The interviews were first published in the now defunct ‘City Magazine’ (later ManC) and conducted by my good self.
We begin with the tale of a man every City fan wished had arrived five years earlier (at least)…
After watching Ali Benarbia make his debut against Birmingham, I couldn’t wait to meet the man who has become an instant crowd favourite. He is a special talent. We met up at Carrington after training…
It wasn’t only Kevin Keegan who was pinching himself after Algerian international Ali Benarbia signed a two-year deal. Around 31,000 City fans were doing much the same thing.
His first game against Birmingham City must rank as one of the best debuts by a City player and it left a lot of people scratching their heads as to how the Club could get so lucky.
On deeper examination, it would be insulting to Kevin Keegan and Arthur Cox to say that Ali simply fell into their laps for they were well aware of his abilities and moved quickly when the chance arose.
Had Sunderland – where he had travelled for a trial - realised just how good Benarbia was, they would surely have snapped him up, but they didn’t and he’s now wearing the No. 44 shirt of Manchester City.
When you consider the French invasion of British football over the past few years, it seems incredible that no club brought Ali, now 32, to England sooner, though he was a wanted man elsewhere.
“I stayed in France because all the major teams in France wanted me to play for them, but now I think it is a good time for me to see another country and for me, I prefer England because all the people love their football,” said Benarbia.
“I had to think, ‘which team can give me a challenge?’ I knew of Manchester City and how they want to win the league and for me it is very important to play with a coach who likes players who play with spirit and more technique. To work with Kevin Keegan is wonderful.”
City now have a growing list of international players and maybe this makes it easier when foreign players arrive than it might have been several years ago.
Ali has been impressed with what he has seen so far. “I’ve seen in training how all the players respect each other and they listen to the coach which is very important.
“They are very professional and when they played the first game with me, they made it easy for me to fit in. It was a dream and wonderful to play in England, especially so at Manchester City because they are such a big club.”
Ali was substituted on his sparkling debut against Birmingham City and received a standing ovation from all four sides of the ground. Was this adulation different from his time at Paris St Germain?
Ali says it was: “It is very different to France and I never imagined the fans would give me a standing ovation like they did. It will help me to have a good season.
“I have to give thanks to all the players for helping me by giving me the ball and allowing me to express myself. It has made things very easy for me. It was a wonderful way to start my City career.”
Ali is familiar with several City stars and he’s getting know some of the ones he didn’t know beforehand quite quickly.
“I already knew of Paulo Wanchope, Shaun Goater, Laurent Charvet, Stuart Pearce and Eyal Berkovic. Now I see the other players like Dickson Etuhu, Danny Tiatto and I think we have a very good chance to win this league.”
With Eyal Berkovic side-lined with a hamstring injury, most City fans were left dreaming of an Ali and Eyal dream team in the middle of the park but Benarbia is keen to emphasise that all the squad have their part to play.
“We have many players who are good and there are many, many games. In one season, you have 46 league matches and we need all the players to win this division.
“Maybe I play with Berkovic, maybe I don’t play every game or maybe I play with Tiatto and other players; it is no problem. The most important thing is to win and for all the players to be happy when we are promoted.”
Kevin Keegan heaped the highest praise on Ali by saying that he could well be one of the best players to wear a City jersey since Colin Bell.
“For me, it is very good to be compared to one of Manchester City’s best ever players,” said Ali. “It is very important to give pleasure to the fans that come to see me, not just to win; they want to talk about the game and see something special or different.
“Fans’ lives may be good or their lives may be bad but when they come to the stadium, they want to be happy. It is important for me to make the fans happier and if I can do that, it will be my contribution to the team.”
Ali was born in Algeria and moved with his family to France when he was just two years old. He has lived there ever since. His career has been spent entirely in France. Recent signing Alioune Toure shares the same agent and this appears to have been a key factor in the move to Maine Road.
Ali asked to go to Sunderland for talks on a possible move but was only staying in England for two days and the alack Cats wanted extra time to look at him. “I came for only two days,” Ali explained.
“Sunderland were playing Blackburn, so the coach didn’t see me. He asked me to stay longer so he could see me play and I said ‘no – you know me and I can’t just stay for you to see me’ so I left and Kevin Keegan, who knew me and how I play, invited me to lunch and then signed me shortly after.”
Sunderland’s loss is very much City’s gain and talents like this don’t come along very often…