and became unfit, and when an opportunity arose they wouldn’t have been ready. But I try to have a good attitude and thankfully that got rewarded.” 

After impressing during his time in the League of Ireland with Waterford, Elbouzedi earned his first Ireland U21 call-up from Stephen Kenny in March 2019 and went on to win 13 caps.

His performances for AIK thus far have also been a vindication of Bartosz Grzelak’s decision to take a chance on a player whose career was seemingly at a crossroads. Since his arrival in July, Elbouzedi featured in all 20 of the club’s games in the Allsvenskan (Sweden’s top-flight).

His campaign peaked in a 3-0 win against Ostersund, after which he took the man-of-the-match award home as a reward for scoring one goal and setting up another.

“I’ve always felt that I can repay a manager who gives me a chance and believes in me,” he says. “I think I did that with Alan Reynolds at Waterford, Stephen Kenny with the Ireland U21s and now with the manager at AIK.

“I’ve started every game since I broke into the team. Having a manager who’ll give me a fair crack of the whip always seems to go well for me, but I don’t think I got that at Lincoln.”

Michael Appleton described the signing of Elbouzedi as “a coup” for Lincoln City when he made the move in January 2020, implying that the former Malahide United man was lined up for a prominent role. To that end, he was left puzzled by being restricted to a total of 11 appearances in 12 months.

“Last summer, he [Appleton] said in the press that I was free to leave Lincoln, but he never actually said that to me personally,” the 23-year-old says. “I knew, due to not playing, that I probably wasn’t in his plans, but for him to put it out in the press instead of speaking to me personally was disrespectful, I felt. It hurt a bit.

“Maybe it was the case that he didn’t fancy me as a player or I didn’t fit his style, which is fair enough, but I never really found out why I wasn’t getting many opportunities. He never spoke to me about it. I’m glad it happened now though. When one door closes, another opens, and it’s led me to AIK, where I’m really happy.”

Playing alongside the likes of Mikael Lustig and Sebastian Larsson, who reached the last 16 of the European Championship earlier this year, Elbouzedi was part of an AIK side who finished just a point shy of claiming the club’s 13th league title earlier this month.

Aiming to dislodge holders Malmo from top spot on the final day of the season, AIK were 4-2 winners against Sirius. Malmo failed to beat Halmstad, but a draw was sufficient nevertheless for them to extend their reign as champions.

“There was a stage in the game when our supporters started lighting flares, so I was thinking ‘we must be about to win the league here, Halmstad must be beating Malmo’, but it wasn’t to be,” he recalls. “It was disappointing obviously, but AIK finished ninth last season so to only lose the league on goal difference is good progress for the club.”

He adds: “I’ve really enjoyed it out there so far. There’s a really big Irish community [in Stockholm] too. There’s a GAA club so I went out to one of their games and it was like being at home again. There was about a hundred Irish people there, it was deadly. A few of them turned up at one of our games then so it was nice to see the tricolours in the stadium.” 

Russian Look Ltd. : Alamy Stock Photo Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo AIK team-mates Mikael Lustig and Seb Larsson celebrate after Sweden's win over Slovakia at Euro 2020. Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Irish players seldom look beyond the UK when attempting to advance their careers, but the early indications are that Elbouzedi is on course to emulate Josh Cullen as an advocate for the benefits of a move to the continent. He has already been contacted by curious peers who are intrigued by the possibility of following a similar path.

He says: “I always felt that going abroad would suit my style. In Ireland we’re producing more technical players now, so the European way of football would be good for Irish lads. It’s just about players getting the opportunities now because I don’t necessarily think Irish players aren’t open to going abroad.

“Maybe European scouts don’t view Irish players as being good enough technically. They probably still associate us with hoofball and physicality, but you can see from what Stephen Kenny is trying to do with the senior team that things are much different now. Hopefully that perception of Irish football continues to change.”

He played in every competitive game of Stephen Kenny’s reign as U21 manager, so the current senior boss is already well-versed in Elbouzedi’s capabilities. The Dubliner is keen to produce club form in 2022 that will be worthy of international recognition.

“I played quite a lot under Stephen Kenny and I feel I did well. Unfortunately for me, when he came into the senior job I wasn’t playing regularly at Lincoln and Bolton. Now that I’m playing every week for a big club at a good level, hopefully there’ll be a call-up down the line.

“It’s my dream to play for the Ireland senior team, I’ve been saying that for a while, but to have the best chance of that I just have to focus on playing well for the club. Getting too hung up on playing for Ireland will only take away from my performances for AIK, so I need to just keep doing what I’m doing and hope that it comes.”

Libya, under the management of former Spain boss Javier Clemente, made several attempts to call Elbouzedi up this year, but he politely rejected the interest from his father’s homeland.

“They’ve tried to get me to play for them in the last few windows but it won’t be happening,” he insists. “I wouldn’t take a Libya cap away from a Libyan person who it would mean more to. Ireland is my country, that’s who I want to play for.”

malmoe-sweden-27th-oct-2021-the-players-of-aik-stockholm-line-up-for-the-the-allsvenskan-match-between-malmoe-ff-and-aik-stockholm-at-eleda-stadion-in-malmoe-photo-credit-gonzales-photoalamy-l Alamy Stock Photo Zack Elbouzedi (centre) pictured before AIK's top-of-the-table clash with Malmo in October. Alamy Stock Photo

Adamant that AIK fans have yet to see his best, Elbouzedi is determined to fulfil his potential for a club who’ll be competing in the Europa Conference League next season.

“I’ve shown a lot of what I can do, but I can still contribute more goals and assists, while also becoming more of a leader in the team,” he says.

“When I go back in the new year, getting a full pre-season under my belt and feeling properly settled in, people are going to see more from me.

“It’s been a good start, but it’s something I can build on from here.”

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