Mehdi Benatia is unlikely to ever forget March 5, 2006. It was supposed to be the best day of his life, but turned out to be the worst. Olympique Marseille president Pape Diouf, infuriated with Paris Saint-Germain's refusal to allocate more seats for his fans ahead of the big game at Parc de Princes and worried about safety issues, decided to protest in a somewhat unusual way. He asked l'OM supporters to boycott the fixture, while the club sent the reserve team to play the Parisians. Most of the youngsters got their chance to shine on the big stage, eventually getting a creditable goalless draw.
Benatia, though, was stunned to be left behind by sporting director Jose Anigo.
This was definitely not the treatment Benatia expected to get from his beloved club. It was a dream come true for him when he joined the side as a 16-year-old in 2003, and signed his first professional contract two years later. The centre-back had a successful trial at Chelsea with Jose Mourinho, tested by Didier Drogba among others, but decided to stay at Marseille in order to improve his chances of playing regular football. That wasn't to be, though. Indeed, Anigo is quoted by L'Equipe as saying: "It is true that we didn't really believe in the project with him."
When St Etienne coach Elie Baup, who later worked at the Stade Velodrome, wanted to get Benatia on loan in 2006, Anigo refused and said the defender would be loaned out only to a second division club. Thus he eventually went to Tours, who finished rock bottom to be relegated from Ligue 2 in 2007. During the next season, a loan to top-division Lorient was arranged, but coach Christian Gourcuff was never fond of rotating his lineup, and Benatia ended up begging him to get a chance, to no avail. Events took a terrible turn when Benatia tore his knee ligaments in January 2008. Nobody at Marseille even tried to get in touch with him, and that's when Benatia understood that his dream was gone and he would never be able to don the white shirt again.
Benatia was born in April 1987, in Courcouronnes, a small town just south of Paris. That year has a significant meaning for every French football lover. Generation '87 was supposed to be the most talented crop of youngsters France has produced in recent times, and they made a name for themselves by winning the 2004 European Under-17 Championship, as a Spain side that included Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas were beaten in the final.
Although Benatia didn't make coach Philippe Bergeroo's selection for that tournament, he did get to know the squad members very well. Hatem Ben Arfa studied at the famous Clairefontaine academy alongside Benatia. Samir Nasri was Benatia's roommate in the youth team at Marseille -- they are still best friends. Karim Benzema and Jeremy Menez enjoyed Benatia's company, as well. He hoped he could grow through the international ranks to senior level with them, if everything were to go according to plan.
Nasri, Benzema and Ben Arfa made their senior international debuts under Raymond Domenech in 2007, with the former two included later in the squad for Euro 2008. At the time they travelled to Switzerland, Benatia was discarded by Marseille, still not fully fit, eager to start his career from scratch. He had already lost any hope of playing for France, participating instead in a few friendlies for the Morocco under-21 team, though he couldn't take part in official matches because he still didn't have citizenship. Of North African origins, just like Nasri, Benzema and Ben Arfa, not to mention Zinedine Zidane, Benatia chose -- contrary to them -- to represent the country where his father was born (his mother is Algerian, so that route was also available).
The reason for such a decision is clear. Benatia has always believed that he should play as much as possible. That's why he rejected Chelsea, and that's why he went to small Ligue 2 club Clermont in the summer of 2008. Didier Olle-Nicolle, the Clermont coach during that period, told ESPN FC this week: "I wanted to sign Benatia in January, when he was playing for the reserve team at Lorient, because the coach didn't trust him. Unfortunately, he tore his ligaments and the move had to be postponed, but I proposed him to join nevertheless. Confidence was soon established between us, and I always told him that he would become a first-division player if he stays focused. He was also convinced in his abilities."
Clermont assistant coach Jean-Noel Cabezas said Benatia's talent was clear for all to see, explaining to ESPN FC: "He read the game very well, anticipated the moves and avoided unnecessary tackles. He was first to every ball". Another assistant, Emmanuel Gas, recalled: "Mehdi was a true professional. He worked like a madman with the medical staff to find his best form."
Jacques Salze, who played alongside Benatia in Clermont defence and is still at the club, also noticed that Benatia can be a top player. "We felt that he has great potential," Salze said. "He was good at stopping attackers; his placement and vision impressed me very much. I am surprised that no Ligue 1 side came to sign him when he played for us."
That is a good point, as Benatia himself claimed with some frustration a couple of years ago: "Unfortunately, if you are a Ligue 2 player who doesn't score 20 goals a season like Guillaume Hoarau or Olivier Giroud, nobody notices you."
Not surprisingly, Udinese did pay attention. The Friulians are famous for their scouting team, and they got their man at almost no cost in the summer of 2010. The rest is history. Benatia became one of the best defenders in Serie A, and his name was linked to almost every top club in England and Italy before he was eventually sold to Roma for 13.5 million euros. With him on board, the Giallorossi have the best defensive record in the league, with just 11 goals conceded in 21 matches. Even more amazingly, Benatia pops up to score important goals, and is currently Roma's joint-top scorer in Serie A this season.
Importantly, his attitude hasn't changed. Benatia is still a humble professional who gives his all in the training sessions, and he also keeps in touch with his former teammates at Clermont. "He doesn't forget where he came from," said Cedric Bockhorni, while Eugene Ekobo was delighted to get a Udinese shirt as a present from his friend.
Olle-Nicolle admitted he is still waiting to get a Roma jersey from his former protege. "I am very proud and happy to see Mehdi's progress" he said, "I confess that I am amazed; it exceeded all my expectations." When asked about the choice of the national team, Olle-Nicolle recalls: "We discussed this issue when he played at Clermont and he was called up by Morocco for the first time. He wanted to play international football, and it is much easier to play for Morocco than France. Witnessing how Benatia's career went on, we certainly can have some regrets. He could do better than some who played for France in recent years."
Olivier Chavanon, Clermont's sporting director, said: "Morocco really wanted Mehdi and so he returned to his origins. Today, he would certainly bring personality and added value to France national team. He is superior to players like Laurent Koscielny, Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes."
To put it simply, France missed out on the most professional, dedicated and consistent player of Generation '87, largely because he was mistreated at Marseille. Benzema, Nasri, Menez and Ben Arfa are still waiting to make a significant contribution to Le Bleus. Benatia would definitely be a very welcome addition to their squad at the upcoming World Cup. He will have to watch it on TV, however, as Morocco failed in the qualifiers.
Important lessons can be learned. More than anything, Benatia's story proves that quality players can be found in the lower divisions. Some brilliant talents are waiting to be spotted in Ligue 2, Serie B and the Segunda Division. Some of them are defenders and midfielders who have absolutely no chance of making huge headlines in the press. They are enthusiastic, ambitious and unspoiled. Clever scouting will help them break through and fulfill their potential. Clubs should be chasing the likes of Clermont to find their own Benatia.