The Mancunian Libya international who swapped Manchester City for Serie A
The CV suggests an Italian, the international career says Libyan, but Ahmad Benali’s accent proves he’s Mancunian through and through.
As a youngster, Benali dreamed of becoming a regular at Manchester City. The midfielder spent years at the club’s Platt Lane academy, hoping he could follow in the footsteps of those who made it into the club’s first team.
Like many local teenagers, Moss Side-born Benali’s hopes of achieving his childhood ambition were quickly dashed by the billionaire investment in east Manchester.
“Coming through the Manchester City academy was a good learning curve, because when I was there they were trying to bring through young players like Micah Richards and Daniel Sturridge,” he says. “So the system was built was for academy players to go through to the first team.
“Then slowly, slowly it started to become more difficult with the money that was brought in. For instant success players were being brought in from abroad and maybe less attention was being paid to the academy.
“As I was there, the timing was very strange The first few years, it was a family club and there was a route from the academy to first team.
“At young age, from 15 or 16, we’d already organised a plan to get through to the first team, but when the money came they wanted instant success and ended up buying players.
“That’s when you had to start looking away from the club.”
The realisation there was no pathway to join City’s elite forced Benali to look elsewhere and plot a path away from the club he grew up with.
An opportunity arose to join neighbours Rochdale on loan, but it was a relatively joyless half year in which he made just three first-team appearances for the League One club. It did, however, result in the understanding that the lower echelons of English football might not be the best place to flourish.
“It seemed to be a choice of going abroad or falling down the leagues,” he says. “So I was always open to going abroad and if it didn’t work out, I’d come back. Luckily it’s worked out, so I’ve stayed out here.
“When I found out it was going to be difficult [to make it at City] I thought I should go out on loan to a team in a lower division, maybe prove my worth. The lower levels I saw – not that I was superior or anything like that – but I just thought for my future career it would be best to give it a shot abroad.
“Being at Rochdale was an eye-opener. It wasn’t the best of experiences but it was a very good experience to see what it would have been like to go down the levels.
“I’ve got a lot friends who were very good technically who could have made it in different countries and it just seems that they weren’t a fit for the lower leagues.”
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As Benali’s contract ran down, he considered his options, rejecting the chance to continue in Greater Manchester at Bury and instead joined Italian outfit Brescia in 2012. He hasn’t left the country since.
“My contract was up at City. I had an offer from Bury in League One. I’d missed a lot of football in the previous season and the season before through injury.
“In the first six months of my last season at City I’d had the spell at Rochdale and from January I’d been told to find a new club, so I was already looking.
“Then when they gave me the offer they said it was a club who had recently been relegated from the top division and wanted to get back and would give me a lot of chances.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’. I’d give it a shot and since then it’s carried on from there and I’ve really enjoyed my time out here.”
Having shone in Italy, it is little surprise that Benali, who has settled in the country with his family, is an advocate of young footballers heading abroad in search of regular game-time rather than settling for comfort in England.
And he suggests the virtues of playing abroad should be taught to youngsters searching for a new club after leaving a top academy.
“I’ve always said that we weren’t really spoken to much about playing abroad, as playing in England and with the Premier League being so successful, everyone wants to play there.
“You see so many foreigners coming in and I think your only focus is [playing in the Premier League]. Without viewing foreign leagues, you don’t really have the information about it.
“I think sometimes instead of going into a third or fourth league in England, why not go to a second division in one of the more important countries, like Italy, Germany, Spain?
“Sometimes there’s less money with the TV rights as there is for funding with the Premier League so investments here can’t go wrong, but they give you time you need to progress to the first team and there is a route.
“Hopefully we will see more of it in the future.”
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Still, in Benali’s first season in Italy, he struggled to feature regularly, and so he instead delved into learning the language and the alien nature of the country’s football.
That educational stage helped Benali ensure he would enjoy future success. Following 80 games for Brescia, he started a new adventure in Serie B with Pescara, helping them earn promotion to the top flight, scoring a goal in their play-off success.
“The first year was very difficult because I didn’t speak the language. It’s a different type of football, based a lot on tactics and approaching the game based on how the opposition play, whereas in England you play and whoever is best scores the most goals and wins the game pretty much.
“It took my about a year to get used to all the tactics. I didn’t play much in the first year but since then I’ve been involved. It took the first year to adapt, learn the language, get used to my team-mates, get used to the style of play. Since then it’s become a second nature.”
Promotion to Serie A resulted in belatedly achieving a dream he thought might have come years earlier with his boyhood club. Finally playing top-flight football, Benali has now scored against Napoli and battled against the all-conquering Juventus.
He also scored against both Lazio and Roma during the season, but his mission to get there holds his happiest memory.
“My favourite memory of playing in Italy remains winning the play-offs, because it was something I’ve worked towards since a kid, playing in a top division against the best teams in Serie A.
“Being watched by so many people abroad and making my family proud like that was probably my best memory, so it’s an aim to get back to Serie A.”
Last season was spent on loan at Crotone, but the campaign ended in disappointed as they were relegated from Serie A, although they still exercised their right to buy the midfielder.
Now Benali is focused on trying to take them back to the top, although he knows it will be difficult.
“I am happy that I was bought, as when you go on loan and they sign you permanently, it shows your time there has been a success, so I was happy they showed the faith in me to buy me.
“The club had to focus game-by-game because I think it’s difficult for any team to be relegated to the second division and go back up. There are many teams who have invested with the aim of going back up.
“Hopefully by the end of the season we’ll be there or thereabouts.”
By Will Unwin