”If I’m the king of football then Ben Barek is its God.” Pelé’s verdict on the Moroccan attacking midfielder is shared by the world’s leading specialists of the game: he was one of the greatest players of the game.?
No one knows exactly when Larbi Ben Barek was born, but some football historians believe he changed his year of birth from 1914 to 1917. He grew up in a poor area of Casablanca and first kicked a ball around on wasteland in his city.
After playing for local club Al Ouatane for two years, he joined L’Ideal Club de Casablanca and was spotted during a Moroccan Cup match during which he scored twice against Raja Casablanca. In the mid-1930s he was signed by the Union Sportive Marocaine, with whom he won the North African Championship in 1937.?
After French newspapers eulogised him, he won a 44,000 franc transfer to Olympique de Marseille in 1938. He soon shot to stardom thanks to his ”Brazilian style”, the elegance of his game and his incredible dribbling ability. From 1938 to 1954 he played 17 times for France, setting a new record for the longevity of a player in the ?national team.
‘Sell the Eiffel Tower, not him’?
During the Second World War, Ben Barek returned to Morocco and rejoined US Marocaine. In 1945 it was back to France for a stint with Stade Français, under the legendary Franco-Argentinian coach Helenio Herrera. He became known as “the Black Pearl” and three years later moved to Atletico Madrid.?
”Sell the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower but don’t sell Ben Barek,” wrote a French journalist at the time. But the deal was done and he took his Spanish team to championship victories in both 1950 and 1951.?
In 1953, Larbi was back in France at Olympique de Marseille, for whom he played in the French Cup Final, which the team lost 2-1 to Nice. His last cap for France was in 1954 – a friendly defeat against Germany. By then he was at least 35 years old and ready to hang up his boots.?
Adored by French, Spanish and Moroccan football fans, he was an early victim of racism in sport and struggled with issues related to his team integration. In 1938, during his first match for France against Italy, he was violently booed by the Napolitan crowd, not known for its cosmopolitan views. His life ended on a sorry note, too. Forgotten by the footballing fraternity, he died in lonely isolation on 16 September 1992. His body was discovered a week later.
This article was first published in The Africa Report’s World Cup 2010 edition in May
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