El Karkouri fears burn-out of long, hot summers

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The Independent Football

Ever wondered how the cuckoo knows when it's time to let on that spring has arrived? Simple. He just looks at the Premiership table, checks that Charlton are in mid-table with a baffling row of LLLLs to their name and he has the perfect signal to start tuning up his larynx - the Addicks' end-of-season slump. It's so predictable the cheeky little warblers could even set their cuckoo clocks by it.

Ever wondered how the cuckoo knows when it's time to let on that spring has arrived? Simple. He just looks at the Premiership table, checks that Charlton are in mid-table with a baffling row of LLLLs to their name and he has the perfect signal to start tuning up his larynx - the Addicks' end-of-season slump. It's so predictable the cheeky little warblers could even set their cuckoo clocks by it.

And this year he would have been amazed by his alarm's precision. Mid-February top six; end of April, top 11. If you hadn't seen it year in, year out you would suspect it was a one-off. "Yeah, it's strange," admitted Talal El Karkouri, the Moroccan central defender who is experiencing his first taste of one of football's oddest phenomena. "A few of the other players have told me that it just always seems to happen here, that Charlton always tend recently to finish the season poorly. But why? I can't really say, as it's my first season. In fact there's only one word I can use: strange."

Manager Alan Curbishley's red face at the training ground on Friday hinted that he had been using another word to sum up to players who may be counting down to their summer holidays just how he views a run that has brought two points from the last 18. Except that would hardly be a fair accusation to level at El Karkouri, and not merely because he has been arguably Charlton's most consistent performer this season. He is tired, listless and dejected for all the right reasons: one boot in the grave, not one foot in the Algarve.

"I haven't had a summer break in five years," the 28-year-old said, before outlining a schedule that has been a Talal order in every sense. "The people who make this happen are stupid, nothing else, stupid. Straight after this season here, I must go and play a series of qualifiers for my country. And if we win those, like I pray we will, then next February I will have to play in the African Cup of Nations and then in the World Cup in the summer. That will be six years without a break.

"Why don't the African countries play their games at the same time as the European countries, seeing as almost all of us play over here on the Continent and need their summers to rest? I don't know. Money perhaps, but really I don't know. What I do know is that we players don't matter at all to them [the national federations]. Our international managers have all argued to them as much, but they don't care about us and what they are doing to us. I am worn out, physically and mentally, as are my international team-mates. We get on with it because it's our profession and because we have to."

Paul Scholes would doubtless put him right on that admirable misconception this afternoon as Manchester United come visiting The Valley. The 30-year-old, who El Karkouri regards as "still easily the best midfielder playing in England", found it within himself last year to forsake England for the sake of Paul Scholes. "I could never do that," said El Karkouri, before agreeing that there may be different pressures turning out for a country that would never get to see you otherwise.

"In Morocco it's not just 30 or 40 per cent of the country who recognise you in the street but everybody. When we play there's more than 100,000 there and everybody but everybody is talking about it. You feel like you need to give something back to your land, to that incredible support. I could never give up playing for Morocco. Not until my body falls apart."

Which might not take so long, judging by a career that took him from his tight-knit family in Casablanca, and made him play it again, and again, and again, at Paris St-Germain, Sunderland, Paris St-Germain before becoming Curbishley's third big signing last summer for £1m. El Karkouri's success everywhere has been double-edged, this ultra-reliable centre-half often racking up more than 50 games a season in six long years on the professional road. If that priceless engine did not make him a valuable enough commodity, then there has been another facet added this term - goals. Five of them, in all, which only John Terry's eight betters from the heart of defence.

"I never believed I would get five goals," he said, and they haven't been any old goals either. They still talk in Paris about the wiry defender whose free-kick in a Champions' League match against Rosenborg bettered Roberto Carlos's for both ferocity and sheer chutzpah, and at Highbury they will agree, that particular thunderbolt busting net-strings and threatening heart-strings with equal menace in a 3-1 defeat. "People tell me it's odd for a centre-half to take the free-kicks but I've being doing it since I was a boy," he said. "My dad showed me how just like he showed me how to do everything in football, and although he wasn't a professional, just a good player in Morocco, he still watches all the tapes now and rings me up with advice, saying, 'Yes to this, Talal', 'No to that, Talal'."

Such contact is almost daily for an only son who readily admits to missing home, even though the yearning has eased with age. Being a single Muslim living on your own in deepest south-east London can't be much fun, although the thousands he saves for his planned retirement in northern Africa helps, as does the cult status he enjoys in SE7. It was the month following his debut and a dreadful encounter with those great entertainers from Blackburn when a winning goal from El Karkouri lit up that rainy September night. The chorus went up, "We've got Talal El Karkouri, we've got Talal El Karkouri," with a speed of self-deprecating humour that only terraces can muster. It's become the Addicks chant of choice in 2005, as United will discover today. They might laugh at its surreal nature, but shouldn't expect the words to be hollow. Especially Wayne Rooney.

"He is just very young, so we shouldn't be talking too much about him, not when they've got Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistelrooy," he said. "But whoever they've got, you can't be scared. I've faced Ronaldo, not the one from United but the one from Real Madrid, and I thought then, 'If I'm scared, I may as well tell the manager I am, and stay at home and watch the game on telly with a cup of tea'. It'll be great on Sunday, a pleasure to play against such great players, and a great challenge. And don't forget we could still get into Europe this year."

What Curbishley would do for 11 El Karkouris.

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