Ismaël Bennacer has given an extensive interview to SportWeek about various things, from religion to the possibility of having a new coach next season.
Football will very soon return in Italy with the Coppa Italia semi-final between Milan and Juventus taking place on June 13, and Serie A returning a week later.
Calcio is back after more than three stoppage, caused by the Coronavirus. There are 12 rounds to play this season, and the Diavolo are still fighting for a place in next year’s Europa League.
Next season Milan are expected to go through many changes, with the German Ralf Rangnick presumably arriving as coach and director, replacing Stefano Pioli. There are, however, a few certainties. One of these is Ismaël Bennacer. The 22-year-old , who grew up in Arles, south of France, as a son of immigrants, is considered the present and future of the club. The Rossoneri want players of this mold, players whose life taught them to go straight ahead without fears.
The Algerian gave a very long interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport’s weekend magazine, SportWeek:
Has it always been the same for you, or has football shaped your character?
“A little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’m self-made in a certain way, as a kid I liked taking risks, I was a kamikaze. Football helped me gain more and more confidence. But in private I remain a discreet, reserved person.”
On the pitch you are not afraid of anything… and off the pitch?
“Of my dad, when I was little…”
You’ve learned our language well, have you studied it a lot?
“I’ve learned it in the locker rooms, on the street… I took one lesson, just one, when I was at Empoli. I still struggle a bit when I have to use verb tenses in the past or the future.”
I understand being in books is not for you…
“It was. I was very, very smart in school. My father was in his 20s when he came to France from Morocco. He had started working in his country when he was 12 and here he broke his back as a bricklayer. He worked his life in the open air. In the midday sun when it was too hit and in the rain when it was too cold. He’d leave home at 06:00 in the morning and return at 18:00 in the evening. He sat down and didn’t have the strength to speak. He couldn’t read and write so he always considered school the most important thing for us children. He said to us: ‘I work for you, because I don’t want you to have the same life as me’. We are four brothers and sisters. The oldest is an engineer, one sister is studying to be a lawyer. Then there’s me, who stopped studying at 16 at a scientific High School, and another sister, smaller, who still goes to school.”
And what did you father tell you when you decided to study football?
“At Arles, where I started, there was no real training center. We only had two fields on which the first team and the youth teams trained. One day the President called me and said: ‘Isma, you go with the first team. You have to train every day so you have to leave school. You can continue studying on the Internet.’ My mom didn’t want it, but father said: ‘Let us see how it goes’. I wasn’t sure I’d accept it myself, I knew other teams wanted me, teams that offered me more money I could take home. I answered ‘no’ to the professional contract that Arles were offering me and I didn’t care about the President’s words, who’d threatened to make me go back to the second team. By that time I had chosen Arsenal.”
Why didn’t it work there?
“I arrived in England in July. The first two months I stayed in the hotel because I didn’t want to go and live with a family I didn’t know. I was 17-years-old, I was not of age and I couldn’t live solo, so my sister came to stay with me. Then I was joined by Chaines, with whom I had been engaged since high school and who in England became my wife. In September, finally, I saw the field. In the EFL Cup against Sheffield, Chamberlain got injured, Walcott entered in his place and two minutes later he got hurt too, so Wenger threw me in. The problem was that he put me wide on the left in the front three, it’s a role I had never played. I felt crazy pressure on me, I lost a few balls and got less balls. I hadn’t played for Arsenal since then but I have no regrets: I trained with important players like Özil and Santi Cazorla. The fact remains that it was hard to leave my home and France.”
Where is Arles, the city where you were born?
“It’s in south of France, near Marseille. A warm place, in very sense. I grew up in the Trinquetaille district, on the right bank of the Rhône, the river that flows through the city. Different ethnicities, cultures, religions. It’s difficult, there are many young people who don’t think… if I had done it myself, by this time I might have ended up selling drugs. I was 14-years-old when my friends told me: ‘Come Isma, let’s go out for an evening, and look at the women…’ I’ve never been interested in such things. I’d come home to do abs, finish training with Arles and play futsal…”
You have a Moroccan father and Algerian mother…
“I told you about my father, but everything I do today is mostly for mom. Even if I became the strongest in the world, the richest, it would be nothing compared to the love I received from her.”
Is that why you chose to play for the Algerian national team?
“No. It was for football reasons. Compared to Morocco, the sporting project of Algeria has convinced me more.”
Speaking of the sporting project: from Arsenal to Empoli it was a big leap backwards…
“I still had a four-year contract with the British, but I was going where I really wanted to go. I didn’t know Empoli, but I agreed to go down from the Premier League to the Italian Serie B because that was the club that wanted me most of all. I did the same with Milan: I chose it for the history, but even more so because its project was the best one for me.”
You are a practicing Muslim: how important is it in your life?
“For me religion is everything. If tomorrow I didn’t have football anymore, I’d still have God. That’s why I’m not afraid of anything or anyone. And I have no colleagues to idolize. I admire them, but if I run into Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi, I don’t go in procession to play homage to them. Not presumptuously, because on the contrary, my religion asks me to be humble and discreet. And it teaches that Ronaldo and Messi are also men like the others. When I played against Juventus for the first time with Empoli, many of my teammates went to ask Ronaldo for a selfie at the end of the game. Not me.”
You pray five times a day, so it happens also while you’re in Milanello. Do you have a space of your own?
“Yes, Çalhanoğlu and I have a room available. Hakan and I are friends, but we haven’t talked about faith yet so we pray on our own.”
If I’ve ever been confronted by Christian teammates or friends?
“No, but I would like to know something about all religious denominations. The Koran speaks a lot about Christianity.”
During the quarantine imposed by the Coronavirus, there was a video of you practicing, or rather, you were massacring yourself on the terrace with very hard exercises: you were beating the tire of the wheel of a truck with a kind of club, you were boxing… where were you?
“At my house, in Arles. It’s by watching my father that I learned to work hard. If I can’t run anymore, I’ll walk, but I’ll finish the exercise. I think it’s important to practice other sports when you can. I love boxing, it’s good for the heart and coordination of movements. But I also like basketball and ping-pong.”
The time you went face-to-face with someone bigger in the game?
“I’m not someone who goes to fight. Also in practice, if I take a hit, I don’t say anything. I’ll give it back. But no because I get nervous, giving and taking hits is part of the game. Last year, against Lazio, I dueled with Felipe Caicedo, who is physically double my size: he threw me on the ground, I threw him on the ground. 2-3 times. But my first objective is to hunt for the ball and recuperate it.”
Sometimes with excessive heat: with 12 yellow cards in 20 league games, you are the most warned player in the major European leagues…
“Mamma mia… That’s one aspect of my game that needs improvement. I’m, as they say, impetuous. Too aggressive. I’ve take some yellows for nothing.”
But is it possible that in a ‘small’ team like Empoli the referees booked you less? Don’t you have performance anxiety at Milan?
“No, it’s just that I feel the importance of this jersey, at San Siro the fans are pushing and you want to help the team more and more. I want to give everything and when you want to give everything you end up not thinking. Instead, a football player must always think before he does.”
Does the burden of getting booked also depend on playing in front of the defense? In the Algerian national team, for example, you’re a mezz’ala…
“True. In Algeria I play a bit freer, but for me the position doesn’t matter. Moreover: I like playing in front of the defense, it gives me responsibilities that I like to take.”
Besides, the role shouldn’t be a problem for you: you’ve always played as a fullback and a trequartista…
“Fullback when I was really little. From 12 to 17 years, they moved me to a trequartista. I loved it. Then, the Arles coach noticed that I was also good at defensive tasks and brought me back a bit further back to midfield.”
In addition to avoiding bookings, what do you have to become better at?
“I have to be more lucid when I have the ball in the opponent’s half of the field. I have to understand on every occasion what the best choice to make is and be more lucid in the last pass. I need to know what part of the pitch to take when we lose the ball. That’s what the player’s intelligence is all about. Football is played with your head. On its own, talent is not enough. It’s all about the head. You see Pirlo: he wasn’t fast, but his football was all in here [touches his head with one finger]. With time and experience I’ll learn to be more decisive.”
What did Milan miss this year for the leap in quality?
“A win against a big one. We’re a young team, we’re working to grow. We have to be more united on the pitch, also more compact, we must die for each other.”
There is a possibility that next year you’ll start again from scratch with a new coach…
“I don’t think about it. I think about finishing this season well, there are still 12 games left until the end of the league. I feel ready, I miss football so much.”
What have you seen of Milano so far?
“I’m not one to leave the house too much. My ideal vacation is being on an island doing nothing. I’ve enjoyed the quarantine period to finally be with my wife, me and her alone. The home of a successful football is frequented by many people. But I saw Piazza Duomo. And Castello Sforzesco, I live nearby.”
And of us Italians, what do you like?
“The fact that you gesticulate when you speak. It feels like being in a movie. And the football: at Empoli I plunged into Risotto al Parmigiano, I immediately gained three kilos.”
“I haven’t seen so much, it seems that the cities a bit old. The streets, for example, are not like in France. But maybe that’s not a real flaw.”
Isma, would you still treat yourself like when you signed with Milan: with white knee-high socks and a floral suit?
“One could say: look at him, he wants to be a phenomenon. No… I like to dress like that.”