The night before his debut in the Champions League, Adel Taarabt could not sleep. These were, he said, the best days of his career.
He had scored in the stadium of Maradona in his first match for AC Milan, and he won at San Siro, “a magnificent stadium, too.” He trained at Milanello, an “exceptional” facility. “In the locker room,” he told RMC Sport on Thursday, “there are great players.”
He talks a little bit of Arabic with defender Adil Rami, also on loan, and even though he doesn’t play as much anymore, Philippe Mexes has encouraged Taarabt, who didn't expect the Frenchman to be "so cool." Finally he was seeing how good life was for players at a big club.
He wanted this chance earlier. In 2011, according to the 24-year-old Moroccan, PSG had offered €12 million to Queens Park Rangers for him. This happened before the big moves, before Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi. The buy-out clause for Taarabt was set at €17 million, and it was too much “for a player who had only one good season in the English second division,” he said, too much for a player with a bad temper. He had scored 19 goals and registered 16 assists in that campaign to lift QPR to the Premier League.
His sights were fixed. “In my head, I was in Paris, a big club, I was going to play the Champions League,” he continued to tell RMC. “I spent a year of misery. It was hard.”
Maybe that’s why he lost focus in England. Maybe he thought he was big already. Taarabt turned up late to training, and he was fined £60,000 last year after refusing to have his weight checked by the club’s doctors. Then there was the time he stormed out of Craven Cottage at the half. He was still wearing his training kit, but he headed for a nearby bus stop, and on the way he snapped pictures with fans as his team lost 6-0.
“You’re going to get days when Adel throws his toys out the pram,” Neil Warnock, the manager of QPR at the time, told the press (h/t Eurosport) after that match.
So these are the 10 best days of his career. He’s given high-fives with Kaka and taken walks with Mario Balotelli. Before the move to Milan, Taarabt had made just seven starts for Fulham and scored once on loan from QPR. It took him seven minutes to match that total with the Rossoneri, and he’s played three full games since.
To score that goal in his first game at Napoli, Taarabt ate up a large part of the field and nudged the ball into the corner. He did something similar for QPR, although he had to negotiate a harder maze of defenders to get the goal.
Against Atletico Madrid he dazzled, the ball passing so quickly between his feet. It’s not just the flash: he supplied four key passes in that Champions League encounter, according to WhoScored.com, and Taarabt ran all over the pitch, coming back to defend and make timely interceptions.
“I will give everything I can for our coach to repay the faith he has in me,” Taarabt told UEFA.com that Wednesday night. “Tonight he wanted me to push forward but also to contribute defensively, and I tried to do this as well as I could. My position is not important, as long as I'm on the pitch.”
These are the words of a team player. Maybe he realizes that this is the chance he always wanted, and maybe the last. The faith of Clarence Seedorf, so instantaneous, without question, may have made a difference. The praise, which preceded everything, was there before.
The reporters got a comparison out of Martin Jol, who brought the player to Fulham. “Taarabt is a Maradona type of talent. He’s a one off,” the Dutchman said, per Mirror Football. “You only see three or four players in Europe like him.”
For Harry Redknapp, who loved him and hated him and called him a “fruitcake", this kid could play “anywhere.” The manager let go of Taarabt twice, first selling him to QPR from Tottenham in 2010, this season loaning him out twice.
“When he came [to QPR] they called him the next Zidane,” Redknapp told reporters, per The Telegraph, in 2011. “He isn’t in the same league as Zidane yet because he was a genius, but one day he could be up there because he’s got that ability.”
But it has only been 10 days.
For Taarabt to stay at Milan—and that is what he wants—the club would have to pay €7 million to buy him out. There is still Stephan El Shaarawy, who is closer to returning, Keisuke Honda, Riccardo Saponara, Robinho and Andrea Poli. Taarabt is one of many in this team, a team in transition, and he could pay back Adriano Galliani, the CEO who coveted the player back when he played in the Championship.
It's not really a gamble for Milan: If problems arise, they could send him back, like the common return. It does say a lot about the club to reward a player who's done nothing on a consistent basis to prove himself at the highest level, but chances are exactly that.
“It's an amazing game, isn't it?" Redknapp told reporters, per Football-Italia. "You can't get a game at Fulham at the bottom of the Premier League and then you go to Milan!
It was Edgar Davids, the Dutch midfielder, who was sent off so many times as a youth at Ajax that a team official took him to Milan to watch the men play. These were the late 80s and early 90s, when Milan were the best.
Now the Rossoneri are not so hot—in ninth place in Serie A, and behind on aggregate against Atletico in the Champions League—but the example is still there, in the form of Kaka and Seedorf and even, to a certain extent, Balotelli. These are champions.
Maybe this is the trip Taarabt needed to take, too.