Sitting second in Serie A, just three points behind AC Milan, and receiving wall-to-wall praise from pundits, Napoli are enjoying a fine season by any standards. A major reason for that is the form of their 20-goal Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani, not to mention the contributions made by his strike associates Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavazzi.
Behind the men making the headlines, however, are a clutch of less heralded Neapolitan heroes, among them their French-born Algerian central midfielder Hassan Yebda, who joined the club on loan from Benfica at the start of the season and is making the most of his Serie A opportunity.
Though his shock of peroxide-blond hair might suggest otherwise, the No21 is not the type to attract publicity. As modest off the pitch as he is industrious on it, Yebda has quietly established himself as an integral part of Walter Mazzarri’s side, having also nailed down a place in the Algeria team. FIFA.com fills in the blanks on his recent emergence for club and country.
Born in a Parisian suburb, Yebda’s first forays in the international arena came in the blue of France. Victory with Les Bleuets at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Trinidad and Tobago 2001 proved to be the highpoint of his youth career. Yet, as he explains, that success did not prove to be the springboard he had hoped for: “It was amazing, and I have very vivid memories of that World Cup. But, for some reason, winning that tournament proved to be nothing but a handicap for me. I wasn’t given any margin for error and yet no one had complete confidence in me either.”
From blue to green
In the years that followed that triumph, injuries and an absence of first-team opportunites at Auxerre, the club that discovered him, would cause Yebda to lose his way. Departing for Le Mans in 2006, he finally began to make a name for himself, showing his ball-winning skills in making 24 appearances in the 2007/08 season, in which he also scored three goals.
Further opportunities beckoned when Benfica came in for him at the end of that campaign. It was a challenge Yebda was only too happy to accept. “The set-up there was perfect,” he explains. “They were a legendary club with a great coach [Quique Sanchez Flores] and talented players like Angel di Maria, Pablo Aimar and David Luiz, and the league was exciting too.”
Flores had faith in his new signing, giving him 25 first-team starts in a side that would eventually atone for a third-place finish in the league by winning the League Cup. There then followed a move to English Premier League outfit Portsmouth, where he would face another test of his patience in a season that ended in relegation for the crisis-stricken club.
Yet despite his trials and tribulations with Pompey, 2009 also proved to be his breakthrough year with Algeria, Yebda answering coach Rabah Saadane’s call to represent the country of his parents. “I loved playing in the English league but it was a tough experience,” he says of his time at Fratton Park. “And though it was a bad season for me at club level, I also had some unforgettable moments with the national team: my debut, qualifying for the World Cup, reaching the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations and then playing in the World Cup itself.”
Deployed by Saadane just in front of the defence, with a brief to organise and distribute possession, Yebda was a cornerstone of the Fennec line-up at South Africa 2010, although he was ultimately unable to prevent their elimination in the group phase. “We were full of fear out there,” he laments. “We didn’t express ourselves and we forgot to attack.”
See Naples and fly
Whatever Algeria’s shortcomings, the maturing 26-year-old had done enough to impress Napoli. Indeed, such was their faith in him that only a couple of months after his arrival in the south of Italy, club president Aurelio de Laurentiis was moved to declare: “This is a turning point for Hassan. Napoli is set to become a very important phase in his career, which is about to explode.”
Yebda promptly set about proving that forecast right, making a niche for himself in a well-drilled unit and turning in some high-quality performances in their ascent to second place. “I don’t know if I’ve exploded or not,” he says with disarming modesty. “All I’m bothered about is the team. What I do is secondary to that.”
Though the scudetto is a realistic proposition for Yebda and his team-mates, the Algerian is quick to dampen expectations: “We’re not getting carried away, and I can tell you that “championship” is a taboo word in the dressing room.”
In the meantime, and somewhat frustratingly for Yebda now that his club career is going so well, Algeria have continued to struggle, though their Italy-based linchpin is confident they can get back to winning ways under new management: “We’ve come to terms with Saadane’s departure and we have a new coach in Abdelhak Benchikha, who’s very highly thought of by the team. We’re rebuilding now and all we need to do is add that little extra ingredient to make it all come together.”
If his Serie A success story is anything to go by, Yebda is set to play a big part in Algeria’s future. But is he concerned that Fennec fans will start to expect too much of him now? “I don’t think people have any extra expectations of me just because I’m playing for Napoli now and the club’s doing well,” he answers in typically modest fashion. “I don’t see it that way. I’m with the national team because I enjoy playing for them and because, more than anything else, I want to make the fans happy.”