Backstory: Saïd Benrahma
While most players are accompanied by their agent and maybe a parent, when Saïd Benrahma arrived at West Ham United’s Rush Green training ground in October, he was joined by his mother and his brothers.
Throughout the day, the closeness of the talented forward to his family was there for all to see.
Proud smiles and jokes were exchanged as Benrahma signed his contract, posed for photographs in his new Claret and Blue kit, and happily conducted his first interview as a Hammer.
Midway through his interview, his mother’s mobile phone went off. Benrahma laughed and embraced his mother. Nothing could ruin this special day for a special family.
Here, the No9 reflects on his upbringing, which saw him move from Algeria to France as a boy, and his atypical football career – a career that has led him to international recognition, acclaim from his football-mad compatriots and the Premier League.
I grew up in Algeria until I was 11 or 12.
I lived near Oran and Arzew, in the Camp 5 neighbourhood of Bethioua. I grew up there, and that's where I started playing football.
I went to school in Camp 5 the first time around. Then, I moved to Aïn Bya, still in Algeria. Then, after that, I moved to France when I was nearly 12 years old, and I went to secondary school and college in Toulouse.
So then, I started playing for Balma SC for three seasons before I moved to US Colomiers.
I got on well with everyone as a boy. I'm a happy-go-lucky person, so I got on well.
I have six sisters and one brother and I'm the youngest.
I'm a real family guy, so I stayed with my family a lot: my Dad [who passed away in January this year], God rest his soul, and my Mum.
When I lived in Algeria, I stayed with my Dad, and when I came to France, I stayed with my Mum.
We're a really tight-knit unit, and I've always lived with my family. Even today, I still live with my Mum.
At the start, when I moved to France, it was hard because I was leaving my father, who I was super close to.
I went to live with my mother. It was difficult at first, but my Mum did everything that she could to make sure that I felt alright, that I didn't feel alone, that I didn't feel like I was missing anything.
It was difficult because I had a bit of a difficult childhood, at least when I first came to France, but my Mum made sure that I didn't feel it.
It was tough at first because I wasn't used to it. I didn't know what it was like. I arrived, and on top of that, I didn't speak French.
I didn't speak French at all, and I had to learn it there and then because sometimes, people would make fun of you because you didn't speak good French, and that was tough.
It was tough, but I think that that shaped me.
It helped me to be stronger mentally and to withstand anything that might happen.
And I think that when you move from a foreign country at a young age, when you move from Africa, it's difficult when you move abroad at a young age when you're not used to all that.
I had my Mum, thank God, who helped me. I also had my sister and my grandma, and they made sure that I didn't feel the difficulty of it, and thank God for that.
My happiest childhood memory is when I played in a tournament in Oran.
It was the Algerian Cup but for youth players. I was little, and yeah, it's a great memory. So, yeah, that's it.
There's also another one, which is when I went to watch an MC Oran game.
MC Oran were my local team, and I went to watch them. I actually had a game to play in myself before their game so, once we finished our game, we went and took photos and stuff, and it was amazing.
That was the first time that I'd gone to their stadium as well, and there was a real atmosphere.
It's one of my happiest memories.
I started playing football when I was really little.
I think that I started playing for a club at six years old, but I'd always liked football. I played barefoot, you know!
Algerians quite like dribblers. They like players who can dribble. We like to be entertained, and Algerians are real football lovers.
I think that in Algeria, football is a big thing for people. So, yeah, they like to be entertained.
North Africans in general are technical players: Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians. We have that inside of us. We like to entertain.
I had a dream, which was to be a footballer, but given that I didn't have the resources for it and I didn't get the opportunities, I had some belief but not much.
I didn't even think that I would join a professional club, because I didn't exactly have any contacts, because I didn't know about all that stuff.
Even when I signed for Nice at 18 years old, I wasn't sure. As soon as I joined Nice, though, I learnt stuff, and that's what I wanted.
I spent two years as a scholar, I wasn't professional, and I learnt a lot.
I think that that's when it really clicked for me that I could play professionally, and I gave myself the tools to do so.
Before that, though, it was difficult. Even though it was my dream to play professionally, it felt impossible to me.
But then, I worked hard, and now, I'm happy.
When I was 16, I think, I really thought “That’s it, I won’t make it” and become a professional.
I was seeing everyone at academies, and I thought, “No way, that's never going to happen to me.”
I thought, “This is impossible. If I can find just one professional club that wants me, that would be heaven.”
And at 16, I didn't get anything until I turned 18.
Even when I joined Nice, I thought, “This is going to be hard.” I only started to truly believe when I was 20.
I had some tough times at Nice, but they shaped me. I didn't think that I would make it, though, and I still don't, in the sense that I count myself as one of the lucky ones.
I'm super happy.
I'm doing what I love in the greatest league in the world. What's better than that?
If you'd said that to me five years ago, I never would've believed you. Or if you'd said that to me even three years ago, I would've said, “No, stop talking nonsense. Go to bed.”
It's a dream, though, it's a dream.
I'd had a good season as an U19 at Colomiers and several clubs were interested in me and wanted to see me.
So, I went to Nice, but I actually had the choice between a few different clubs. So, for the first trial that I wanted to do, I went to Nice.
On the first day, I trained. On the second day, there was a practice match: the first team against the reserves.
So, they included me in the squad as a substitute, I came on and, between you and me, I did pretty well.
It was half-time, and – this is bringing back memories! – I came on, and the first-team manager Claude Puel liked my attributes.
Later, they asked me to come back. I hesitated. So, in the meantime, I went to Monaco.
Monaco wanted to sign me, and Puel really wanted to see me again, so I went back to Nice, and it went well.
I met Puel. He told me, “We've got plans for you, we want you to have two years of development.”
So, basically, I'd be a professional scholar.
Then, I went and played in a tournament with them. It went well, and I went back to Nice, I started playing for their reserves again, and then the first first-team match that I did play in was in my own back yard, away to Toulouse in Ligue 1.
My favourite football memory is my debut in Ligue 1 when I was playing for Nice, which was away to Toulouse, in my own back yard!
So, my whole family were there, everyone was there. There were people there who knew me.
The year before, I was at Colomiers, so I wasn't playing professionally. I was playing for the U19s.
So, they could see ‘33, Saïd Benrahma’ coming onto the pitch, and they were shouting, “Saïd!” They were mind-blown.
So, yeah, that's my greatest memory because my family were there, everyone was there, and I was proud.
When I was little, I liked Hatem Ben Arfa a lot. I've played with him, too, but I liked him a lot even before that.
I played with him at Nice, and it made me proud because I'd followed him when I was little, given that he's older than me.
He was a player that I liked before, and now, I was in the same team as him. It was a win-win. On top of that, he's a great guy.
He went on to have a great season, and he blew us away, so I was right about him as a player.
I liked Eden Hazard, I liked Ronaldinho, Messi, Ronaldo… I liked Cristiano Ronaldo as well as the old Ronaldo, the Brazilian one. Zinédine Zidane, too, there were a lot of players that I really liked.
That said, the ones that I related to the most were Hatem Ben Arfa and Eden Hazard. It was more those players, and I quite liked their playing style.
Making my debut for Algeria against Senegal [in October 2015] was incredible. Honestly, it was incredible.
You get sensations, for example, when you play in the Premier League, when you play in the Championship, when you first arrive, when you play in Ligue 1, when you play in Ligue 2.
I got sensations from those things, and they made me proud, but playing for your country...
I've followed Algeria ever since I was little. I supported the team, I went outside with people [to celebrate], you know?
So, to get my first call-up to the national team was... You really can't imagine what it's like.
Every time that I'm called up, it makes me proud.
I don't have the words to describe it. It makes you unbelievably proud.
I can only wish that you were Algerian and that you knew how it felt because, really, it's not the same as with other national teams, for example.
Honestly, they give you their love, and I don't think that every country gives as much love to their players as Algeria. I don't think there are many countries that are as proud of their players.
When West Ham came knocking, I didn't hang about. I was really excited.
That was my aim, that was my dream and my family's dream, you know.
I made a promise to my father, God rest his soul, and for the moment, I'm happy because I think that he'd be proud.
As long as I know that I'm making my family proud, I'm happy.
I'm a real family guy.
I'm with my Mum and my sisters a lot.
God rest his soul, but before, my Dad and I were close. We're all really close, so of course I talk to them about every decision, and they give me advice.
Obviously, the decision then comes down to me, but they've always supported me, even during the hard times.
They've never given up on me, they've always given me strength, and what I'm trying to do is to make them proud.
I'm proud to have them, first of all, and given how they support me and give me strength, all I can do is thank them.