August 1, 2017
The Eagle takes flight
A nutmeg in the centre of the pitch, and 31,342 fans are off their feet. "There were a lot of people, noise, Ajax up against us: you'd have to be mad not to love that." The shy smile and quiet voice contrast with the audacity of the move, as if he lets his feet do his talking. At 20, Bassem Srarfi soaked up the experience of his first European match like the rays of the summer sun. Before the return leg, the playmaker sat down with us to talk about his arrival at the club, how he has settled in, and his first steps with the first team.
'EVERY TRAINING SESSION, EVERY MATCH: EVERYTHING WAS DIFFERENT'
Five appearances, 41 minutes played, one penalty won: in five months, the promising talent signed from Club Africain has steadily found his feet in Ligue 1, not an easy thing to do when he arrived in January into a dressing room that was leading the table and heading for the Champions League.
"Overnight, I found myself with players older than me with Dante, Belhanda, Balotelli," he said. "It was the first time I had left home, and had changed country, club, league…Yes, it was hard. And in comparison to what I was used to, it was a step up: every training session, every match, everything seemed different to me. I said to myself that it was going to be really difficult, and of course when that's the case, you start to doubt yourself."
Aware of the scale of the change, the Gym took under their wing a youngster who has a big following in his home country, Tunisia, which is not used to seeing its young gems leave so soon. Everything was put in place to try and make him feel at home, and things began to settle. "The club and the coach have always told me not to worry because my first six months were to serve as a period of adaptation. They set me a date to be ready: July. After that, it was up to me to prove I had gotten through my first months."
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The summer break made that process easier, and behind the dressing room door, the fledgling 'Eagle of Carthage' broke the ice and began opening up to others.
On the pitch, his integration is already well in hand. In training, Lucien Favre marked him man-to-man, correcting his errors, polishing him up "notably in defensive phases." Going forward, he flits around Mario Balotelli during friendlies, taking advantage of opposing defences focussing on the Italian to dart into space, to play and to make others play. He scored his first Nice goals in the win over Nyon (4-0), and then teed up Arnaud Souquet against Gent. "I've been given a chance, and I'm trying to make the most of it," explained the elegant left-footed schemer. That 'chance' and his consistency took him to the first leg against Ajax where he shone with his determination and pace before dropping off in the second half.
When he meets us, with two days to go before the return leg, the concentration is apparent behind his relaxed exterior. "They're a very good team with players of my age," Srarfi said. "We mustn't be afraid, and go there to win it! We believe we can do it and we're looking forward to it."
Looking forward to playing inside the Amsterdam ArenA, the stage of some great European nights. "In Tunisia, the Champions League is the biggest competition of them all, the most watched. We're going to try and do all we can to get through and qualify."
An ambition shared on either side of the Mediterranean.