x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Kerkar happy that his football destiny has reached Emirates Club

Karim Kerkar could have gone back to Europe but his decision to stay is helping Emirates realise their Asian Champions League dream.

The worlds of Zinedine Zidane and Karim Kerkar are poles apart. The first is a World Cup winner and a legend of the game, among the best football has seen; the second boasts a comparatively modest CV.

Their backgrounds, however, are not dissimilar. Both were born in France to Algerian immigrants, five years apart - Zidane in Marseille and Kerkar in Givors. And both have a playing style that puts an emphasis on flair and never fails to entertain the galleries.

Kerkar is, of course, proud to share the same Algerian ancestry. "To be from the same country, it's a pleasure," the diminutive playmaker said.

Like Zidane, who started playing the game in the main square of a modest housing complex in the notorious suburb of La Castellane, Kerkar's footballing journey started with neighbourhood games and took him through various outposts in England, Scotland and Qatar before he arrived in the UAE.

"I was born in France and I played there in the early part of my career," said Kerkar, who has been leading Emirates club's fairy-tale run in the AFC Champions League. "I studied there and played for five years before moving to England. It's good because I got a lot of experience.

"I started very young, when I was in the first division. Now I have become a little bit old, but it's OK. I still have a little time."

Kerkar, 34, is still delivering strong performances for Emirates, a Division One side.

The Ras al Khaimah club have been a surprising success in Asia and still have a chance of qualifying from a group that includes Zob Ahan, last year's losing finalists.

If they beat Al Rayyan in their final group game in Qatar and Zob Ahan get the same result at home against Al Shabab, Emirates will become the first UAE club to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League since 2007.

If that happens, it would be one of the highlights of Kerkar's professional career, which started with FC Gueugnon in 1997. A year later, French football was on top of the world as Zidane guided Les Bleus to the World Cup title on home soil.

After two seasons with FC Gueugnon, Kerkar signed a three-year deal with Le Havre at the end of which he moved to Manchester City on a free transfer. After impressing the then City manager Kevin Keegan in pre-season, he was offered a three-month trial. Nicolas Anelka, the French international striker, had switched to City in the same season.

"This gives both parties a chance to take a look at each other," Willie McKay, who was Kerkar's agent, said at the time.

David Bernstein, the City chairman during that era, said money was available should Keegan decide to sign Kerkar.

"If the manager believes that Kerkar can add to the quality we have already got, I am sure he will find us flexible," he said.

Kerkar, however, failed to get a game during his three-month spell and decided to move to Al Sailiya in Qatar. A year later, he was back in Britain, impressing in a month-long spell with Clyde before earning a deal with Dundee United. But his experience in Scotland did not last long and his nomadic existence began.

In May 2005, Kerkar signed for Dubai Club, switched to Al Wahda in 2008 and moved to Emirates in 2009. In between times, he agreed to a deal with St Mirren, another Scottish club, in 2007, before reneging on it 24 hours later. A month earlier, he had turned down an offer from St Johnstone, yet another team from north of the English border.

"I was getting injured in Europe because the weather doesn't help me," Kerkar said, explaining his decision to stay in the UAE.

"When I came here I feel very good. I had a lot of opportunities to return to Europe, but I decided to stay here. Sometimes you have to make a decision - maybe good, maybe not good, but you just have to follow your destiny."

Kerkar's younger brother, Salim, is playing for Glasgow Rangers in Scotland. His elder brother, Farid, plays for the Reunion Island club US Possession. All three, according to Kerkar, were inspired by their father.

"My father used to play football, but not at a very high level," he said. "My elder brother played at a high level. I have a younger brother, he is 23 and he plays for Glasgow Rangers. I have another younger brother, but he stopped because he does not like football.

"All of us owe it to our father. He has been encouraging and supporting us from the very start and we have to give him credit for everything."

His parents still live in France, while Kerkar, who has represented the Algeria national team, lives here with his wife and two children. One of his sisters is also a UAE resident along with her husband, and Kerkar feels at home in the country and at Emirates club.

"Yes, I am enjoying it here," said Kerkar. "When you come to a club, you have to become integrated. The group is very good; it's like a family.

"I used to play in Europe … seven, eight years. Then I came here. The football is totally different. Here, they are looking at foreign players to do everything. But for us, it's difficult," Kerkar said.

"In Europe, everybody is at the same level and they don't think about just one or two players to win the game. Here it is more difficult because you have to give more."

As he tries his best for Emirates, Kerkar keeps abreast of developments back home in France and he is not pleased that French football chiefs have, according to reports, secretly approved a plan to limit the number of non-white players at youth academies, where players are groomed for the national squad.

According to Mediapart, an investigative news website, the French Football Federation have backed a plan to limit non-white players to 30 per cent at these academies and Kerkar said: "I heard about this and for me, some people they are very small.

"For me, to speak like this is not very good because we are all the same.

"We have different colour, but the same blood. Black or white, or yellow or blue, for me it's the same.

"But some people, inside their head they are very, very small. It's very stupid. But it doesn't matter. If they want to talk like this, they will not go very far. They will stay the same, or maybe go down more."

arizvi@thenational.ae