If you were to ask him directly, Ahmad Benali would tell you that he is, without a doubt, the first real Libyan to have graced Italy’s football pitches. That is, if we excluded Muammar Gaddafi’s son’s stint at Perugia, a Serie A classic that never fails to bring a smile to the faces of calcio fans.
Instead, Benali’s face shows resentment, not amusement: “When Gaddafi was in charge nobody could leave Libya, let alone to play football. He wanted to be Libya’s only symbol. Nobody was allowed to be more famous than Gaddafi.”
A man of the people, Benali has worked for his whole career to defy this tyranny, to emerge as a symbol of Libyan football. He has the necessary grit and qualities to fight his case, as well as the consciousness that, in life, there are many things more important than a game of football. Still, for those Libyans who can afford to care about the beautiful game, Benali is gradually becoming a hero. His impressive performances in Italy’s top tier, despite Pescara’s dire straits, have surely caught the eye of the keenest observers.
But, before talking about Benali’s latest exploits, a look at the player’s history is necessary to help us understand exactly what kind of individual he is. Born in Manchester, and raised in the Manchester City academy, Benali decided to move to Italy upon realising that a breakthrough to the first team was going to be arduous. Intrepidly, but shrewdly, he moved to an entirely new country and a completely different reality: Brescia, in Italy’s Serie B. There, he gradually imposed himself on the team, scoring nine league goals in his second season for the Rondinelle, and thereby revealing his outstanding attacking prowess.
Though officially signing for Palermo in 2015, Benali never played for the Rosanero, moving immediately to what is currently his club, Pescara. After playing a major role in Pescara’s promotion to Serie A during that same year, scoring the decider during the play-off final against Trapani, he has finally made it through to a top European league, to the delight of Libyan football aficionados. After realising that a step-down was necessary for his development, deciding to play for Brescia as opposed to rot on the Manchester bench, Benali’s hard work is beginning to pay dividends.
He was quick to illustrate his aforementioned offensive qualities in the top tier, scoring in his league debut against none other than Napoli. Able to sneak in behind centre-back Koulibaly, Benali burst into the box, as the defenders bit the dust, and proceeded to beat Pepe Reina with a composed chip: brains, technique and physical means. Aside from his proficiency in front of goal, which has seen him score four goals so far this season, Pescara’s number 10 has shown sublime dribbling skills and a rocket of a left foot. His low centre of gravity, in addition to his stocky physical constitution, makes him very resistant to incoming tackles, enabling him to cruise by opponents with ease and to liberate his left foot for a shot on goal.
Casting all technical abilities aside, Benali still stands out in relation to most players. His most important quality, unquestionably, is his determination and ability to lead the team, especially when times are hard. In Pescara’s latest debacle, a 5-3 loss to Torino, Benali gave it his all to avoid total embarrassment for the Delfini. Those three goals, which saved Pescara’s pride and indicated that the team still has something to fight for, all came from Benali. For first goal, Benali pressured Arlind Ajeti, prompting the Albanian defender to score a chaotic own-goal. Benali picked the ball up from the back of the net and fiercely placed it in the middle of the park and proceeded to score a second, a well-taken tap-in, and a third with a difficult volley from inside the box. This is what Benali is: a fighter, and a skillful one. Amidst many talented – but so irritatingly complacent – players, he is a footballing rarity and a pleasure to watch.
And still, despite the spirit and skills displayed, he has seen himself deprived of the greatest gratification of all. For the past five years, the 25-year-old has been unable to return to Libya and play for the national team at home, in front of his people. In fact, due to significant security issues, the Libyan national team plays its matches in Morocco or in Tunisia. “Going home is impossible,” says Benali. And away from home, unable to be there directly for his people, Benali can do nothing but suffer for the hardships endured by his home country. But Pescara's number 10 is fighting for Libya in the best way he can, on the pitch.
The player said it best himself: “Football is, and must be for everyone. It can be a path to redemption, regardless of where one comes from.”
Words by Federico Manasse: @FedericoManasse
Federico is a columnist, editor and sketch artist for Italian Football Daily. He also writes for the Football Pink and his own website, Fede's Calcio.