I very nearly missed it. Tucked down towards the bottom of the Guardian’s football page a couple of weeks ago was the announcement that the Moroccan playmaker Adel Taarabt had left QPR on a free transfer to join Benfica. Despite knowing his departure was inevitable, the news made me, and many other Rs fans I’m sure, feel rather sad.
Looking at the stats over the previous few seasons, it is not immediately obvious why his leaving should inspire such feelings. Last season he played 8 games in all competitions and was trusted neither by Harry Redknapp nor Chris Ramsay, amid tales of poor attitude and fitness. The season before that he wasn’t even at QPR, spending half the year on loan at Fulham, followed by 4 months at AC Milan. He has always been frustratingly inconsistent, and probably only showcased his true talent in 5 or 6 games during Rangers’ last 3 Premier League campaigns.
Yet, those of us who were fortunate to watch him on a regular basis during the 2010-11 season will always hold a special place in our hearts for him. He made watching football fun. Regular attendance at football matches may be many things; it may be exhilarating, it may be frustrating, it may be miserable, it may inspire moments of scarcely credible joy, but watching a game in which your team is playing is rarely fun. Taarabt’s performances during that season were some of the most enjoyable experiences of my life (don’t ponder on what that says about my life. Please).
Anyone who is unfortunate to have spent time in the pub with me beyond the 4th pint will know that I am a champion of sport as an aesthetic experience. Sport played with skill and grace is for me as beautiful as a Constable landscape or a Matcham theatre. My favourite sportsmen and women are people such as Mark Ramprakash, Roger Federer, Gavin Henson or Marie-José Perec – people for whom excellence appears to be so effortless.
Watching Taarabt during the 2010-11 promotion season was a wonderful aesthetic experience. His level of skill is such that it on occasions seemed almost unfair to the poor Championship defenders who were supposed to try and stop him, but it always seemed so easy for him. Lionel Messi is an astonishing dribbler, but he looks so frenetic, as if he is playing with the sprint button permanently pressed down. Cristiano Ronaldo is an unstoppable force of nature, almost like he’s an U13 player playing in the U9s. Whenever Taarabt on the other hand executes some jaw-dropping moment of skill, he appears to do so in slow motion, so that you think surely the defender had time to do something about it.
Going to the football is not cheap, particularly in London where prices for everything (except petrol bizarrely) are hyper-inflated. Therefore a ticket to a match is an investment, arguably leading to a situation now where supporters are less partisan followers and more entertainment customers. However, whatever I paid to watch Taarabt during that season (I can’t remember how much tickets were off the top of my head) was excellent value. Every game, whether he was on top form, whether he looked disinterested, or whether was being kicked every time he got the ball, he would perform at least three pieces of skill that would make the crowd gasp with admiration. There’s something intoxicating about being part of a collective whole witnessing a thrilling event, and the sheer audacity and insouciance of Taarabt’s talent was utterly thrilling.
There were many highlights; the most obvious one is his second goal in a 4-0 victory over Swansea City on Boxing Day where he nutmegged Joe Allen so comprehensively, you can see Allen’s whole body just sag at the futility of it all. Then there was a mesmeric dribble against Burnley, a couple of crackers in a crucial game at Cardiff City, and a beautiful curler against Preston North End. He made plenty of goals too – he was fouled for several penalties, he tricked his way through the defence before setting up Alejandro Faurlin against Bristol City and, my personal favourite moment of the season, set up Wayne Routledge for a late winner against Coventry City with an inch-perfect 40-yard through ball with the outside of the right foot, a pass so beautiful it should be hanging in the Louvre.
Yes he has flaws – his attitude is often poor, he can get easily frustrated, he dives too much and he doesn’t really understand the concept of football as a team sport, but without those flaws, his talent is such that he would never have been near a team as lowly as QPR. We have seen a long line of gifted yet enigmatic attackers at Loftus Road from Rodney Marsh, through Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Roy Wegerle, Trevor Sinclair and latterly Akos Buzsaky. I never saw the first three, but I would guess that Taarabt is at least the equal of them all. When his talent is harnessed for the good of the team, as it was so superbly by Neil Warnock during that glorious season, then he is nothing short of a genius. I’m incredibly glad to have seen him play, and mourn the fact that we shall never (probably) see him at Loftus Road again.
Just in case dear reader you have not witnessed the extraordinary skill of the Adel Taarabt, here are three youtube clips that demonstrate his sublime talent:
Assis against Coventry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x054OE04yEs
Goal against Swansea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXwmOTJI3_E
Taarabt at his best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ld-4NZM839E