Player Focus: Mehdi Benatia - The Centre-Back Worth a Small Fortune
Recognition hasn’t come without sacrifice for Mehdi Benatia. Though his talent was discerned from an early age, he has had to work harder than most to get where he is today. Inducted into Clairefontaine [where he’d be asked to leave for not applying himself in school], he was also a part of the academy at Olympique de Marseille. Impressed by the young Moroccan whenever he got the opportunity to train with the first team, Didier Drogba, the talismanic striker behind their run to the UEFA Cup final in 2004, would recommend Benatia to José Mourinho and Chelsea following his move to Stamford Bridge.
“I did a trial for three or four days in London,” he revealed on beIN Sport’s Le Club du Dimanche. “I lived with Drogba and Claude Makélélé. They were a great team but I did not feel ready to go. I was offered a three-year contract, but I was fine at Marseille and the idea of moving abroad scared me.” Benatia was still a teenager. It was a mature decision, putting his development and chances of regular first team football ahead of money. But he wouldn’t get the opportunities he thought he would at Marseille.
He went out on loan to Tours, proved himself in Ligue 2 and, on his return, expected to be given a shot. It never came and Benatia grew frustrated. He fell out with Jose Anigo. The Marseille coach didn’t play him regularly, and yet blocked a move to Saint-Etienne. “He left me disgusted with football,” Benatia admitted.
Finally allowed to leave for Lorient, it wouldn’t work out for him in Brittany either. A knee injury contributed to more time on the sidelines than he would have liked, but their manager kept him there even when fit. “I wasn’t starting,” Benatia recalled in France Football. “I went to see Christian Gourcuff four or five times to say: ‘Coach, you’re killing me. If I don’t play, I have no life’.”
The 20-year-old would make only one appearance in the cup before returning to Ligue 2 with Clermont. “I needed it,” he reflected in La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Our second division is more physical. It’s full of Africans.” Benatia had a couple more seasons as a regular in this school of hard knocks. It toughened him up. Samir Nasri, one of his best friends from his time in Marseille’s youth ranks, vowed to make Arsenal sign him. “He said to me: ‘I’m going to talk to Wenger’. And I replied: ‘You’re crazy’.” A call never came. However, Benatia had by then appeared on one of the most sensitive radars in the world for picking up talent. Udinese signed him for free. In hindsight, the centre-back has to be considered one of their best purchases in recent years along with Alexis Sánchez and Samir Handanovic.
In Udine, by the border with Slovenia, in the cold and the rain, “I managed to make my name,” Benatia told France Football. Arguably the most successful cycle in Udinese’s history - together with the Zico years - coincided with his arrival. They finished fourth, third and fifth, qualifying for the Champions League twice only to miss out on the group stages after losing in the play-offs to Arsenal and Braga.
High profile suitors began making themselves known to Benatia’s entourage. Wanted by Paris Saint-Germain at one stage, the Qatari backed club ending up buying Thiago Silva from Milan instead. Once the Brazil captain left, Benatia soon came to be thought of among the calcio cognoscenti as the best centre-back in Serie A. And that made the initial reaction to buying him baffling among Roma supporters. At €13m, they thought Benatia was expensive. Fans quickly realised that it was cheap.
Roma had let in 56 goals the previous season. That’s what being coached by Zdenek Zeman will do for you. But even so, the difference made by Benatia over the last year was really quite something. He had won his final seven games as an Udinese player. At Roma he claimed victory in his first 10, an all-time Serie A record, and a personal streak of 17. They conceded only once in that run. Roma shipped just 25 over the course of campaign as a whole.
Until their out of character 3-0 defeat to Catania on May 4, which left Roma’s season devoid of any meaning as Juventus could no longer be caught and Napoli couldn’t catch them, they had shipped only 0.5 goals per game, a remarkable average. Their 21 clean sheets represented the benchmark [shared with Lille] among clubs in Europe’s top five leagues. Benatia had dominated. Of players to make at least 50 league appearances, only Lucio [7.56] has averaged more tackles and interceptions than he has [6.55] in the last four seasons in Serie A.
At the end of the last one, his star was in the ascendancy. Already of interest to Europe’s traditional elite, Benatia was even more so now. He knows his worth. When he joined Roma, he did so against his agent’s better judgement. “The contract was low with respect to the other offers [€1.6m a year net],” Benatia admitted to La Gazzetta, “and I wouldn’t be playing in the cups. I signed all the same and have never regretted it. There was a project. I liked the idea of it.”
Yet he insists a promise was made. “Before signing for them, Roma said to me: ‘Bena, we know you deserve more and you have refused a lot of money. Come, show that you’re worth it at Roma and if we get into the Champions League or win the Scudetto we’ll give you a good contract’.” Roma kept their word. “But,” in Benatia’s words, “an unacceptable offer was made. I’ve heard it said I asked for €4m a year. I didn’t even ask for €3m.”
Owner James Pallotta held talks with Benatia during Roma’s pre-season tour of the US and seemed confident of retaining him. Rudi Garcia has insisted he doesn’t want to lose his best players and pointed to the fact that Benatia’s existing deal runs until 2018. The player has also told fans: “I’m staying. Of course I’m staying.”
Reports this week indicate Chelsea have made a bid of €37.5m. Mourinho has responded to the speculation by saying: “We’re not interested.” That has been interpreted as a ‘bluff’ by the Italian papers even though if the Blues were to buy him they would need to sell a couple of their foreign players first in order to comply with the Premier League and Champions League’s homegrown quotas.
Roma are in a strong position too. They’re under no obligation to sell and can argue that if David Luiz cost PSG €49.5m and Porto received €30.5m for their 57.67% stake in Eliaquim Mangala from Manchester City then Benatia - probably the best centre-back in Europe last season - must be worth a small fortune. Roma also have cover. They signed Davide Astori as a stand-in for Benatia rather than as a successor and have monitored the likes of Kostas Manoloas and Eder Alvarez Balanta. As far as they’re concerned, though, their No.17 is not, and has never been, up for sale.
“The sooner we close the market, the more I can work on preparing the team for Serie A and the Champions League,” Garcia said. “That doesn’t just go for me, but all coaches. But what’s important is the good of Roma. I hope that from now until September 2, nothing important happens.” So do all Romanisti.