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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

QPR's Adel Taarabt: A Glowing Profile

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PLAYMAKER Adel Taarabt has been earning rave reviews this season as he has been at the forefront of QPR's march to the head of the NPower Championship table, just one step away from the promised land of the English Premiership.

In the season opener Taarabt was proclaimed as the difference between the teams by his manager, Neil Warnock, as QPR sent a strong message to the competition with a 4-0 demolition of Barnsley.

Arriving at QPR's Harlington training ground, shared with Imperial College, I received a warm welcome at this family-orientated club.

The car park is like a well-stocked car showroom with Audi, Mercedes and Range Rover marques well represented, although the privacy-affording blacked-out windows is betrayed by the personalised number plates identifying the owners.

The opportunity to supervise training is destroyed by the vagaries of the English weather, although the gap was quickly filled by the willingness of the QPR media managers who provided access to some of the injured stars, namely Fitz Hall and Patrick Agyemang.

As the West Ham reserves arrived for a behind-closed-doors match against the QPR reserves, 'One size' Fitz Hall spoke freely of the origins of the unofficial best nickname in English football (If his name is said with this as a prefix then the following can be heard ... 'One Size Fits All').

Once Adel had finished training we were ushered into a long hall next to the players' dining area where the names of Imperial College's past sporting captains reminded us of half a century of amateur glories.

A devout Muslim, Taarabt emerged earlier than his colleagues from training and benefits during Ramadan from having an understanding manager in Neil Warnock who has invited Adel to manage his own training during the Holy Month and advise him of any required rest.

Taarabt only breaks his fast on match days but ensures he catches up on these after the official end of Ramadan.

I had been warned prior to the interview that Adel claimed to speak little English but I found little evidence of this.

He had a warm greeting and welcoming smile although I could hardly fail to notice the full moon of diamonds gleaming from his pink-strapped watch-face. He speaks softly yet confidently with a strong French accent.

I asked Adel whether the rigours of fasting had a negative impact on his performance. On the contrary, he claimed to feel a much heightened sense of awareness due to "his closer proximity to God." Indeed Taarabt stated a stronger commitment to work harder on the pitch to prove his beliefs.

While he was born in Morocco, Taarabt moved to France at the age of nine months. He learned his football at a variety of small clubs yet his special talent was still recognised at an early age and he first represented France at U-15 level.

His progression continued and his performances during the European Championships, in which he was likened to his boyhood idol, Zinedine Zidane, led to him being offered a variety of professional contracts.

He rejected offers from larger clubs like Marseille and Lyon in favour of Lens, believing that he would have more of an opportunity to develop and prove himself. This he did with his flair and trickery bringing him to the attention of a number of English premier clubs.

On crossing the Channel he was lined up to sign for Arsenal yet, against the advice of several 'Gooner' friends, decided to follow Director of Football, Damien Comolli, across North London to bitter rivals, Spurs.

Taarabt openly admits that he had a number of difficulties while at Tottenham Hotspur and struggled particularly under former coach Juande Ramos who, at one stage, failed to even provide him with a squad number.

This changed once Harry Rednapp took charge. While he reveled in training regularly with world 'greats' such as Berbatov and Robbie Keane, due to his inexperience of English conditions and the precarious position that faced Spurs at the time, Adel was twice sent out on loan to Queens Park Rangers.

Rather than reflect on the difficulties faced as a player on loan, Taarabt prefers to focus on the positives of having signed permanently for QPR, knowing he is wanted and feeling the pressure to ensure his own side wins.

Neil Warnock, an experienced set of hands who has revolutionised the club and installed a sense of stability since taking over the reigns, has had a positive impact on Taarabt.

Several times during the interview Adel spoke warmly of the difference he has made, not only on him but on the club as a whole. He spoke of Warnock's 'love' for him and his desire to ensure he is able to use his silky skills for the benefit of the team. However, this is not just a one-way relationship - Taarabt chose Warnock and QPR despite offers from Malaga and Villareal.

It has been reported that Warnock has claimed that if Taarabt spends a "few seasons learning under me he will be one of the best players in the world and will get his big money move to Barcelona or Real Madrid."

I took the opportunity to press this future star on what he is learning.

Warnock has impressed upon him the need to be patient during matches. In the past he admits to having been frustrated as the 'game passed him by'although he now sees that he can still win the game for his team with just the one opportunity.

More specifically, Warnock is working hard with Adel on his positional play and tactics. The coach has apparently admitted that he can bring nothing to Taarabt's technical flair and is therefore focusing on the mental aspects.

Taarabt also spoke of his need to weather the ugly side of the game and ensure that, even if he is 'kicked hard several times' he does not over-react, simply channel his aggression for the benefit of the team.

I feel as though, in talking to Adel, I was given an insight to the famed man-management skills of one of the English game's longest serving and successful managers.

Warnock seems to have recognised the need to make Taarabt feel wanted and is building a side around him that harnesses his match-winning skills.

In the season to date he has succeeded with devastating effect with Adel currently leading the side with goals, assists and shots on goal.

On the back of his exceptional performances Warnock has backed Taarabt further by awarding him the captain's armband, despite his relative youth.

Aged only 21, Taarabt spoke of his honour at this award and 'gratitude at being included in the manager's project'. While English is neither his first or second language, the words chosen and the intent reveal a strong desire and hints that the R's have a special bond and focus this season.

There is also a sense that individually Adel Taarabt is destined for greater achievements. I asked about his reasons for his change in national focus, switching from the junior teams of France for that of his birthplace, Morocco.

At this stage Adel leans forward slightly and a warm smile spreads across his face. "My parents' are from Morocco, my whole family is from Morocco and I am from Morocco and feel more Moroccan," he states.

"I knew that this would make them happy and proud of me."

This is obviously a question that has been posed several times before, as he continued to explain: "I know that I had a better opportunity to play at a higher level with France and achieve more, however, you can still be a great player and have a wonderful career with a smaller nation - just look at Ryan Giggs with Wales and Didier Drogba with the Cote D'Ivoire".

On the day of my interview there were two other TV crews there to interview Taarabt, such is the profile his performances have generated in driving QPR to the top of the table. I learned from them that recently there was a poll conducted in Morocco looking at overall levels of popularity.

Despite having only played a handful of games for the national team, Taarabt apparently polled second behind the King, and in the words of one interviewer, "at this rate even he is likely to lose top spot soon."

The reason for this, it transpires, is that Moroccans love a player with flair and fleet-footed magic - the ability to win the game with one touch, or one pass. They - and the Loftus Road crowd brought up during the glory years with the talents of former stars Rodney Marsh and Stanley Bowles (amongst the most creative players to grace the English stage) - 'love street tricks'.

At one point we were discussing the role of the Middle East in world football and Adel felt that this is a trait the Moroccan's share with locals and expats living in Bahrain and the neighbouring Gulf states, some of whom are his friends.

He admits to receiving regular messages and texts of support from the region with some begging him to join a 'big club' like Barcelona or Real Madrid, names which crop up several times during the interview.

We discussed the growing influence the Middle East has on global football. Despite being positive for the region Taarabt cannot see himself playing in the Middle East until the end of his career, despite there being many Moroccans currently plying their trade at teams in the UAE and Qatar leagues.

Morocco is clearly where his heart is and his close ties are evident from the efforts he makes to visit his family when he returns for international duty.

"It's always great to go home and relax with my family and friends while enjoying the fresh air," he said.

In many respects Taarabt is well suited to QPR - the club also places great emphasis on families, while both are hugely ambitious and yet still have 'loftier' ambitions. There is a strong feeling amoung pundits that they're both on the way up.

Fact file

Favourite Goal: For Morocco vs Togo.

Proudest moment: Signing his first professional contract and calling his father to tell him that he did not need to work any more.

Favourite players: Zinedine Zidane (who was from the same city he grew up in - Marseille) and Eric Cantona.

Charitable work: Establishing a football school with his brother in Morocco to help develop talent and ensure it gets noticed in Europe.

Advice to Children: Work hard to develop the talent that God gave you (and for children in the Middle East - make sure you get noticed by a club in Europe).

What do you listen to? Readings from the Koran

Best friends in football: Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Spurs) and Armand Traore (Arsenal).

Current car: Audi Q7

UK likes: Football

UK dislikes: Weather - Gulf Week

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