Exclusive: We talk to Pescara’s Manchester-born number 10, Ahmad Benali, who’s proving there is a life in top-level football for youngsters beyond English shores.
As an Academy starlet at a Premier League club, conventional logic dictates that if you’re unable to make a breakthrough to the first team squad – an increasingly difficult feat in an already near-impossible task for the many in that position – you can choose to either remain and risk either being eventually discarded or sent out on an endless loop of loan spells which may actually hinder further progression, or drop down divisions in an attempt to secure consistent first-team football and begin the task of fighting your way back up to the top.
When Manchester City changed owners and were instantly financially able to sign almost anyone in the world, their 20-year old midfield youth star, Ahmad Benali, had a decision to make. Having been at his boyhood club since the age of eight, captaining all of City’s youth teams during his “inevitable” progress towards the first-team which he’d been earmarked for, everything changed. “It was obvious that when City got all the money things would change, and they did,” Benali said recalling his experience of that time.
All I wanted to do was play for them and I really thought I would one day. But after the club changed hands doors began to close for people like me. I saw the big foreign players like Robinho being bought and I knew it was over.
There was the standard option leading to three usual outcomes; to take the well-trodden path of those in a similar position: drop into the country’s lower leagues and either progress back up the ladder, make a career at that level, or simply fade from football.
But having not enjoyed life in England’s lower tier whilst on loan with Rochdale, his options were even more limited. As Benali stated in an interview last year with the MEN:
I could have gone to the lower leagues but the Rochdale experience scarred me.
At clubs at that level the coaches talk about nice tactics and systems in pre-season but as soon as they lose a few games they panic and just start whacking it up the pitch.
In England, you get thrown in like that and it can ruin you if you are a smaller, skilful player.
I have seen too many good young, technical players get lost in the English league system. They go down the leagues and never come back. They disappear. It was depressing and I didn’t want that to happen to me.
England may be known as the Home of Football, but in an unconventional move for a native of these parts, the young midfield playmaker chose to leave British shores and broaden his footballing education when an opportunity to join Brescia in Italy’s Serie B arose.
His decision to leave the UK has now paid off. Since leaving England in 2012, Benali has gone on to enjoy international football with Libya, the country of his father, and is now the proud owner of a Serie A number 10 shirt, starring with Pescara this season, and scoring on his Serie A debut in a 2-2 draw against last season’s runners-up, Napoli.
We recently caught up with Pescara’s playmaker, who kindly answered a number of questions on his life in Italy so far, and his hopes for what’s sure to be a memorable season.
F10: Hi, Ahmad! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Now that you’ve finally have arrived, how are you finding life in Serie A?
AB: I’m really enjoying my early experience in Serie A. Of course the level is much higher but it’s what I’ve been working towards since I started playing football.
What differences have you already noticed between Serie A and Serie B?
AB: The differences I’ve noticed early on is that you have to take your chances! Maybe in Serie B if you missed a chance you would get another opportunity, where as in Serie A if you miss your chances you will be punished.
How are you finding life at Pescara, and do you feel your game has changed in any way?
AB: I’m really enjoying my time at Pescara. I really believe in the 12 months I’ve been here that I’ve grown a lot on and off the pitch and a lot of the credit has to go to the manager and the team for allowing me to play in a way that suits me well. I feel it’s a perfect match.
What does a typical week in Pescara look like?
AB: A normal week would be five days training with one day being a double session, usually a Sunday match and Monday off. Italy being famous for its tactical work, it would be normal to prepare for the upcoming game as soon as the week of training starts.
What is your favourite position and what do you see as your long-term role?
AB: I feel I can play in numerous positions but of course it depends on how the team plays. At Pescara we play the ball on the floor and never play long hopeless balls, so I’m really enjoying my time playing further forward as I get a lot of the ball. I enjoy touching the ball a lot during games but my position could be as an attacking or a box-to-box midfielder. I have even played a deep-lying role.
How has your professional life and game differed from England to Italy, and what are the main footballing differences between the two countries?
AB: The main differences between the Italian and English game I’d say is that Italians tactically are the best in the world and the opposition manager would know everything about every opposition player, and how to stop them. Tactically, I’ve learned a lot and even how to use my energy better, whereas I think England is so exciting as the game is played almost like a game of basketball where its constant attack and maybe more intense.
Do you find you are able to express yourself more in Italy than in England – particularly in the lower leagues?
AB: I don’t think so. I think it always depends on the team where a player is and the instructions given from the manager.
Do you feel players in your style/position are given a fairer chance abroad than in England?
AB: I would say players with my structure and style of play could be suited to playing abroad where maybe managers give more faith and trust to more technical players. In England, maybe with the opposition being big and aggressive, the manager would want to combat it with the same formula. It’s a more technical game abroad.
In England, some automatically presume that life in the lower divisions of English football is much tougher than on the continent; we believe this isn’t necessarily the case – can you give us your view?
AB: To be honest before I came here to Italy I was of the same view. I think that’s because growing up in England we see how exciting and great the Premier League and Championship is, and we constantly here how it’s the best league in the world. So without even knowing about other countries lower leagues we automatically think they aren’t as good. It definitely isn’t the case. As I found when I came to Serie B, it maybe wasn’t as aggressive and hard-hitting as the Championship, but it was definitely of a higher level tactically and I’d say technically it definitely isn’t inferior.
The number 10 shirt seems to hold more significance for what it symbolises in Italy than in the UK. Can you sense that, and who were your favourite Number 10s whilst growing up – who did you look up to?
AB: 100% true. The number 10 shirt is a weight on anyone’s shoulders in Europe and a very well respected shirt number, whereas in England, maybe it doesn’t hold the same value. For example, when I chose to take the number 10 shirt this summer, people were saying they were excited to see if I could handle the pressure of playing with the number 10 shirt. My favourite Number 10 growing up was Dennis Bergkamp as I think everything he done just oozed class.
I also looked up to Ronaldinho and Zidane. But there wasn’t any player I based my game on as I feel it’s important for every player to be himself and have his own personality.
Although born in England, you play international football for Libya, your father’s country of birth – how was your experience there?
AB: The last time I visited Libya was six years ago with a group of friends. We went around the whole of Libya and I can honestly say it was a fantastic experience. My family originates from Benghazi where my dad was born.
Finally, what are your targets for Pescara, and for your footballing future?
AB: My target is to have a first successful year in Serie A and play as many games as possible to a high level. For Pescara our survival would mean as much to us as the team who wins the league. I hope to play to make my family and Libya proud and show people that it’s possible with hard work and determination.
His slightly unorthodox route to the top should be applauded and held up as an example to, not just young English players chasing their dreams of playing top-flight football, but to English players in general who may benefit from experiencing a different football culture.