Like a child with new shoes, Abdallah ben Barek (Rabat, 1937) proudly displays a new Malaga insignia on the lapel of his blazer. In a chat with SUR after a huge tribute in his honour at La Rosaleda, Barek reflects upon the most important years of his life and analyses the current state of Malaga football club.
You grew up in the Royal Palace in Rabat. What memories do you have of your childhood?
So many. My father was a royal driver and when I was born they asked that he name me Abdallah, who was the youngest son of King Mohamed V. A lamb was sacrificed at the baptism and we were given money for the party. At three years old I entered the palace and I stayed there until I was 10. I was almost like a toy for the King. Every other weekend I was allowed leave to be with my family. The palace was a bit like a town; it had everything. I would play there, bouncing my ball off the walls. My family were humble and at age 10, I left with them.
Was it difficult to be a Moroccan footballer in Europe during the 1950s?
What I will say is that 1956 was the year of Moroccan independence from France and Spain, who had protectorates like Tangier and Tetouan with football teams in La Liga. But after the change, these teams were incorporated into the Moroccan league. It so happened that I played for Stade Marocain in Tetouan in a cup game. We won, I scored the second goal and people from Ceuta wanted to sign me up after the game.
They showed me around there but I didn't like it much. My dream was to become a professional so I could buy a house for my family. In the following game, we played in a derby against Fath Union Sport (FUS), who had signed Larbi ben Barek, the best Moroccan football player of all time, and Chicha from Tetouan. We won at home. When I went to greet Larbi, he introduced me to some directors from Granada, who were in Segunda at the time. They had come to see me. For political reasons, my father didn't want me to go, but I asked Larbi to convince my parents. It was a huge event to have him visit our home.
So you were allowed to go?
Yes, my father accepted, but by then it was Sunday and they wanted me in Spain on Monday. I didn't have a passport and I was barely 18 years old, but the managers spoke with the airport police in Granada and I flew directly from Tetouan. On Thursday I played a friendly match with Recreativo Granada, who were trained by Carmona Ros. They thought that I was the son of Larbi and they encouraged me. I scored one goal in the first half and after that I didn't touch the ball again. In the second half, I scored another goal. Afterwards, the president of the football club invited me to a dinner to negotiate my contract. We came to an agreement of 60,000 pesetas plus 3,000 per month. During the first season we were promoted and in the second we stayed up.
And then you came to Malaga...
Yes, because teams were only allowed two foreign players and one had to be from South America. Granada needed a goalkeeper, because Candi had retired, and signed Carlos Gomes, from the Portuguese national team. In Malaga Julio Parres, who had businesses in Morocco, was interested in me, but we could not reach an agreement. Murcia offered me 100,000 pesetas, but they already had signed another Moroccan with a three-year contract. This reignited Malaga's interest. We were in Segunda and Américo joined the same week I did and we were soon promoted to the first division.
-What did you think of Malaga? You've now spent six decades here.
Malaga wasn't like it is now. Tourism in Torremolinos was just starting to blossom and I was taken in by the Aragoneses family who lived on Calle Granados. I became more and more enchanted by the city and the atmosphere here.
Noureddine Naybet accompanied you to the tribute ceremony. He is very grateful to you...
Yes. This was because, during the 1980s, King Hassan II wanted to promote Moroccan football and set up the 'One Thousand Footballers' project. They hired me as the trainer-director, to find young, unknown footballers who showed potential. Naybet was among those discovered. To see the players progress from a young age was amazing. Naybet was a right winger, but during knockout rounds of the youth African Cup of Nations (held in Egypt) a centre-back got injured so I put him there. After that, WAC (now Wydad) of Casablanca kept him in that position. From then he played for the national team, went on to France and eventually to Deportivo de la Coruña.
During this era, Morocco became the first African team to get out of the group stage in the 1986 World Cup, in Mexico. Now they return to another World Cup in Russia. Is the team better or worse than it was then?
Comparisons are always tedious. During that time we had Ezaki (formerly of Mallorca) in goal; Bouderbaia, a marvellous midfielder, or Timoumi, another player that was about to come to Malaga before he was taken to Murcia by Kubala. [Kubala] said he didn't know where to put him... “When he is kicked, he gets up and apologises to the one who kicked him”... he would say. He was a good man. I believe that the team in '86 was of a better quality, but the current manager (Hervé Renard) is doing a great job. They were undefeated in the qualifiers.
-You were also close to playing in the 1962 World Cup in Chile. Morocco lost to Spain in the play-offs.
Yes. They were better. It was a great opportunity, but they had an excellent team, with Di Stéfano, Puskas, Gento, Del Sol, Santamaría, Zoco... We lost 0-1 in Casablanca and the result was influenced by the fact that our best player, Akesbi, from RAC, could not play that match because at that time clubs were able to stop players from going away with their country. In Chamartín they were 3-0 up, but we scored two goals. I got the second, a left-footed shot but I had a leg injury. I didn't say anything to Morocco or to Malaga so I could still claim my wage. And that was at a time when injured players weren't substituted...
You are, as you have said, in two minds. You have confidence in the Sheikh, but you know that fans are unhappy with the management of the club.
I understand the fans. The team has been relegated and they're allowed to be angry, but I know these fans. I know that they'll still be with the team next season. It might be that there is even more support than when the team was in La Liga. I always say that when you fall, you get back up and do better next time. They will overcome this. What has happened has happened and now's the time to unite.
But should the way the club is managed change?
I don't know. People have their own ways of thinking and if they have confidence then they can get things done. The Sheikh wants Malaga to be among the best in Spain. I think that this can be achieved. Now we have to help him too, but he needs to understand the mentality of Malaga.
What do you think of the evolution of En-Nesyri?
Before, clubs brought in players for their individual qualities. Now the collective is more important. En-Nesyri is a young kid who dominated at the Mohamed VI Academy in Rabat. He came to the youth team with three others, who followed him, but returned for different reasons. Now Hicham and Abqar are there too. En-Nesyri needs to learn how to use strength and speed tactically and not just run for every ball that comes his way.
What strategy is the team going to take now they're in Segunda?
They need to be a team that is a mix of La Liga and Segunda. They need to be aggressive. It won't all be pretty, it should be practical.