With a proud North African heritage, a quintessentially French footballing education, and a playing style so laid back it can enchant and infuriate in equal measure, it really is no wonder parallels were drawn between Adel Taarabt and Zinedine Zidane when the former burst onto the scene as a young boy in the early 2000s. But with Taarabt now very much a man, and having never truly looked to be half the player his footballing hero once was, reminiscing over old comparisons now only brings a pained chagrin to the face of the reader.
Certainly, at his beguiling best there are few teams in the world that the Moroccan maestro would fail to dribble, dance, dazzle or deceive his way into. So natural is his technique with a ball at his feet, so nonchalant is his gait, that watching him perform on song is enough to discourage even the most optimistic of onlookers for whom such feats of skill shall always remain firmly out of reach.
Sadly, evidence of this footballing phenomenon – the lesser-spotted Taarabt masterclass – remains scant and as such sightings of it in the flesh have become almost mythological in reputation, sitting somewhere in colloquial terms between flying pigs and blue moons.
At 30-years-old, it would fair to assume that Adel Taarabt is now approaching the peak of his physical powers. Nonetheless, after once again plying his trade in Italy, it was still near impossible to predict which Adel Taarabt the Genoese people would receive week-to-week – the misunderstood, unjustly maligned skill-merchant or the immature, malcontent media-hog.
Though born in the busy Moroccan medina of Fez, it was on the streets a quiet seaside commune in southern France named Berre-l’Étang that Taarabt’s foray into the footballing world first began. Cautiously joining in the ball games played by the children in his neighbourhood, simply hoping to make friends in a town and country unimaginably foreign to him and his migrant parents, back then thoughts of becoming a professional footballer couldn’t have been further from his mind.
Unlike so many players, Taarabt’s parents had little influence on their son’s initial route into the beautiful game, beyond making the decision to move to France. “My father never followed football and he wasn’t particularly interested in the local hype I was generating,” Taarabt said in 2010. “He’d go to work and when he’d return, people would knock on our door and tell him how good I was at football. I think the first match my father came to was when I was 11.”
But as Taarabt began to settle in his new surroundings, he too began to feel at home on the pitch, and as his teenage years approached he and his parents started to take football more seriously. Around the age any ordinary youngster would be making the transition between primary school and secondary, Taarabt was busy making the transition from wide-eyed amateur to professional-in-waiting as he joined the famed youth academy of RC Lens and set about progressing through the club’s ranks before ultimately making his debut for the RC Lens B team in 2005.
Taarabt made his first-team debut for Lens just a year later but before making even his second appearance for his club the coveted youngster was already negotiating a move to the Premier League. Initially there had been interest shown in the player by a number of English clubs and Arsenal appeared to be favourites to sign him. However, ex-Arsenal scout Damien Comolli had, just two years before, crossed the north London divide to become Tottenham’s director of football and he was determined to convince the Moroccan to snub his old club in favour of Spurs.
In January 2007 it appeared Comolli’s cajolery had worked a charm as Spurs got their man. In confirming the signing Comolli boasted that his team had acquired “one of the best talents in Europe for his age” and stated that that the move would see “a continuation of [the club’s] policy of attracting the best young talent.”
Six months later, in June, following a run of impressive reserve team contributions and two brief first-team appearances, Spurs made Taarabt’s move to the English capital a permanent one in a deal worth around £3 million to his old club Lens. However, the 2008/09 season could hardly have begun in worse fashion for Taarabt. Far from being invited to earn a starting place in the Tottenham squad, over pre-season the Moroccan found himself dismissed altogether by then-Spurs manager Juande Ramos.
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Seemingly intent on shaking some life into the underachieving squad he had inherited from Martin Jol, Ramos’ measures were severe. Taarabt, along with the likes of Ricardo Rocha, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Paul Stalteri, Ben Alnwick and Hossam Ghaly, were all informed that they would not be featuring in the manager’s first team plans. Furthermore, they were to train with the club’s youth and reserve players until new clubs were found for them.
In March 2009 a new club was found for Taarabt, and with no option but to showcase his abilities away from White Hart Lane, he made the switch across London to Queen’s Park Rangers.
Enthused and inspired by the manner in which he had been cast aside by Tottenham boss Juande Ramos, Taarabt made a noteworthy start to life at QPR. Helped significantly by his scoring of an invaluable winner at home to Bristol City, just nine minutes from time, fans in west London wasted no time in declaring their latest infatuation in song form.
Frustratingly, in April of the same year, just a month after joining QPR, Taarabt’s rapid progress was handed a painful blow as an injury in training left the midfielder with torn knee cartilage that would require surgery, meaning his loan spell was immediately terminated. In July, though, fully recuperated, Taarabt was able to rejoin QPR, again on loan, until the season’s end.
During this time Taarabt handcrafted an emphatic response to those questioning whether or not he had the ability to prove Juande Ramos wrong, the key argument of which was given as evidence on 1 October.
Eleven minutes into his team’s home game against Preston North End, standing a few yards inside of his own half, Taarabt received a searching upfield pass from his goalkeeper, the ball finding its way to his feet via his chest. Shrugging off a challenge from Richard Chaplow, Taarabt sauntered into the opposition half, avoiding a second attempted tackle and nutmegging the retreating Veliche Shumulikoski in the process. With no Preston player willing to close down the advancing Moroccan, Taarabt continued forward until around 25 yards from goal when a wicked right-footed effort became the midfielder’s choice weapon with which he aimed to dismantle the enemy defence. To the surprise of few, the ball made itself at home in the top corner of the Preston goal.
After the game QPR, boss Jim Magilton called Taarabt “a genius”, meanwhile his strike was later named the Championship’s goal of the month. With more than his fair share of eye-catching performances to follow, Taarabt meandered his way into the league’s eventual team of the season. Unfortunately it was around this time that Taarabt first began succumbing to the allure of his own hype.
While still very much a player on English soil, albeit now away from the White Hart Lane turf, in an interview with the Evening Standard the player made no efforts to hide his frustration. “England is not for me, I think LaLiga is the best league for me. [I don’t like] how they play in England, I like to play football.” Taarabt was quoted as saying. “I look at teams like Bolton, Stoke or Wolves and say: ‘there is just no point for me’. I hate that style of football. I hope to be playing for one of the top four in Spain next season. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Sevilla. I have contact with good teams and I know that they want me.”
Despite the unwavering assertion with which Taarabt spoke about securing a move to Spain, no bids arrived and no move abroad materialised. Instead, on 5 August 2010, under new QPR boss Neil Warnock, his deal with the Hoops was made permanent for a fee of around £1m and the player gave his signature to a three-year contract.
This much-needed departure from the inherent vacillation of loan moves proved catalytic for Taarabt as the faith shown in him by QPR was rewarded in the form of his finest season to date. With 19 goals in 44 games, all from midfield, the Moroccan strode purposefully towards deserved stardom, picking up the coveted Championship Player of the Year award, all the while captaining his team and assisting them in making similar strides towards the Premier League as they picked up the second tier title.
Once again, though, just as the often choppy waters of his career seemed to be settling to a steady flow, Taarabt seemingly couldn’t help but row furiously upstream.
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Before a ball had even been kicked following his return to the Premier League, with QPR, Taarabt announced that he was in talks with newly financially-emancipated French giants Paris Saint-Germain, telling BBC Sport: “We’re talking with Paris Saint-Germain. We’re very close, but if no deal is reached then I will play for QPR in the Premier League.”
But, a sense of déjà vu undeniable, no deal was ever reached between the two parties and Taarabt remained a QPR player. He soon spoke openly of an unwillingness to let such speculation or questions over his future whereabouts threaten his rise to form but, when coupled with his club’s acquisition of the ever-divisive Joey Barton, such events began to plot the demise of Taarabt’s time in the English capital.
The two of them sharing an unconcealable ferocity, Barton’s presence seemed to make it progressively harder for Taarabt to quell his fiery temper and, seemingly unable to use his frustrations as fuel for his form, the negative consequences soon began bubbling their way up to the surface with alarming regularity.
Neil Warnock was perhaps to blame for initiating a rift between the two team-mates when he began the season by stripping Taarabt of the QPR captaincy without due cause – simply favouring the brand of leadership provided by the grit and tenacity of Barton over the skill and fluency of the Moroccan – but Barton himself wasted no time in stoking the flames, choosing to publicly defame his teammate live on national radio, reprimanding him for his poor on-field form and behaviour.
Following a toothless display during his team’s 6-0 defeat away to local rivals Fulham in October 2011, Taarabt found himself substituted at half-time. To this snubbing, Taarabt responded by leaving the stadium altogether, allegedly involved in a fierce dressing room confrontation with manager Warnock, before leaving to catch a bus home.
In the weeks after, Barton appeared on Absolute Radio Extra and pulled no punches in his exposition of Taarabt. “At the end of the day this is the top level of world football, and if you’re not prepared to work hard you’ll come up massively short. If I was Adel and I had Adel’s ability I’d not be wanting to come up short having not worked hard enough. He was told he was a genius; I’ve yet to see it.”
Over the following months, Taarabt was resigned to the bench for long periods of the season and only found himself reinstated in the team when injuries culled many of the midfielders available to Warnock. However, in true Taarabt style, and perfectly fitting of a career punctuated by such contrasts, Taarabt was commended for standout performances in three key fixtures; the first a loss to Manchester United before two widely praised victories, against Arsenal and Tottenham no less, in both of which he was able to score vital goals.
Come the end of the season Taarabt’s contributions, though few and far between, proved essential as QPR avoided relegation from the Premier League by just a solitary point. His performances against the country’s top teams were enough to earn Taarabt a contract extension the following July, penned alongside QPR’s latest manager Harry Redknapp, and Taarabt carried his form into the following season.
On the first day of October 2012, Taarabt notched his first goal of the Premier League season, another stunning long-range effort, again fired into the top corner having skipped past two players, which he celebrated by lifting his jersey to reveal the words ‘I love Allah’. However, not even divine intervention could prevent his QPR team from losing.
Five days later Taarabt scored again, a stunning volley against West Brom, but again his side lost. Then on 15 December Taarabt was at his most mesmeric, putting on his most influential display to date, scoring a brace and dragging his team to their first win of the season. Though the first of his goals came courtesy of a fortunate deflection, the second was the final compelling component of a long, mazy run that featured a suave rolling of the ball into a yard of space, with the sole of his boot, before being prodded audaciously with the outside of his right, sliding it coolly into the gaping corner of the goal.
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Not one for dispensing praise cautiously, in the post-game interview Redknapp rolled out the red carpet for his star man: “He’s got ability like not many people you’ve ever seen in your life. He’s like Di Canio. This boy is the same. It was one of the all-time great performances, I felt.”
Three weeks later, away at Chelsea, Taarabt collected yet another Man of the Match award for a performance that included a sublime assist for the game’s only goal, the deftest of touches laying the ball off to Shaun Wright-Phillips, aiding in claiming just his side’s second win of the season.
Clearly focused once again, purring around centre-pitch on a near weekly basis, Taarabt could seemingly do no wrong. Sadly his team performed with nothing like the same effectiveness and they returned to the Championship after an absence of just two seasons, finishing rock bottom of the Premier League.
Adel Taarabt, though, had no intentions of helping his team reclaim their Premier League status and immediately sought to find a route back to the top division without his team-mates. He found such a route in the form of a loan move to Fulham, which also presented the opportunity to link up once again with former manager Martin Jol, the Dutchman having been at the Spurs helm when Taarabt first joined the English club.
However, Taarabt was only used sparingly at Fulham, potentially victim of another club perturbed by a constant coming and going of managers, and his loan spell lasted just five months before being cut short in order to sign off on another temporary venture. Only this time the destination was Italy.
On the last day of the January 2014 transfer market, it was announced that AC Milan manager Clarence Seedorf had secured the loan signing of Taarabt, who would join the Rossoneri until the end of the season. Characteristically, Taarabt was very vocal about his move abroad: “I have played for some good clubs, but never for a club of Milan’s level. Milan is a very organised and professional team, and I can’t wait to show my qualities on the pitch.” Taarabt effused, “I’m very happy to be here and it’s an honour to play for the strongest team in Italy. I’ll give 100 percent and I hope we’ll have some fun together.”
And Taarabt certainly did have fun in Milan; his four goals in 16 appearances constituted a far better return for their temporary investment than Fulham made on the same player. But in a squad armed with a number of similarly divisive luxury players, such as Robinho and Mario Balotelli, there was always to be a clear glass ceiling looming over Milan’s ambitions for the season and in the end the club could only finish eighth in Serie A.
Upon returning to England Taarabt also made a telling return to the tabloids but, as was often the Moroccan’s case when on English soil, the stories sold were focused not on his playing football but on his complete lack of it, and the captivating assertions made as to why.
“I can’t protect people who don’t want to run and train, and are about three stone overweight.” These were the words used by Redknapp when asked why Taarabt was still yet to find his way back into the QPR first team despite having returned to the club some three months before. “Taarabt is not injured. He’s not fit. He’s not fit to play football unfortunately.” Redknapp continued, “He played in a reserve game the other day and I could have run about more than he did. I can’t pick him. What am I supposed to keep saying? Keep getting your £60,000, £70,000 a week and don’t train? What’s the game coming to? I pick people who want to try, who deserve to be at a good football club like QPR, who come in every day and want to work, train and show a good attitude. When he starts doing that, if he ever can do it, maybe he’ll get a game.”
To no surprise, Taarabt was armed with many a vehement retort which he aired in a number of interviews with newspapers. The Moroccan began his response calmly: “I think at the moment, because we are losing games he is getting upset and making excuses. He is an experienced manager and should have been able to control the situation. I am a professional – this is not about retaliation, this is about protecting my reputation.”
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Soon, though, Taarabt began throwing in return some accusations of his own. “He spends most of the time in his office but when he gets off the phone he comes down to watch for five or ten minutes – he never takes a session,” he claimed. “It is the same as we used to do at Tottenham years ago. When we played West Ham he told the players ‘you’re not fit, you’re not this, you’re not that’. I said ‘but the problem is we don’t have any plan in the game, we don’t know how to press as a team. It’s not about just running around, you need to play with your brain’.”
As well as questioning Redknapp’s motives – “you can’t break the relationship with me and the fans. He wants to get the fans against me” – Taarabt even took to publishing pictures of himself with his shirt lifted, to prove to the public that he was far from overweight. Much to the pair’s delight, just as night follows day, what followed this unsavoury public exchange in June 2015 was, of course, the mutual termination of Taarabt’s contract with QPR.
The player wasn’t made to live the life of a free agent for long, though; in fact, he remained club-less for mere hours, as on the same day as his QPR exit, it was announced by exalted Portuguese club Benfica they had together reached an agreement on a five-year contract.
Another prestigious move awaited the Moroccan, meanwhile his new club sat poised in anticipation, eager to see if they could coax from the mercurial midfielder something each of his previous clubs failed to.
Sadly for them, they could not. Despite all the good intentions surrounding the move, a familiar story was soon told by Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira. Following barely a handful of uninspiring appearances for the Benfica reserves, over the space of just four months in Lisbon, Vieira admitted: “Taarabt is my and Rui Costa’s fault. I don’t understand anything about football, but I have a man by my side who understands a lot, which is Rui Costa. We watched and re-watched his games. But there are things lacking. He arrived with six extra pounds. He certainly won’t wear the Benfica shirt again. But we’ll have enough skill to loan him.”
By the new year, without a single first team appearance to his name, Taarabt’s time in Portugal had already been called to a halt. Rather tragically on the few occasions Taarabt made his way into the headlines while in Portugal, the subject matter was severely limited to his penchant for sampling the Portuguese nightlife and one particularly dreadful corner kick taken for the Benfica B team.
As of this season, despite a summer of substantial rumours claiming a potential move to Germany to join a Munich team of the 1860 variety, Taarabt could be found plying his trade back in Italy, now on the books of Genoa, courtesy of another loan.
Still just 30, it is hard to imagine Taarabt’s career being finished quite yet. Hardly one to rely on pace – and, as such, hardly one whose powers may be relinquished should he lose it with age – there may yet be another decade left in the tank. Just where exactly Taarabt chooses to see out his final years and, more poignantly, whether his future clubs are treated to the Jekyll or the Hyde side of the Moroccan, will of course remain to be seen.
Throughout his increasingly nomadic career, fans in France, England, Italy and Portugal have all welcomed Taarabt onto their shores, ready and willing to be seduced by his skills. Unfortunately most have found themselves succumbing not to the passive, partisan infatuation they long for but instead only to agonising and abject frustration.
There is no doubting that Taarabt’s cause was in no part helped by finding himself aboard a number of managerial merry-go-rounds during his time in England, but should his finest displays have been replicated on a more regular basis and, more importantly, have been followed by a dose of humility, there is no doubt such feats could well have beckoned forth a legion of faithful followers, hearts set on declaring willful submission at the temple of Taarabt, regardless of the men picking the teams.
Taarabt, though, has long been his own worst enemy, the greatest believer of his own hype, and without significant adjustments to his lack of application, his seemingly inexorable temper and, perhaps the worst of all his traits, his torrid habit of unabashedly aiming his sights far higher than his fleeting on-field offerings would ever realistically allow, the watching world may only ever come to know the real Adel Taarabt as the player whose career remained forever punctuated by questions asking what if?
By Will Sharp @shillwarp