Bouazza Exclusive

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Escape from poverty fuels Bouazza's desire

Written by Brian Doogan of the Sunday Times

HAMEUR BOUAZZA, Fulham’s exciting Algerian international forward, is recalling the Paris of his youth, a bleak, suburban hotbed of racial tension and high-rise estates, a volatile cocktail of joblessness, hopelessness, drugs and violence. “Every day we fought with the police,” he explains. “There was fighting all the time.”

With its large immigrant population creating a permanent underclass, Evry, on the southern outskirts of Paris, became a notorious breeding ground for the unrest that erupted into bitter rioting in the city and in other parts of the country during 2005. “I don’t know what happened, but sometimes things just go wrong.” Bouazza reflects. “What I do know is that it wasn’t good for me to live there.”

Department 91, the area in which the 22-year-old grew up along with two brothers, two sisters and parents who had both emigrated from Algeria, was reputed to be the ghetto of Paris. “It is very, very dangerous, the toughest, no question,” says Bouazza’s Fulham teammate, Diomansy Kamara, who grew up in nearby department 93.

“Paris is not just the Champs-Elysees or Tour Eiffel. Its is a big city with a multicultural population. I know 91 and there are a lot of bad people there, drugs, everything. Thierry Henry comes from Les Ulis, which is very close by and is also a tough area. Football gave him a possibility to escape and it was the same for Hameur. You are so angry when you’re born here that you want to leave this place. You have the motivation and this is the key.

Decades of social and ethnic segregation left such a mark that for boys like Bouazza there were few positive influences on the streets of Evry. But Henry was one, and his example offered the promise of new horizons beyond the concrete maze of this city slum.

“Sometimes I didn’t go to school because all that I wanted was to play football. It was football, football,” Bouazza reveals. “I started playing at nine and when I was 15 I got a chance with Auxerre. It did not go well and after a year I returned to Evry. Hen a scout suggested that I should go to England for a trial and this is how I ended up on a scholarship at Watford (in 2003). They were giving young players like me an opportunity and I took it.”

He was loaned to Swindon in the 2005-06 season but returned to Vicarage Road to play in the Premier League, manager Aidy Boothroyd deploying him with some effect on the left wing, where his energy, pace and powerful left-footed strikes frequently did damage during a campaign in which Watford, despite commendable effort, did not.

“It was a difficult season and we were disappointed at the end of many games but, for me, it was magnificent to be playing on the biggest stage with some of the world’s best players,” Bouazza acknowledges. “We played in an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United (in which Bouazza scored Watford’s only goal in a 4-1 defeat, a spectacular overhead volley) and I finished the season as (Watford’s) top scorer (with seven goals). All the time I was thinking about where I’ve come from and all this hard work I’ve put in to achieve my goals.

“I go back to Evry as often as I can to see my family and my parents. They’re pleased that I made it and that I am playing professional football. Many of my friends are still there, playing in friendly games for local teams and, for some of them, it has been impossible to find work.

“There is so much unemployment in the area. So I take back some shirts and boots and they’re really pleased. I like to do this to show I’m still the same person now that I was when I left. Everything has worked out for me but I know how it can be if no one gives you a chance.”

Following Watford’s relegation, Lawrie Sanchez, the Fulham manager, gave Bouazza another chance in the Premier League when he made him his eighth summer signing for a fee that could rise to £4m.

”Hameur is an exciting young player with a great deal of potential,” insists Sanchez, who delighted in his winger’s stunning free kick in the recent 3-3 draw against Manchester City. “His attributes as a player fit in with my philosophy to play attacking, exciting football. He provides further place and attacking guile to our frontline and I’m delighted he signed for the club.

A total of 14 goals conceded by the Cottagers so far indicates where the weakness lies but Bouazza that they are working as a team on becoming stronger defensively. As he serves coffee and cake to the schoolchildren from the Fulham FC Skills and Learning Centre, part of the “World’s Biggest Coffee Morning” in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support, he also reveals that his observance of Ramadan precludes him from eating or drinking during daylight hours throughout the Muslim holy month. His faith is the only aspect of his life that is more important than football. “The fasting is difficult but it’s my religion, so I do it,” he explains.

His conviction proved to be just as strong when he was approached last year by the Algerian Football Association to play for the North African country. “I always wanted to play for my country, and my country is Algeria,” he declares. “I grew up in Paris, yes, but I’ve always known my nationality. I am Algerian, just as my father and mother are. My grandmother lives just outside Algiers (the capital) and I have many cousins there.

“Football is so important to the people of the country and there was great disappointment when we didn’t qualify for the African Nations Cup (they were eliminated in their final qualifying game in September by Gambia) but we intend to come back strong and qualify for the World Cup in 2010.”

It is this determination that is likely to make Bouazza stand out in the Premier League. The fight was bred into him from an early age.