Flair Icons #9: Ali Benarbia

Ali Benarbia

by Paz Bassra

Lived "In the hole"

Born: 08/10/1968, Oran, Algeria

Clubs: Martigues, AS Monaco, Bordeaux, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Al
Rayyan, Nadi Qatar and Algeria.

International: Algeria (9 caps, 0 goals)

A flamboyant playmaker with a penchant for wonder goals and wondrous assists,
Benarbia was a cult icon at almost every club he played for. Whether creating from a
second striker position or deeper, Benarbia worked the lines between the oppositions
defence and midfield. He was a canny ‘in-the-hole’ operator, but in an era of French-
based game-changers he was lost. Here’s his story.

Born in Algeria, Benarbia and his parents moved to the south of France when he was 1
years old. Like many immigrants, Benarbia found a love of football in the old Colonial
land. Aged 10 he began his schoolboy football education at ROC Narbonne and 7 years
later moved up the French pyramid to Martigues. By the age of 19 he was a first team
regular. He went on to make 201 appearances for the club, scoring 23 goals, and gaining
promotion to Ligue 1 in 1992/3 as Ligue 2 champions.

In 1995 Benarbia moved to As Monaco where he won the Ligue 1 title in 1996/7.
Martigues met relegation within a year of his departure. 3 years with Monaco saw
Benarbia return 8 goals in 90 appearances; this meagre goal return does not reflect the
quality of his overall play. He made them tick and every successful move was stamped
with a Benarbia through-ball at some point.

With France’s golden generation coming through there was no way that Benarbia could
force his way into the national set-up ahead of Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff,
despite the pressure being put on Aime Jacquet by the French press. Benarbia kept
repelling the advances of Algeria, his country of birth, thus depriving international
football of his talent for a few more years.

However, Benarbia’s talent kept shining through in Ligue 1 and a £1m move to Bordeaux
followed. The solitary season (1998/9) Benarbia spent at Bordeaux yielded his second
Ligue 1 championship medal. His 3 goals in 25 appearances, allied with his numerous
assists, saw Benarbia crowned the 1998/9 Ligue 1 Player of the Year. But French
recognition eluded him. Between their two biggest triumphs at France ’98 and Euro 2000
France were just inundated with creative midfield talent. At the age of 30, and leaving
his prime, Benarbia bit the bullet in the following 3 years and made 9 appearances for
Algeria. He didn’t slide seamlessly into a struggling side. Being the wrong side of 30
meant Benarbia was never going to become the talisman that would change the North
African minnow’s fortunes.

Before the 1998/9 season was out Benarbia had secretly signed for PSG in a deal worth
£2m. His aristocratic skills and working class background were an instant hit with the
crowd. Benarbia’s artistry attracted the football purists, and his Algerian ancestry brought
in the North African Muslim immigrant children of the Clichy-sous-Bois. He was made
captain not long after and struck up a chemistry with Nigerian Augustine ‘so good they
named him twice’ Jay-Jay Okocha. The Real Madrid flop Nicolas Anelka joined soon

after and PSG qualified for the Champions League. They finished last in their group
and this talented front line won nothing in Benarbia’s 2 years with the club. A couple of
injuries saw Benarbia only make 42 goal-less appearances. The bright sparks of play that
the crowds were blessed with when Okocha and Benarbia first met died out.

Benarbia left for pastures new on a free transfer and found a home with Kevin Keegan’s
Manchester City. But not before being rejected by Peter Reid at Sunderland where he was
on trial. His first season saw City earn promotion to the Premier League and Benarbia
was named in the First Division Team of the Season; as well as winning the vote to
become Manchester City Player of the Year for 2001/2. Benarbia was made captain the
following season but, entering his mid-30s, he found the Premier League’s pace a bit
too much. He played his final game for City against Barcelona in a friendly tie to mark
the opening of The City of Manchester Stadium (now Etihad) and then announced his
retirement. He finished with 11 goals in 71 appearances for the Blue side of Manchester
during troublesome times which cemented his legend in the terraces.

In a stunning turnaround, he signed with Al-Rayyan of Qatar 5 days after leaving City.
He saw out the end of his career in Qatar, moving to Nadi Qatar after 2 years. A final
season with Nadi and Benarbia retired without any fanfare or recognition. A lost genius
of his generation, Benarbia ranks alongside Ginola and Cantona as a man who could have
been World Cup and Euro winner but for the selection politics of French football.

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One thought on “Flair Icons #9: Ali Benarbia

  1. […] got injured early at City right at the beginning of the 2001/2, leading to the signing of another Flair Icon Ali Benarbia, but once he was back City romped to promotion; Benarbia and Berkovic providing the bullets for the […]

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