Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Morocco's Ben Barek, The Black Pearl of Soccer

Here is an article on Larbi Ben Barek, apparently one of the best soccer (football) players to ever live, and a Moroccan.


Morocco's Ben Barek, The Black Pearl of Soccer
Larbi Ben Barek c.1948
By George Fosty
Sr. Editor,
Boxscore News - New York
July 23, 2010

Known as "The Black Pearl," Larbi Ben Barek was the greatest soccer player of his time - perhaps of all time. Unfortunately, because of the lack of press coverage and visual film records, we will never know the full extent of his greatness. Yet, what we do know is quite revealing.

For those who saw him play, he was simply miraculous. Described as "a true artist, a master of the dribble and the feint, as subtle as a cat and always marvelously relaxed," it is said he was a sight to behold. An invaluable and rare find.

Born on June 14, 1914 in Casablanca, Morocco, by the age of fourteen Ben Barek was playing center midfield for the FC El Ouatrane de Casablanca. After two-years with El Ouatrane, Ben Barek joined the Ideal Club Casablanca where he played from 1930-34. From Ideal he moved over to US Marocaine, another Casablanca based club, wherein he played four more years.

His incredible ability and achievements did not go unnoticed. In 1938, the twenty-four year old signed with Olympique de Marseille of the French League becoming the first African-Arab to play professional soccer in Europe. Ben Barek was an immediate sensation in Marseille playing thirty games and scoring ten goals, along the way helping the Olympique claim runner-up status in the French League Championships. His outstanding play resulted in his being named to the 1938 French National Team.

In subsequent years, he would continue to represent France internationally, playing in nineteen internationals between 1938-1954 and scoring a total of three goals.

We do not know how much abuse, both physical and emotional, Ben Barek endured in the French League due to his cultural origins or the color of his skin. Apparently, it was enough, however, to earn him the respect of those who saw him play; summed up in the statement 'he was only suspended twice during the entirety of his playing career.'

When you are the best player on the field you can expect to draw the notice and special attention of the opposition and their fans. When you are the first African-Arab professional in European soccer, not only are you prone to be noticed, but you can also expect to be a target simply for being the symbol and person that you are. Symbolism is a powerful element in any human endeavor. It is magnified, taking on a structure and embodiment of its own, in sports. Surely, this was the case with Ben Barek and his time in France.

In September 1939, with the outbreak of World War Two, Ben Barek left Marseille, returning to his native Casablanca. The war had caused the cancellation of the French League season and therefore, Ben Barek resumed play with US Marocaine. Following the military defeat of France, in the Summer of 1940, he remained in Casablanca continuing to play for Marocaine, only returning to France at the end of the war in late 1945.

In the Fall of 1945 Ben Barek began play for Paris' Stade Francais, F.C. of the French First Division. He played four-seasons with Stade scoring forty-three goals in sixty-three games. In 1948, he again moved, this time to Spain, signing what would subsequently be a five-year contract with Atletico Madrid. While with Atletico his play and production would be impressive, as he scored fifty-six goals in one-hundred-and-thirteen games.

Atletico's signing of Ben Barek had not been easy. Ben Barek was a star in France and Atletico paid top dollar - a total of 8 Million French Francs for his services. The Spanish Press, in their cleverness, nicknamed him 'The Foot Of God." On the surface, it was a seemingly complimentary and glorious way to credit him for his tremendous scoring skills, yet it was also a two-edged sword, one that could also be intended as a backhanded insult.

The Spanish understood the Arab mindset and realized the significance of describing Arab-Africa's greatest soccer player as a lowly 'foot' or 'shoe.' It was a way to denigrate the entire culture all-the-while seemingly bestowing praise on its most famous and successful Son. For in Arab culture, the foot is the lowest part of the human body. It is the point that touches the ground. This symbolism is at the heart of Arab culture going back centuries. At the same time, the foot is the most important element in the game of soccer -thus the double entendre.

Taken into context with the time and complexity of Spanish colonial dealings in Arab Morocco, the nickname becomes a profound and calculating symbol of the ongoing friction between the European and Arab cultures in terms of each group's cultural beliefs. The World is a complex entity. This complexity often reveals itself in the most simplistic ways. In the case of Ben Barek and his time in Spain, it appears to have taken the form of a dual-meaning nickname. To understand this more, one must take the time to study Spanish-Moroccan history and the disdain that the Spanish had at the time for Moroccans and their culture.

In 1912, France effectively annexed Morocco by way of the Treaty of Fes. Later, that same year, coastal regions adjacent to Spain and Spanish-held islands in the Mediterranean were ceded by France over to Spanish control.This 'special arrangement' meant that the Morocco would be partitioned and governed as two separate colonial territories.

Under Spanish and French colonial governance, more than half-a-million Europeans immigrated to the territories effectively controlling all economic and political aspects of the culture and region. Within a generation, the native Arab population had been supplanted to such an extent that they were effectively unwelcomed in their own land.

This denigration of the locals created tensions and opposition to the French-Spanish rule, leading to a five year violent uprising (1921-1926) led by the Moroccan Berber leader Abd el-Krim. The Rif Rebellion, as it is referred to historically, was such a threat to the regions stability that before it was over, Spain would have to commit over a quarter-million troops just to create a military stalemate.

In 1953, at the age of thirty-six, Ben Barek returned to Marseille. He would remain with the Olympique for two-years playing in thirty-two games and scoring thirteen goals. In 1954, he again would lead the the Olympique to the French League Finals but would again be denied the Championship title. After leaving Marseille he signed on for one-season with Sidi-Ben-Abbes.

A year later, he would retire from the game as a player accepting the position of Head Coach of the Moroccan National Team. He would be the newly independent countries' first official soccer coach. He would step down a year later only to resume the coaching job in 1960. Not much is known of Ben Barek after his coaching career ended.

In the 1960's when the Brazilian star Pele was described by a reporter as the 'King of Soccer', he replied: "If I am the King of Soccer, then Larbi Ben Barek is the God of it." It was the greatest tribute ever bestowed on Ben Barek.

Over the next two decades the game of soccer forgot about Ben Barek. By the late 1980's he was a distant memory; a simple footnote in history. In fact, his story had become so obscure that he was not even mentioned in most World Cup soccer or player histories. It was as if he had never existed.

Ben Barack died on September 16, 1992 at his home in Casablanca. At the time of his passing, he was 78-years of age.

In 1998, six-years after his death, and seemingly embarrassed by the fact that he had never been awarded the recognition deserving of him, FIFA bestowed upon him their highest honor, the Order of Merit Award.

In presenting the award, he was described as "one of the finest players ever to represent France, his adopted country." Even as late as 1998, the soccer world still seemingly struggled to recognize Ben Barek for what he was, a Moroccan. Better it seemed to imply that he was an 'adopted Frenchman' than to acknowledge him as an Arab athlete.

Indicative of the ignorance the soccer elites displayed towards the man and his legacy was the fact that when celebrating his life, they apparently failed to record the correct date of his birth, claiming he had been born on June 16, 1917 rather than the actual date of June 14, 1914.

Even the number of times Ben Barek had represented France in international play was incorrectly cited at seventeen when in fact it was nineteen.

These historic mistakes or inaccuracies may not seem important to some, however, they speak volumes in terms of the Ben Barek legacy and soccer's failure to come to terms with the man and the symbolism of his accomplishments. How many athletes do you know would be honored void of one's correct birth date or a correct accounting of their sports statistics?

How unfortunate it is that Morocco's greatest gift to the legacy of modern sports - Larbi Ben Barek - has yet to be properly embraced, accepted, or celebrated in terms of his importance to world soccer and its history.

It has been said of Morocco, that it is possible to stand on its shoreline and see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea at the same time. This unique country, rich in history and culture is, geographically speaking, a meeting place. A point where two powerful forces come together. It is a fitting symbol especially in terms of Arab-Western culture and sports. It is also a life lesson. A moment of true wonder. For if we were to stand back and reflect at the life of Larbi Ben Barek, much in the same manner that one would stand on a Moroccan shore, we would see clearly the greatness of his life and accomplishments. Only then would we realize, in soccer history, there is no such thing as a separate Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea as they are all one and the same.

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