The ongoing Mehdi Benatia ‘saga’ at Roma has yet again brought to the fore an issue all too prevalent in modern football – player power. While on this occasion the battle ground between footballer, agent and club is positively and mercifully birthday cake free, it is a situation that the Giallorossi and their President James Pallotta would have wanted to avoid, particularly as it comes so soon after the end of a highly successful year.
Make no mistake, the 27-year-old Moroccan enjoyed a stellar debut season at Stadio Olimpico. As one of Rudi Garcia’s first signings as Giallorossi Coach, the commanding central defender ended the Serie A campaign with 32 appearances and made up half of a formidable partnership at the back alongside Leandro Castan. In their 38 League matches, Roma kept a highly impressive 21 clean sheets and conceded a paltry 25 goals, a statistic bettered only by champions Juventus. Benatia weighed in at the other end too, chipping in with five goals as Garcia’s swashbuckling side proved the surprise package of the Italian season and easily secured their return to the Champions League.
However, less than a fortnight after the former Udinese man headed his final ball of the season in anger for Roma, relations between him and the club turned sour after he deemed the terms of a new contract offered by the Giallorossi to be ‘disrespectful’.
“What I got was an unacceptable proposal,” Benatia said earlier this week. “I heard that I was asking for €4m a year, but I never even got €3m. I only asked for a contract that shows me Roma really care. But if they’re offering me this or nothing else, it means they don’t want to keep me. My mistake was to be too correct with the club and too honest.”
While the Moroccan’s comments, in particular the final sentence, seem somewhat manipulative, the make-up of the Giallorossi wage bill suggests he may actually have a point. Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti are the club’s two highest earners, bringing in a combined €11m a season. Another 10 Roma players also have a higher income than Benatia, with two of them, Castan and Miralem Pjanic, recently having been handed new improved deals. For a player who has been among the elite performers for Garcia over the last 12 months, Benatia’s wages are, relatively speaking, mediocre.
However, the very public way in which he has voiced his opinions hints that he is after something more than an improved contract. He will have known the unrest and ill-feeling his comments would cause before he made them, yet make them he did. The player’s agent Moussa Sissoko has also had his say. “Will he play at Roma next season?” he said. “I cannot promise that, but perhaps it is Roma who want to sell Benatia.” Once again, these comments seemed designed to simultaneously portray the player as the innocent party and deepen divisions with the Giallorossi. When coupled with reports Sissoko has been in Barcelona this week to discuss a move to Camp Nou for his client, it becomes hard to take his or Benatia’s words as genuine.
So what now for Roma themselves? With one of the Stadio Olimpico side’s key players already unsettled despite the club’s successful season, the saga provides a first real test of the summer for President Pallotta. In the corresponding transfer window last year, he sold star players Marquinhos, Erik Lamela and Dani Osvaldo for a combined total of €76m. It was a move that attracted scorn at the time, particularly in light of the American’s pledge to make Roma ‘one of the greatest clubs in Europe’ shortly after his group’s 2012 takeover. Of course, the money generated was then brilliantly reinvested, part of it on Benatia, and played a major part in shaping Garcia’s team that took Serie A by storm this season. Pallotta’s decisions were justified by Roma’s hugely improved performances on the pitch.
The circumstances have now changed dramatically, though. Last summer, Roma had finished the League season sixth, had no European football to plan for and were every bit a club in transition. Garcia was new and unproven as a Serie A boss, while Pallotta himself was still getting accustomed to his own role. Now the Giallorossi are a rejuvenated force, can offer Champions League football, boast a plethora of high-quality talent and in Garcia they seemingly have the ideal man to take the team forward to new heights.
With all of this in mind, Roma should now be an attractive proposition for top players rather than a club that continues to sell them. Benatia may well want away but it is vital that Pallotta is now seen to at least put up a fight to keep his star performers. Should the Moroccan leave and others follow, just how genuine he is in his ambitions to make the Giallorossi one of the game’s elite may again be called into question.