La Perle Noire – The greatest player the world has ever neglected
Hannover, Germany – October 1954 – Larbi Ben Barek had decided it was time to rest his aching knees. The last 18 years of his life seemed to sap the fluid in his joints; it was now time to retire.
Nostalgic reveries brought him back to the scorching tar roads of Casablanca. It was then a forum in which the finest of Africa and Europe united and fraternized. He was young, then, and exceedingly naïve; his travels since had taught him that.
Larbi was conscious of the financial travails crippling his family. Larbi’s mother and older brother pressured the young giant to facilitate living conditions with reliable, practical work. Day after day Larbi longed to join his friends on that dirt patch that sat in the old city, adjacent to the White Farm.
At 14, he could no longer hold out and Ben Barek so impressed that, at the age of 17, his peers suggested he play for the local club Football Club du Ouatane. By some whiff of serendipity, Ben Barek’s debut fell against l’USM Casablanca. The capital club, who donned red and white kits, took a humiliating defeat at the feet of Ben Barek and FC Ouatane. Deployed as a winger, Ben Barek scored both goals. A feat that rendered his services attractive and, sure enough, the very next season, he was sought out by l’USM Casablanca. They offered him 20 francs a day and a job at a petrol pumping station (To put the sum in perspective, my grandfather used to buy a loaf of bread for 2 francs in the 1940s.)
He immediately distinguished himself in the Moroccan league. His intimidating height and broad chest struck fear into opponents. His skill on the ball petrified them.
A talent of the magnitude of Ben Barek was always going to be too big for Morocco. French champions Olympique de Marseille brought ‘La Perle Noire’ to La Provence in 1938. There Ben Barek increased his salary sevenfold and found himself surrounded by fellow North Africans. Zatelli, Bastien, Rabih, Ben Bouali and Zermani had all made southern France their home, so Marseille had an exotic tinge about it.
Ben Barek was an immediate success for his new club. In his first match, he notched a stunning eight goals against a hapless Southend United. He would lead Marseille to a 2nd place finish that year and he also won his first French cap vs. Italy in Naples.
He would continue at Marseille until Nazi occupation forced him back home. When the war was over, Atletico Madrid made him a lucrative offer. Atleti were locked in an intercity rivalry with the Franco-backed majestic Real Madrid.
The move happened quickly and took most in France by surprise. The infamously harsh French media didn’t approve. One journalist wrote the famous line, ‘Sell the Eiffel Tower, but not Ben Barek’.
Their indignation seemed justified when The Black Pearl scored 19 goals in his first season and helped Atletico to just their third Liga title.
France also called on this Casablanca-born superstar for his duties. He played a quiet 19 matches for Les Bleus before finally retiring. His international career was emblematic of the peculiar paradoxes that sprung all over Ben Barek’s career.
The French public adored the clunking midfielder and demanded his selection. And yet, he was never fully accepted as a true Frenchman. In 1954, in the swansong of Ben Barek’s career, he played for a friendly match for ‘North Africa’, who were nominally French, versus what L’Equipe had called, ‘The veritable French team (i.e. players born in France.’)
And so in 1957, and after a transient stint in Algeria, Larbi Ben Barek permanently retired. It was eighteen years later, when playing a friendly in Morocco that Pele said, ‘If I am the king of football, then Ben Barek is its God.’
He was undoubtedly the greatest player the world has ever neglected.