A nation places its faith in Benazzi

A captain's talent and strength of character have lifted him above prejudice. Ian Borthwick reports
Click to follow
At a time when the French nation is struggling to come to terms with Le Pen xenophobia and the recent passing of another town - Vitrolles on the Cote D'Azure - into the hands of the National Front, the presence of a Moroccan as captain of France is heavy with symbolism. Especially among the rugby community which has always cherished its image of a slightly marginal group of freethinkers.

Abdelatif Benazzi, son of Zineb and Mohamed, is not only an Arab, but a practising Muslim, and proud of it. Born and raised in Oujda, near Morocco's border with Algeria, he was the unanimous choice to replace Philippe Saint-Andre as captain last year when the Tricolores' left-winger was forced to pull out of a Test series against South Africa with a groin injury.

"Being captain of France, even if it is just an interim, is an enormous thing for me, and I feel very honoured to have been given the role," he says.

"It is far more than just a personal victory, but it has not really changed me. In Oujda I am not particularly famous, and my family, as ever, welcomed the news with modesty and simplicity."

As for his Muslim beliefs, they are as discreet as they are unbending. "I have a faith, and it happens to be Islam. But Islam also teaches one to respect others, respect their difference," he says. Religion is central to his life and his success as a sportsman. "It gives me immense strength. Strength to work, to play rugby and to keep things in perspective. It is my driving force and, as such, very important to me."

Gifted with immense inner strength and determination, Benazzi, despite a relatively late start in the game, has risen to become one of the world's finest forwards, devastating in defence and with the ball in hand. He is one of the few players to have worn all the numbers from 4 to 8 in international rugby, and even today his true role remains undefined within the French XV. Second row, flanker or No 8 he is as unclassifiable as he is indispensable to the French, and there is still a possibility that he will play half of today's game in the back row and half in the second row alongside Olivier Merle.

Benazzi first encountered rugby at the Lycee El Ouahda in Oujda, where his PT teacher, Majid Vert, a former second-rower for Morocco, convinced the powerfully built teenager to give up track and field, forget the discus, the shot and decathlon, and take up rugby. Within a year he was playing for the Moroccan Junior XV and the chain of events which led to his arrival in France reads like something out of an Arab equivalent of the Boys' Own Annual.

In 1987, Benazzi, now a full international, was on tour with Morocco in Czechoslovakia where his path crossed that of a touring Third Division French side, Luzech. The power, energy and raw natural talent of the 19- year-old was immediately noticed by club officials who rapidly invited him to come and play in France, and in a matter of months he was playing for the nearby Second Division club, Cahors. His impact was immediate, and after one season at Cahors he transferred to Agen, one of the 17 First Division clubs which attempted to lure him away in the off-season.

Overcoming the racism and distrust which first greeted his arrival in this traditional bastion of French rugby became one of Benazzi's first major victories and now, six years later and with 51 caps to his credit, he has not only risen to the rank of captain of Agen, but also to that of a genuine local hero.

He has nevertheless remained close to his Arab roots: despite the gargantuan after-match festivities associated with rugby in south-west France he never drinks alcohol, remains a devout Muslim, and even attempted in the early years strictly to observe Ramadan despite the fact that it inevitably falls in the most rigorous part of the rugby season. "I now know that it is impossible to respect Ramadan and play top-level sport at the same time. So I cheat a little, and for all those days where I cheat I make them up later in the year, observing the fast from dawn to dusk."

His captaincy of the French team remains as discreet and understated as the rest of his personality. Benazzi never raises his voice, but despite the inevitable trace of the North African accent so often ridiculed in France, his size, aura and burning black eyes are sufficient to ensure respect. As for today's match against England, Benazzi places it a cut above the other games of the championship. "One of the things I will be saying to the younger players who have never played in England is that a game at Twickenham is something you will remember all your life. We know the English will start as favourites, but in that sense we have nothing to lose. I will simply ask the players to give it all they have got, to try everything so that at least we don't come off the field feeling frustrated."

He is conscious, however, of the scrappy nature of France's two early games, and of the disturbing number of handling errors which has prevented them from getting their game going. "In a match like this anything can happen," he insists. "We tried a lot of things against Wales, but we also made a lot of mistakes. Our support play was poor, and at times we were just trying too hard, being too hasty to allow things to fall in place. We will be looking to eliminate all those small imperfections from our game. But, above all, we are determined not to sit back and just watch England play."