After twelve immersive years in Manchester City’s youth system, the summer of 2012 represented a major career crossroads for Ahmad Benali. He had been dealt the crushing news that a new contract offer would not be forthcoming. In common with scores of aspiring young footballers up and down the country, his dreams of professionalism hung precariously by a thread.
The days and weeks passed by as he waited anxiously for news of interest from other clubs. The calendar crept into June without firm interest – until he received the most unexpected of calls.
Combing through footage of an England under-17s match from several years earlier, a scout from Serie B Brescia spotted an industrious player in the heart of the Three Lions’ midfield. It turned out that player was Benali and, before he knew it, he was on a flight to Lombardy for a trial.
Things escalated quickly from there, with Brescia’s hierarchy sufficiently impressed to offer him a permanent contract. Though Benali confesses he harboured some reservations. “It was a huge step. I’d never really thought about playing abroad and it was a three-year contract on the table”. He took that step regardless, comforting himself with the idea that if things didn’t work out, he could return home.
The rest, as they say, is history. After nine years and nearly 250 appearances in Italy, the Crotone captain took some time with Tom Griffiths to reflect on his experiences of the peninsula.
Aged 20, Ahmad Benali was suddenly thrust into a new way of life in Northern Italy. “That first year was difficult at Brescia,” he recalls, “I didn’t speak the language and there wasn’t much of an opportunity to play”. Benali was limited to a handful of appearances from the bench as Brescia squeezed into the playoffs on the final day of the season.
At his end-of-season meeting with club officials, Benali was informed he would be allowed to leave on a free transfer if he could find another club. It seemed as though the great adventure was drawing to a premature close. That was before a sliding doors moment fundamentally changed the course of Benali’s career.
Marco Giampaolo had been appointed as Brescia’s new coach and indicated that he wanted to observe all of the players in pre-season before allowing anyone to leave. And he must have liked what he saw in Benali, not only blocking his departure but also asking him to anchor the midfield on the opening day of the season.
As it transpired Benali survived Giampaolo by some margin, the latter deposed following a disappointing start to the new season. In a turbulent campaign for Le Rondinelle which saw them work their way through five different coaches, Benali was a beacon of consistency, making 36 appearances and in doing so confirming his own arrival in the ranks of senior football.Embed from Getty Images
Benali (left) keeps tabs on Franck Ribery pre-season 2013
Adapting to a new way of playing…
Although nearly a decade ago, those early experiences in Italy remain vivid for Manchester-born Benali. He was immediately struck by a difference in approach. In the UK, he had become accustomed to a mindset centred around winning personal battles, striving to be quicker or stronger than his opposite number. In Italy, the focus of the training was much more tactical and collective in nature. “It was like a classroom; the managers were the teachers and the winner was the one who out-thought his opponent.”
Benali quickly grew to appreciate the value of this nuanced approach, to the point where these chess-like strategies became second-nature. “I’d never thought about it in that way before; anticipating what happens next if I play this pass or that pass, the options I need to give to a teammate in possession, the positions I need to take up to force the other team’s move,” he explains. “Sometimes you end up playing two, three or even four different games within a single match. Adapting your tactics and shape and responding to changes from the opposition.”
Naturally, there were a few teething problems at the outset. During the Serie B play-offs with Brescia in 2013, with the second leg finely balanced, his coach began throwing on a raft of attacking players. Benali was perplexed by the gung-ho approach with extra time and penalties still to come. It was only when he discretely enquired with a member of the coaching staff that he was informed there was no extra time and Brescia were about to be eliminated as the lower-ranked team.
Staying the course…
Fast forward to the present day, now into his tenth season in Italy, Benali has outlasted almost every player to make the move from Britain to Italy. In fact, the only British-born players to exceed his mark of nearly 250 league appearances are World Cup-winner Simone Perrotta and Lazio’s scudetto-winner Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Wilson, both of Italian extraction. So, what is the secret of Benali’s longevity in the bel paese?
“Even though the opportunity to play in Italy came as a surprise, from day one, I had the will and desire to succeed here,” he insists. “I didn’t want to be the foreigner who sits quietly on the other side of the changing room”.
Mastering the language has been key to his integration and, by the time Benali won a move to Palermo in 2015, he was able to conduct his press conference in fluent Italian. “I’ve been willing to make mistakes, even if that means embarrassing myself sometimes,” he laughs. “But I think that is recognised and ultimately wins the respect of your team-mates, coaches and Directors”.
Benali also believes his combative and energetic style of play has helped him in this respect. “I leave it all out on the pitch and as a result, I’ve never had any problems with a coach or the fans. Your reputation spreads; players talk to each other, to coaches, to Directors, so how you conduct yourself on and off the pitch matters a lot.”Embed from Getty Images
Presented as a Palermo player, summer 2015
Benali has had the benefit of working under a wealth of different coaches. “They all have their own approach and I’ve learnt different things from each of them. I try to absorb as much as I can”. He spoke with a hint of awe about playing under Massimo Oddo, someone who reached the very pinnacle of the game as a player and Giovanni Stroppa who had been part of the magnificent Milan side of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
There was a special mention too for Zdenek Zeman, under whom Benali played for a year at Pescara. His harsh training methods are legend and Benali picks up the tale of the first day of pre-season training in 2017. “He had us doing sprints in the morning and then 10x 1km reps in the afternoon. The next morning we were doing 10x 1km again. So we’d run a half marathon in 24 hours and still hadn’t touched a ball!”
“Zeman is an icon,” Benali declares. “Other players still come and ask me what it was like to play for him; they ask if the stories are true!”. Now aged 74 and recently appointed head coach of Foggia, Zeman continues to defy expectations. “We had to go for daily weigh-ins in his office; it was like going into a chimney. It didn’t matter what time of day it was he’d always have a cigarette and an espresso on the go,” he recalls with a smile.Embed from Getty Images
In Coppa Italia action for Pescara, August 2016
Benali has accomplished a huge amount during his time in Italy. He has graduated from the junior ranks, going on to captain Libya (Editor: Benali has a Libyan father and British mother). He has twice won promotion from Serie B, played and scored in Serie A and has most recently been appointed captain of Crotone.
“All of those things are special, but making my debut in Serie A for Pescara in 2016 was a major personal highlight,” Benali explains. “It was the result of many years of hard work, finally playing at the highest level made all the sacrifices worth it”. Just 9 minutes into that game against Napoli things got better still, Benali evading the attention of Kalidou Koulibaly to open the scoring in a game that finished 2-2. “Sarri’s Napoli side were so good. You could prepare, but you couldn’t stop them!”Embed from Getty Images
Benali steering the ball past Pepe Reina on his Serie A debut, August 2016
The beautiful South and ugly encounters…
After stops in Brescia, Palermo (briefly) and Pescara, Benali has now found a home on the Calabrian coast. “The people are very friendly in Crotone. It’s a small place, so most of them are at the stadium on a Sunday! Football means so much to them; whenever you overhear a conversation in the café or at the bank it’s about football.”
Benali enjoys the peaceful and welcoming nature of his home town. “I live close to the beach, it’s perfect for unwinding and relaxing. I’m well looked after here, people will invite me in for breakfast – particularly if the team is doing well!”
However, he recalls a time when at Pescara when relations were not so cordial. “The team went for a Christmas meal, but unfortunately we’d lost the match beforehand. The fans turned up at the restaurant and started smashing up the players’ cars. We had it too that they stormed the changing rooms and started threatening players.” However, Benali is philosophical and sees this as part and parcel of the job he does “You’ve got to take the high with the lows.”
Looking to the future…
Despite the disappointment of relegation last term, Crotone’s hopes remain high for a rapid return to the top flight. The squad has been adapted for this new challenge, most notably with the departure of Simy, their top-scorer from the past three campaigns. In his place comes a raft of new signings including Romanian international defender Ionut Nedelcearu (from AEK Athens) and exciting Bologna prospect Musa Juwara.
“Serie B is so difficult to predict. People will look to Monza and Parma as our rivals for promotion as they’ve got strong financial backing“. But Crotone’s captain has the wisdom of having been there and done that before. “It’s consistency that wins the league. Unlike Serie A, anyone can beat anyone so the team that avoids losing points against those at the bottom will go up”.
A huge thanks to Ahmad for taking the time to speak on his afternoon off – and in bocca al lupo to him and Crotone for the 21/22 season.Embed from Getty Images