Saturday May 30 2020
Bennacer: 'Had to go where I was wanted'

Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer reveals why he had to leave Arsenal for Empoli, needs to rein in his tackling and wouldn’t ask Cristiano Ronaldo for a selfie.

He had already agreed terms with the Rossoneri last summer when winning the Africa Cup of Nations with Algeria and being named Player of the Tournament.

Now 22, he passed through the Arsenal youth academy before the sale to Empoli for just €1m in 2017.

“I arrived in England in July 2015, then stayed in a hotel for the first two months because I didn’t want to live with a family I didn’t know,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport magazine Sportweek.

“I was 17 years old and couldn’t live on my own, so my sister came to live with me, then the girl I’d been dating since school who in England would go on to become my wife.

“Finally, in September, I got some time on the pitch, but I was thrown on after two other injuries against Sheffield, played wide left in a trident attack, which I had never done before. I felt incredible pressure and wasn’t sure what was going on.

“I never played again after that, but I have no regrets, as I still got to train with important players like Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla. I had four years left on the Arsenal contract, but I had to be at a club where they really wanted me.

“I didn’t know Empoli, but I accepted a move down from the Premier League to Serie B because they were the club who wanted me the most. I did the same when deciding on Milan – I chose them for their history too, but also because it was the best project for me.”

Bennacer does admit there are some areas of his game that need to be worked on, as he can be a little too aggressive.

“I really need to cut down the number of cards I get and I got booked sometimes in such a stupid way. I feel the importance of wearing this shirt, the fans push you on at San Siro and I always want to give more. I can get a little too passionate at times, whereas a player must always think before he acts.”

At 22, the midfielder does show remarkable maturity and assures he isn’t swayed by big name stars.

“I have no colleagues who I idolise. I admire them, but if I run into Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, I’m not going to join the procession to pay tribute to them. It’s not arrogance at all, but quite the opposite, as my religion teaches me humility is crucial, so Ronaldo and Messi are men like everyone else.

“When I played against Juventus for Empoli the first time, at the end of the game many of my teammates asked Ronaldo for a selfie, but I did not.”