Zou Feddal's career a tale worth telling as Alaves prep for Copa del Rey final
Alaves players have been careful this week not to allow people to pat them on the back, in a patronising manner, for reaching the Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona. But no player in either squad has had to suffer football slapping him in the face over and over again -- until he needed to work out whether it was stubbornness or love that kept him pulling on his boots -- more than Zouhair "Zou" Feddal.
The Morocco international wasn't a big-money import for the Copa underdogs; in fact, he's probably spent more time in Barcelona than most of the Barca squad. When his parents decided to become economic immigrants in search of a better life for the family, he was uprooted from a happy, humble life in Tetouan, Morocco, at age 6. They landed in the Catalan capital, and eventually a path emerged that's taken the tall, talented, ball-playing centre-half to the Spanish showpiece final: a no-quarter-given contest with Leo Messi and Neymar.
But even though he has the raw talent and physical prowess to attract Monaco's interest when he was in his midteens, to anchor a team that beat Juventus just a couple of weeks before they played the 2015 Champions League final, and to be a current target for a number of sharp-eyed Premier League sides, Feddal's journey has been tortuous, agonising and potentially spirit-breaking.
Pitched into Catalan society as a child, it didn't help him particularly that Barcelona is proud of being a home to refugees and immigrants. It's a stated policy of the city to "try to give dignity to people arriving here for a better life." Feddal's life wasn't simple; he left school by 15 to become a carpenter's apprentice and had his first epiphany. Wood carving, creating something, working at a trade -- none of that could subdue his dream. Not of becoming a professional, necessarily, but of giving his all to playing football until he could get no more from it.
Life in Monte Carlo, where Monaco spotted him and tried to bring him through their academy, was too far away from home and family. Too soon. Back in Catalunya, he played for Unió Esportiva Vilajuiga (UEV). Even then, at a tiny, itinerant club in the fourth tier that had changed names a few times, there was no question of a wage.
"Me and my teammates all played simply for the pleasure of it," Feddal recalls of his 2008-09 "adventure." There were no lights at the practice venue, so when the club trained during the winter, all the players who had cars were told to park them around the pitch and turn on the headlights to pierce the darkness and allow some vision for practicing.
With him were current Barcelona third-choice keeper Jordi Masip and Sporting Gijon striker Victor Rodriguez. There was no pay, no joy and even no club by the end of that season. The doors were slammed shut forever; UEV no longer exist.
Would a potential adventure in Danish football come next? The club that tempted Feddal waited until the last day of the transfer market and then unilaterally told him he'd actually be paid half of what they'd offered and agreed to, because there was now nowhere he could go as the deadline had come and gone. Brutal. From there, he played for Xavi Hernandez's hometown club, Terrassa. No pay there either. With CD San Roque de Lepe, again thousands of kilometres away from loved ones, in the heart of Andalusia, he used the club that hovers between third- and fourth-division football to earn a big break.
Espanyol. Coached by current Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino. The big time. An end to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or not.
Clearly a talent, evolving despite never being paid for his efforts until this point, Feddal had been spotted by his national team. Morocco wanted him to play for their U-23 side in a friendly via which they'd determine who would represent the country at the London Olympic football tournament (the Olympics feature men's U-23 teams but women's senior national teams).
Feddal and Pochettino were getting on famously, but the friendly match wasn't an official FIFA calendar date and Espanyol banned Feddal from attending. Understandably, he still went. In fact, he played in the Morocco team that put Spain -- featuring David De Gea, Isco, Azpilicueta, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez and Koke -- out of the tournament.
Breakthrough? Forget it. Frozen out for ignoring Espanyol's wishes, Feddal was on the move again, off to Fus Rabat in his native country of Morocco. But it was one step backward, two forward when Parma spotted him. He was headed for Serie A, and toward being coached by Italian football legend Roberto Donadoni, only Donadoni wanted Feddal to learn the hard way, loaning him out to Siena and then Palermo.
Siena, where he played 32 times in the 2013-14 season, paid him just two months' salary, defaulting on the rest. The image of the rich, high-flying superstar footballer -- sought after in England (Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday), Spain (Espanyol) and Italy (Parma) -- who made enough money to support a humble family back in north Africa was a joke to Zou Feddal. His mother had to send him supportive injections of cash instead because football was slapping him in the face again.
Back at Parma, Feddal played with top pros such as Azzurri international Antonio Nocerino (who had been picked for Serie A's Team of the Year in 2011-12). Feddal's Parma team beat Italian champions and Champions League finalists Juventus 1-0 just seven weeks before Juve's date with Barcelona in Berlin in June 2015.
"Maybe I'm cursed, or perhaps it's just bad luck," he can joke now. Because while Parma were playing that well, the club was crumbling. Wages weren't paid again. Presidents came and went through a revolving door of broken promises, and bankruptcy followed.
Feddal had no future in Parma and there was no apparent improvement in the way football treated one of its most passionate, devoted fans. Why did he keep going?
"At Parma I trained and played as if I was being paid," he says, "and that was because it was then, in the face of what was happening, that I realised how much I loved football."
Then, suddenly, Levante. They were relegated that season, but they still were a solid club and they gave Feddal a chance to shine in La Liga. Back in his (adopted) country. And now, Feddal is at the heart of what has been solid and attractive and competitive about Alaves this season. He is coached by Mauricio Pellegrino, who was a brilliant, title-winning centre-half.
Of course, as an attentive student, Feddal has learned a lot, but the fact remains that he is a talent. Perhaps he is a late bloomer, at 27, but his development certainly has been held back by bad luck, ill treatment, some treachery and football's perpetual ability to treat some of its foot soldiers as nothing more than fodder.
So unless you are a Barcelona fan, this would be the weekend to keep your fingers crossed for Alaves. Partly for the club, partly for their talented manager, partly for the Europa League adventure a Copa del Rey victory would give the Basque club next season. But mostly for Zou Feddal. One of the good guys who deserves to get a pat on the back instead of a slap on the face from the sport he so loves.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.