By Peter Lynch
Another immensely talented footballer, another wasted career. Every now and then a maverick comes along and upsets the status quo. But instead of lighting up stadiums year after year, these wonderfully gifted players often fall short, and disappointingly fail to live up to expectations. Adel Taarabt is one that stands out more than most.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the highly-skilled midfielder has given up the game or is indeed on the verge of doing so, but at 30 years old, there is hopefully still some footballing life left in him. A regular in English football in what now seems like a lifetime ago, the Moroccan now earns a living at Benfica, but in true Taarabt style, it certainly hasn’t been one of the most straightforward transitions from Queen’s Park Rangers to the Portuguese outfit.
With his QPR contract terminated by mutual consent, Benfica decided it was time to take a chance on the somewhat unpredictable midfielder in the summer of 2015. Their gamble, however, seemingly backfired immediately, with Taarabt opting for a loan spell with Italian side Genoa not long after, before eventually returning to Portugal in June 2018. But once again things didn’t quite turn out as they should have, with the once-promising talent ending up plying his trade with Benfica’s reserve side indefinitely.
The long months passed, that is until Bruno Lage took over the reins in the Benfica dugout earlier this year, with one of his first acts involving promoting the versatile midfielder back into first-team training. One month later and the understandably frustrated 29-year-old finally made his debut for the club as a 71st- minute substitute in a 1-0 victory over Tondela. An early booking epitomised his stuttering employment with the Portuguese champions to date, with the caution coming as a mere ripple in the extremely turbulent sea that has been Taarabt’s Primeira Liga journey so far, where it took 1,387 days for his first-team debut to arrive.
Born among the medieval architecture and old-world atmosphere of Fez, Morocco’s cultural capital, it’s been quite a journey for Taarabt so far. Having started out as a youth player with Lens in France, his beginnings in England’s top-flight were far from spectacular, indeed quite the opposite, with a loan move to Spurs followed by a permanent switch to White Hart Lane easily among some of the most forgotten about transfers in football history, such was his lack of game time in North London.
It’s a cruel game sometimes, and there have been countless others who found themselves in a similar position. The mind thinks back to none other than Manchester City, who once had Kieran Trippier, Denis Suarez, Adrien Rabiot, Loris Karius, and even Florian Lejeune on their books at some stage down the line.
Much like City’s ignored and unappreciated misfits, Taarabt was clever enough to realise that his future lay elsewhere, and that warming the bench just wasn’t his thing. He quickly found love in his new home at QPR, who welcomed the Moroccon into the club with open arms, and rightly so. The club provided the unsettled figure with what would go on to become the most stable period of his career, and in turn, he provided the Loftus Road locals with several moments of magic that will live in their memories for quite some time.
Wonder-goals, mesmerising runs, and astonishing assists followed in the years to come, with the young talent finally finding his feet and proving just how dangerous he could be. He really was the type of player who had to be seen to be believed, and not once seemed out of his depth in English football. Quick feet, mazy dribbles and unparalleled tricks baffled Premier League and Championship opposition alike, with sensational strikes against Fulham and Cardiff coming to mind. These scorchers combined with a textbook effort and stunning free-kick over Preston and Arsenal respectively.
However, like others of similar stature that have come before him, the creative midfielder was still missing something in his game; consistency. If the likes of Mario Balotelli and perhaps even more so, Hatem Ben Arfa, are anything to go by, then it’s that flair is a characteristic that can all too often blight a promising career. All the skill in the world counts for nothing if the attitude isn’t there to match it, with problems behind the scenes coming to the fore in the case of Taarabt and those with similar tempers. His artistry kept the buzz going around Loftus Road, but the candle couldn’t stay lit forever.
Some issues began to simmer at the club level in England, yet it was at the national level where Taarabt’s problems would prove most costly when in 2011 he walked out on the Moroccan national team having been left out of a key Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. He later apologised and was reconnected with the squad later that year, only to find himself in a similar position just two years later after reportedly insulting coach Rachid Taoussi, along with refusing to talk or meet with his boss after being left out of the AFCON squad at the time. Once again his apology saw him return to the scene, but one wonders if the powers that be in Moroccan football have called it a day with Taarabt, considering his absence from any national fixtures for quite some time now.
If his fallouts with national bosses have been well documented, then his relationships with club managers deserve a special mention, with his QPR gaffers top of the list. It was Neil Warnock who first addressed the issue with any real conviction, hitting the nail on the head by describing his captain as “talented, exciting and frustrating.” Warnock’s successor Harry Redknapp was not so forgiving, particularly when claiming that at a certain stage his player was “about three stone overweight.” Despite such criticism, the skillful maestro will undoubtedly be remembered most fondly for his time with the West London club.
However, once more in typical Taarabt fashion, even his most consistent period in football had its twists and turns, with his QPR spell interrupted firstly by an unsuccessful loan stint a few miles down the road at Fulham, followed by a slightly better move to the San Siro with AC Milan, where he immediately endeared himself to the Rossoneri faithful with a trademark goal seven minutes into his debut against Napoli.
It was, however, in the blue and white of QPR where his creative side was in full flow, with Taarabt picking up the Football League Player of the Year award for his displays in the league-winning 2010/11 season, where he also found himself in the Championship PFA Team of the Year. Fortunately his evident abilities were recognised and appreciated back then, but unfortunately, he just couldn’t maintain them. Let’s hope there is still something left in the tank from the one and only Adel Taarabt.