BARRY ANDERSON discovers that Scotland’s top scorer, Farid El Alagui, is still a bit of a mystery man
NOBODY recognises Scotland’s top goalscorer strolling down the street in Stirling’s bustling town centre.
Actually, he is not even a striker in the true sense of the word. He is a goalkeeper. Or a defensive midfielder. He has also worked as a banker. There is indeed an intriguing background to Falkirk’s Moroccan magician, Farid El Alagui.
With 12 goals in 13 games so far this season, El Alagui is arguably the hottest property in Scottish football. But just who is he? Statistics show he is an extremely accomplished goalscorer who inspired Falkirk’s surge up the First Division. Then there are the two goals which eliminated Rangers and propelled his club into the League Cup quarter-finals. Not forgetting the double against Annan Athletic which secured Falkirk’s place in the Ramsden’s Cup final.
Yet most football fans across the country couldn’t pick this humble 26-year-old out of a line-up, even allowing for his North African appearance. He admits being surprised at instant success with Falkirk, not least because he played in goal until the age of 15. Then came four years as a defensive midfielder. Only for the last seven years has El Alagui been playing as a forward.
It was the former Hearts midfielder Stefano Salvatori, pictured below, who helped lure him from the French fourth division club Romorantin in July. Falkirk fans were fearing the worst entering the new season with a team largely comprising inexperienced youth academy graduates.
They needed a reliable goalscorer and Salvatori used an agent in France to source El Alagui. One tranquil Sunday morning in the small town of Romorantin-Lanthenay, around 100 miles south of Paris, the player’s life changed forever.
“It was a big surprise,” he recalled. “An agent in France knew me and he called me one Sunday a week before the new season was starting in France. He said I could go to Scotland for a one-week trial if I wanted to. I said I wasn’t sure because it was very sudden but he said I had to leave that night. I told him I would call him back in an hour.
“I went on the internet to read about Falkirk and learn something about them. I knew they had played in the SPL before but I didn’t know anything more. The agent who called me knew Salvatori. It was Salvatori who called him to ask if he had a striker available. Falkirk had another striker coming but at the last minute he could not come. So I got the call at the last minute.
“In the end I thought, ‘Why not? I will try it and see what happens’. I trusted in the team. I called the agent and told him I would go and that night I took the flight to Scotland. I was very pleased to get here because everything at Falkirk is at a high standard. The training and the people were very good. I went back to France and the gaffer called me to say he wanted to sign me and I signed for one year.
“When I was young, I wanted to play in England like most footballers. When the agent called me with a chance to go to Scotland I thought ‘why not?’ Maybe it will be a good window for England. I can play one year here and maybe see what happens after that. Maybe we will do something good in the league with Falkirk this year and play in the SPL next year, that would be the best thing to happen. If we can challenge then I would want to stay here. I feel very good at this club.”
Who wouldn’t with such an impressive goals-to-games ratio? El Alagui is already attracting interest from other clubs just ten weeks into his career in Scotland.
Falkirk supporters may worship the ground he walks on but he prefers a quiet, unassuming life away from football.
“I started playing football at six or seven, like everybody. It was just a hobby,” he said. “I didn’t come through an academy or something like that, I just played for my local team in Morocco until I was 18. I was a goalkeeper until I was 15 but then I wanted to play outfield, so I became a defensive midfielder. When I was 19 I tried striker and it was okay. My manager wanted to see me more there and I did well.
“I got a move to Bergerac and stayed there for three years until I joined Wydad in Casablanca. That was very different to everything I saw before. It is a big club in Morocco and we won the league the year I was there. I played in front of 30,000 and 40,000 crowds. The maximum was 60,000 for the derby (with Raja Casablanca). It was an incredible year.
“In Casablanca, you can’t stay in the town. Football is everything there so I lived in a small town 20 minutes away. Then I moved to play for Romorantin, south of Paris, for a year and then I came here.”
In Casablanca he was mobbed by fanatics wherever he went, however that is no longer the case. “Sometimes in Stirling people look at me because my face is different and I don’t look Scottish, but not many people stop me. The fans I have met have been very friendly. After the Rangers game some fans stayed to ask me for autographs and pictures. It was a very famous night for them and they will not forget that.”
El Alagui’s Moroccan parents and sister arrived last week to provide company for a player living by himself in Stirling. El Alagui passes his time travelling, seeing sights and learning about Scotland’s culture. His English is exceptional and his attitude to life and football first-class.
“I just arrived two months ago and I’m not a person to stay at home,” he explained. “I like to go out visiting and learn the culture so I have taken the opportunity to do that. I am keeping very busy. Hopefully the weather will not be too difficult for me to get around. I have been to the castle in Stirling, I’ve gone to Edinburgh and Glasgow too. In France I lived near Madjid Bougherra’s brother so I know him already. I spoke a little with Mehdi Taouil, too, and I will maybe go to meet him.
“At school, I learned English very well. I thought I would need it one day. I studied finance and I worked in a bank before when football was just pleasure for me. When the opportunity came to join Casablanca, that’s when I decided I wanted to play football full-time.
“Now, one of my main objectives is to wear the top of Morocco. For every footballer, playing for your country is something you can’t explain. I feel both Moroccan and French, but my origin and my heart are Moroccan. My blood is Moroccan.”
His goals have certainly got the red stuff flowing through the veins of Falkirk fans. El Alagui is a Bairn till the end of the season at least, but he is growing up astonishingly fast.