Ali Benarbia: Manchester City’s true darling

Ben Mountain

An Algerian born, French raised, vertically challenged play-maker called Ali is bound to become a quick fan favourite in this sport. Not for any particular reason, that is. Regardless, Ali Benarbia ticks all the boxes for this description and, lo and behold, is remembered fondly by Manchester City fans almost 15 years on.

Those of you who still remember City before their nose-bleed-inducing rise to the top will remember the name. It’s hardly forgettable, let’s be honest.

Ali Benarbia wasn’t in England for long but has left a lasting impression. Hell, when even Joey Barton describes you as a “super bloke”, you know you’re getting something right.

Having grown up in the south of France among the youth system of ROC Narbonne, it was Benerbia’s father who nudged this tricky youngster into the world of professional football. The Algerian was noticed by FC Martigues at the age of 17 when football had become not only a career path, but a passion as well.

Benarbia’s promotion to first team football was later followed by club promotion into Ligue 1 and it was here that he gained most attention. A big move to AS Monaco came at the perfect time for the primed midfielder.

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During this time he earned the coveted Player of the Year in France and was sent several offers to represent Algeria internationally. He politely decline each, awaiting a prized French call-up instead. Ali had felt there were deep-rooted troubles in Algeria’s national team. These led to him declining their offers for over 15 years.

At the time, his country had been experiencing a political crisis and this was reflected in the national team. A lack of professionalism and no assurance from the Federation as to the safety of professional footballer’s lives were serious issues. It was not until 2001 that he finally opted to don the Algerian jersey.

But in the 1990s, despite the lack of international game time, Ali was flying high. He enjoyed spells in the Champions League and famously helped to knock Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team from the European competition. He managed to rake up 90 appearances in less than three years for Les Monégasques. Impressive stuff.

A season at Bordeaux called and Benarbia’s performances were so strong in helping them win the Ligue 1 title that the biggest move of his life then dawned. It came in the form of a £2m offer from the fellow French giants, Paris St-Germain.

Sadly, little came of Ali’s time in the French capital. 42 games is nothing to be sniffed at, but here he failed to net a single goal and tumultuous relations led to a breakdown in his standing at the club. Despite this, he was still playing among the likes of Jay-Jay Okacha and Nicolas Anelka competitively.

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Ali was far from finished.

And so a certain Mr K. Keegan came calling. Having been impressed by Benarbia in a game against Keegan’s then-club Newcastle, the former England icon was keen to earn his signature.

And with Manchester City aiming for promotion into the Prem, and Benarbia’s time in France heading to a swift conclusion, the move to England was perfect. A free transfer was the meagre cost for someone who, within a season, would become a cult hero for Citizens across the country.

And so began Benarbia’s two season spell that plunged him deep into football folklore.

Tricky, visionary and agile performances captivated the hearts and minds of City fans instantly. With the Citizens sailing into promotion, Benarbia was dubbed Player of the Year and earned a place in the league’s Team of the Season.

From here, the Algerian was rewarded with the captain’s armband.

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And this, sadly, is where our fairy tale ends. When City were promoted into the Premier League, Benarbia struggled to adapt.

The pace of the game flew by him and with competition from the likes of Joey Barton, who was waiting to take his place, Ali bowed out from the game of football before things became messy.

Though, in actual fact he wasn’t quite finished.

Oh, no. Despite having announced a complete retirement from the beautiful game, Ali ‘The Liar’ Benarbia moved to Qatar where he would spend three seasons playing for Al-Rayyan and Nadi Qatar respectively.

Benarbia still impressed, however, and netted a respectable eight goals from 19 matches for Al-Rayyan. There was some life in the old dog yet.

Though just not quite enough.

Ali announced his proper retirement (no lying, this time) in 2006 and now works as a presenter for Al-Jazeera Sports.

And so, from the streets of France under his father’s persuasion, Ali Benarbia found his way into the history books of Manchester City.

And he’s done it before, he might do it again. Keep your fingers crossed for another early break from retirement and the third-coming of Ali.

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