Adel Taarabt on Dubai life, a rollercoaster career and wanting to join Arsenal not Spurs

The gifted Moroccan midfielder on his highs and lows with Spurs, Milan, Benfica - and now with Al Nasr in the UAE

Adel Taarabt plays for Al Nasr in Dubai following a career that began in France and took him to England, Italy and Portugal. Photo: Al Nasr Football Club
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Veteran English football manager Neil Warnock likes to tell stories about players he’s worked with over his long career. The tales featuring midfielder Adel Taarabt, when the pair worked together at Queens Park Rangers, are the most popular. Warnock told his players he would fine them £50 if they passed to the Moroccan in his own half.

“I see him getting the ball off the centre-half, nut-megging someone, losing it and them scoring,” said Warnock, who’d been told that Taarabt would cost his team goals. And yet Warnock saw something else in the young player others had warned him against. A player who wore gloves on a hot July day.

“I’m watching this kid and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Warnock said. “Some of his ability …”

The pair became an unlikely – and highly successful – duo, with Taarabt named the best player in England’s Championship and adoring QPR fans singing that he was too good for any of his opponents. Because he was.

Taarabt is now 34, fitter than ever and still playing football, which may surprise some who thought he was incapable of maintaining a long career as a professional.

But he has, for Spurs, QPR, Fulham, AC Milan, Benfica, Genoa and Al Nassr in Dubai. He’s played 423 club games, a large total for someone who went months and even years without playing. His story is an incredible one. He starts it by telling The National one of his own about his former boss Warnock.

“We had an Icelandic striker Heidar Helguson, a good player,” Taarabt said with a smile a few days after he scored for Al Nasr in a 2-2 draw against Sharjah in the Adnoc Pro League.

“Neil Warnock gave us the QPR team to play a game on a Friday. But on the Saturday he decided to change it. Warnock said: ‘Hey, listen guys, I have to tell you something. My wife Sharon had a dream last night that Patrick (Agyemang) scored a goal. So Heidar you’re not playing today, Patrick you are playing’. Heidar was shocked, but we won 1-0 and Patrick scored!”

Taarabt enjoying life in Dubai

“I wanted to finish my football career in a Muslim country," Taarabt said. "At the beginning it was not easy. I came here from Benfica where everything was so professional and well-organised – more than at any club I’ve played at.

“It was not when I arrived here and the four or five foreign players at the club were not used to this having come from Europe. Players here preferred to wake up later, while I preferred to train in the morning and rest in the afternoon.

“After a few months I started to adapt, to enjoy my football and I’m happy here. I’ve been here three years and want to stay more. Now, the training here is excellent. Our coach here, Alfred Schreuder, was Ronald Koeman’s assistant at Barcelona, assistant to [Julian] Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim, and Erik ten Hag at Ajax, before he replaced Ten Hag. He’s a top, top coach.”

Taarabt is the captain and star player, the one players learn from.

“My teammates ask me about where I’ve played in Europe,” he said. “I tell them the stories and the commitment level needed, that you need to go into the gym before training. I explain that I played with Joao Felix and Ruben Dias and these guys are machines. They don’t go out late, they are totally focused.

“And the players here listen sometimes. I wish I’d had someone when I was that age telling me what I should do because I didn’t. I would have played for Real Madrid or Barcelona had somebody spoken to me then.”

What was Taarabt like when he was younger?

“I was born in Fez and moved to France at nine months. I played football all the time. When I was 11, I had all the clubs in France fighting for me. Monaco, Lyon, Lens, Marseille. All! My father switched the phone off at home because he was tired of clubs ringing him every day. My father knew nothing about football.

“He was confused that people wanted to take his son away when he was 11. He didn’t know that academies existed or what they were.

“But I had a coach at my small amateur club in France near Marseille. He spoke to my father and said: ‘Don’t let him join a club in the south of France near here. It’s too close, he’ll come back to his friends. It’s better he goes far away to Lens or Auxerre. They are the best in France for young players.’

“Lens had just built a new training complex, one of the best in France. I wanted to go there, even though it was so far away, but my father wasn’t keen. I was 11 when I said to him: ‘I go to Lens or I stop football’.

“He was strict, a very Arab father. He said: ‘Ok, you go, but don’t call me crying from there’. I didn’t, I loved it. Lens gave me a six-year contract when I was 11.

“My father had moved from Morocco in search of a better life. He was a builder and he did OK for me and my four sisters, one brother. He formed his own company.

“Life was good. France welcomed new people under President [Francois] Mitterrand. We were not the richest or the poorest. We lived in a bad area but my family was never involved in problems. So many friends took a bad way, but I couldn’t as I left at 11. I’d be a builder like my dad if I didn’t play football.”

From Lens to Tottenham - and his Arsenal regret

“Raphael Varane was young, a local guy who was there. Geoffrey Kondogbia too. Gael Kakuta, who left for Chelsea. [Benoit] Assou-Ekotto, who left for Spurs. It’s an amazing club.

“I passed through the different levels quickly. At 15 I was in the B team, at 16 I was training with the first team. Then I made my debut, I was playing for France at youth level. Lots of clubs wanted to sign me.

“I signed for Tottenham, but I wanted to sign for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, the legendary Frenchman. But [Spurs director of football] Damian Comolli wanted me to go to Tottenham. He told me he was creating something. Gareth Bale arrived at the same time as me, Kyle Walker soon after.

“It was a good club, but not one that gave young players many chances. I was very close to Gareth. He’d drive me every day to training. A very good guy. Spurs wanted to sell him to Nottingham Forest at one point. He didn’t want to go. When he left, he went to Real Madrid.

“London was a culture shock for me. In France, I was the next [Zinedine] Zidane. At Spurs, I was nobody in a dressing room full of big names: Robbie Keane, [Dimitar] Berbatov, Edgar Davids.

“I didn’t feel special because I wasn’t, but I feel it would have been much easier for me at Arsenal with more of the French tradition and mentality.

“I called Damian after three months and said I wanted to go back to Lens. He told me that it would take time to settle, that he’d paid all this money for me and shown faith. That he knew Barcelona wanted to sign me. I said: ‘People told me London is beautiful but it’s dark and rainy at 3.30pm in the winter!’ I didn’t speak English, it was hard.”

A loan move was the solution

“The best decision I made. I needed to play football, not just train. I had the chance to go to QPR for three months. At QPR I got the love, and if you show me love then I want to give you more love.

“My second year there [2010/11] was amazing. I scored 19 goals and made 21 assists. It didn’t feel like work, it felt like pure enjoyment. The fans sang a song about me being too good for the rest. I felt so powerful there.

“My whole life was enjoyable. I was in London, I had learnt English, I had money. I’d go out until three o’clock in the morning. And I had a coach in Neil Warnock who was the best and the worst for me. He gave me all the confidence that I needed.

“Warnock would say: ‘If you want to see your family, go for five days but come back for Saturday and win the match for me’. So I did! He was only about getting me to perform for him. But I was aged 19-20, I should have been more professional. And when he left the club everything changed for me.

“I get invited by QPR back to London to see the fans. I will do this. I played for them at a difficult time, with changes of owners and so many players, but we won promotion."

Warnock tells a story about allowing Taarabt to go home after his cousin died - before finding his passport in the dressing room

“Actually, it was true," Taarabt said. "I lost my little cousin and I told Warnock. I was crying. He told me to go back to family, that family is the most important thing. I called my father who whispered: ‘I don’t want you to come back. I don’t want you to have this image of your cousin in your head. I don’t want you to see her’. So, I stayed at home.

“Warnock thought I’d lied, but I did not. It’s true that I did some crazy things, but not that time.

"Years later, he was at Cardiff City. My agent called him. I was having a difficult time. I wanted to play for him on loan. He didn’t want me. This is the life of football and he owed me nothing. Nothing shocks me in football.

“Most of the people think about themselves. Everybody wants to be near you when you are at the top. When you are a little bit down, that’s when your true friends want to be close to you.”

Did Taarabt need more guidance?

“I did. I was used to a well-organised academy life, a strict routine. Then I arrived in England, money multiplied my contract by 10 or even more and I lived by myself. When training was finished, I was free until the next morning. Nobody told me I had to do anything. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids. Did people expect me to stay at home in one of the best cities in the world?

“I started to enjoy London. Kensington was full of French people. I’d go a lot. There was always something happening. And I’d see players who were my idols and they’d be out too. But you can’t do this to be a top professional.

“I’d also see all these big star players in the clubs in London. I was surprised, I thought all these players were super professional yet I’d see them from Arsenal, Chelsea, and Spurs after games like it was a routine. I got into that life, but it’s not good for you.

“At Spurs, I was at the wrong club and maybe in the wrong city, with too many distractions. Maybe if I’d been in Manchester where life happens at the weekend and not midweek, that could have been better for me."

In 2014, he left QPR for a loan spell at AC Milan

“I was in the best place in Milan for six months," Taarabt said. "Clarence Seedorf was the coach. To play in the Milan derby at San Siro was amazing. I played behind Kaka and [Mario] Balotelli. Nigel de Jong scored the winner. [Esteban] Cambiasso, their captain, marked me. I was a fan of him.

“My first Champions League games were with Milan. We were knocked out by an Atletico [Madrid] side who reached the final. We killed them at San Siro but [goalkeeper Thibaut] Courtois saved everything and we lost 1-0, it was 4-1 away. Then [Filippo] Inzaghi was the new coach and he had other plans.

“I went back to QPR and the Premier League and hardly played. Then Benfica approached me in 2015. I went there to see them without really intending to sign, even though I knew they had a great history. The president, an important man in Portugal, wouldn’t take a no from me. I was there four hours. He offered me a five-year contract.”

What happened next?

“I went to Morocco for the summer and came back eight kilogrammes overweight. I’d done that in England and it was OK. Pre-season was for losing the extra eight, no?

“But Benfica were not happy. The coach said my weight wasn’t good. He didn’t play me for one minute in pre-season. He was correct in saying I was overweight and he was cold to me. He didn’t say hello in the morning. So I was cold to him. The president called my agent. He was not happy.

“I suggested that I didn’t receive any more for the time I was overweight. I got fit. I was ready, but still didn’t feature because the coach didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. I had a five-year contract and said they could pay all five years. The president thought I was wrong but a little bit of him liked me.

“Genoa wanted me in Italy. I was thinking. ‘Hmm, one hour from Milan, one hour from Monaco’. So I went. I needed to lose weight in the first six months, then I played 29 games.”

From exile to star player at Benfica

“After that interview [with France Football in which Taarabt demanded to leave Benfica], the Benfica president said I would never play for the club again.

“But then something amazing happened: Bruno Lage became the coach at Benfica. He was like a father to me. He arrived and told the sports director Tiago Pinto that he loved me as a player. Tiago explained the situation at the club and what the president had said. So I was sneaked into training with the first team and not the B team.

“The president went to see Bruno Lage and said: ‘I’m ready to give you €20 million to buy a player in [my] position’. Lage said he didn’t want it, that he wanted to put me in his team. The president said he’d told everyone that I’d never play again. Fans would see me in the street and shout that I was only there for money.

“I featured a little for the B team and then one day, Tiago called me and said: ‘You are travelling with the first team tomorrow’. A week later, I was in the squad. It was the end of March and I’d not played. We were fighting to win the league with Porto.

“The stadium, with 55,000 people, was crazy, they knew I was on the bench but didn’t know why. We couldn’t score. It was against Tondela, a team from low down. Lage told me to warm up. I didn’t know what the fans would think, but they were positive. I came on for the last 19 minutes.

“I was raging to show people my quality. I was attacking and started playing dangerous balls forward through the lines. We scored in the 84th minute. I started to play again. We won every game and won the league.

“I was so appreciative to Lage. It was his first big club but he risked a lot on me.”

“The following season – 2019/20 – I was playing every week. I signed a new contract. I loved Bruno Lage. Benfica is the best organised club I’ve played at: training camp, organisation, nutrition, sports science. You must think about nothing, only to play football.

“It’s one reason why players do so well when they go to bigger leagues because they are ready. There is huge pressure at Benfica when you don’t win a game, but that comes with being huge and Benfica are huge."

His international career for France and Morocco could have been better

“I played for France to Under-20 level. I then had a choice and I chose Morocco because I was born in Morocco and my family are Moroccan. That’s the culture and language we speak at home. The reality was that the youth teams of France were more professional than the national team of Morocco.

“I love my country but the pitches and the organisation meant I never really enjoyed playing for it. For away games, we’d sometimes change in the hotel.

“And I was also nervous. I’d think that if I got bit by a mosquito then I’d get malaria. So I’d hide under a net and sleep with one eye open.

“Moroccan football fans are amazing. I feel respected there. The atmosphere in Casablanca in front of 60,000 is one of the best in the world."

Since 2022, he’s been in the UAE with Al Nasr

“I’m scoring goals. I’m serious about my football here. Sometimes big names come here and don’t perform.

“I was walking down the beach recently and saw Bobby Zamora. He told me that he couldn’t believe how fit I was and said if I’d had this mentality when I was 20, I would have been one of the best in the world.

Is that fair?

“Yes, I can see what he was saying. I just want to play football for as long as I can, but I’ll stop the day I can’t perform. I won’t cheat anyone. There are some good players here.

“A Moroccan, Soufiane Rahimi for Al Ain. He scored the goals that put [Cristiano] Ronaldo’s team out of the AFC Champions League this season. He’s the joint top scorer in the whole competition. [Miralem] Pjanic is here, Paco Alcacer, [Andres] Iniesta. Alan who played for Brazil, Napoli and Everton.

“You must focus and I focus. I’m more religious now than I have ever been. I can pray five times a day. We have a mosque inside every stadium so we don’t need to miss one prayer. And now I’m fasting for one month because it’s Ramadan.

“In Europe, it’s very difficult to fast as a footballer because you train in the morning. Here it’s easier because we can train at night once we have broken the fast. I’m happy. People tell me that I should have had a better career, but I’ve still had a good career and I’m still having a good career.”

Updated: March 28, 2024, 5:38 AM