Whilst monikers for players have been abundant throughout footballing history, there is one particular name that is only been applied to the greats. Representing West Africa is the Liberian George Weah. Representing South America is the Brazillian Pele. And representing Southern Africa was the Mozambican Eusebio – who is largely recognised as the first man to receive this nickname that would go on be pinned to the greats all over the world. Alas, the man for whom this legendary handle was created for is largely forgotten; his skill and talent consigned to the history books, as his contemporaries are discussed and lauded. Introducing Larbi Ben Barek: the original “Black Pearl”.
Born in Casablanca in 1914, Larbi Ben Barek would most certainly have been subject of a tug-of-war between Europe’s top clubs had he been a modern day player, such was the dazzling ability he showed from an early stage. Whilst dates are by no means definite, he is believed to have been playing centre-midfield for El Ourtrane of his home-town, already becoming a key cog at the tender age of 14. He went on to represent before two other Casablanca-based teams, Ideal Club and US Marrocaine, between the ages of 16 and 20 before the familiar poaching of talent from the continent of Africa claimed its first star. Even in the early-to-mid 1900s, football scouting still spanned continents, – even if it was in the French occupied territory of Morocco – putting down blueprints for the future that can be seen in today’s neo-colonial relationship between European and African football. Olympique Marseille were the one’s that got there first, as they came calling after Ben Barek’s signature, in what would kick off football’s very own “Scramble for Africa”.
It would be here that he would receive his nickname of the “Black Pearl”, or “Perle Noir” as he would be known amongst fans of the French club. They noted his darker taint; a “Senegalese aspect” that was unfamiliar to the largely white population of France at that stage, hence the creation of the nickname that does outcast him somewhat – one that would be unlikely to be coined in politically correct world of today. Nevertheless, his skin colour became a moot point, as Ben Barek dazzled the Marseille fans with his dribbling skills from centre-midfield, famous for his crowd-enthralling repertoire of feints and shimmies. Indeed, the exotic way he played football far outweighed the exotic nature of the first Arab-African to play football in Europe, as his ten goals guided Marseille to runner-up in Ligue 1 and being noticed by selectors for the French national team.
It was World War Two that stalled the story of Ben Barek in Europe, as he returned to US Marrocaine whilst the French league was cancelled. However, he was back in Europe at the first sight of competitive football in France, as he was signed-up by Stade Rennais when the league was resumed post-occupation. Whilst one associates Ben Barek as an icon of Marseille due to the novelty of an African playing in Europe at the time and the success he brought them, his impact whilst playing for Rennes would be nothing short of iconic in itself. A blinding 43 goals in 60-80 games (depending on who you believe) was an outstanding contribution, especially from centre-midfield, as he came into what would very much be his prime.
Knowing him from the national team, Atlético Madrid coach Helenio Herrera seeked to bring Larbi Ben Barek’s talent to showcase within the Spanish borders, following 4 years at Stade Rennais. Whilst on the face of it appearing just another step up the ladder for the Moroccan, his move to Spain was arguably the biggest of his career, considering the circumstances.
Franco was in charge. Notorious dictator, very protective of his republic, was rare to let European sportsman into his country, let alone one from beyond the Mediterrean. And considering the political climate at the time between France/Spain and colonial Morocco, in which the oppression was so great than Moroccans were basically not welcome in their own country, few would have taken it. Not fazing Ben Barek, the noticeable step-up in quality of football drove him into the most audacious move of his career, as part of his determination to lead himself onto a path of self-improvement rather than just lay stagnant.
Whilst the classic moniker was just translated to Spain’s native “Perla Negra”, the secondary nickname of “El Prodigio” would be the one that he was most referred to as during his time in Iberia – a name that would feature on many Atlético collectables and paraphernalia.
Becoming more flexible as he grew older, he took up positions across the midfield and the frontline, as he guided his team to two Spanish league titles. After returning to Marseille at the age of 36 for two more seasons, his importance not just to his clubs, but also to the French national team. Still called up at the age of 40 – past the point of him retiring from football all together – his pivotal role not just in the domestic game but also on an international level was something that could not be ignored.
Although the lack of precise data and historical record makes Ben Barek’s influence on Europe difficult to compare to others, something that cannot be disputed is the kick-start that he gave a whole continent in terms of footballing achievement. African football would not be in the same position it is now had Ben Barek decided to remain in Casablanca, his exploits in Europe brought a whole new set of skills and culture to a land that thought they were far beyond learning anything from the savages to the south of them, and the respect he gained despite his skin colour and perceptions that came with that cannot be overestimated in terms its influence.
For the YouTube generation, lack of video footage of Ben Barek makes him somewhat of a myth to a contemporary audience, meaning that he can be cast off and ignored for what he’d achieved as it was not visible to the current human eye. But whilst one can do this and stick to those who have video proof, the legacy left in Ben Barek’s wake is one that can never be denigrated to a state of meaningless and unimportance.
By Sam Crocker
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona