Hannibal Mejbri has been catching the eye at academy level for Manchester United. FTF spoke to his former coach, Reda Bekhti about his rise.
The big clubs had come knocking on the door in the past. Arsenal, Liverpool, you name them. But none were persuasive enough for Hannibal Mejbri.
The allure of money or prestige did not sway him. Mejbri wanted something more. A tangible route. A proven track record of success.
And for youth football, no one can compare to Manchester United.
Youth is ingrained and steeped in the club’s history. From the Busby Babes to the Class of 92, and the likes of Lingard, Rashford and Greenwood carrying the club’s youth baton in the present era.
Mejbri’s decision was not one that was taken lightly. Leaving for pastures new is never easy.
But two years into his venture in the North of England, the move had paid dividends so far.
Mejbri has taken the hallowed Carrington training ground by storm. Turning heads. Making mouths gape. And in true British cultural fashion taunting away crowds with skills and swagger.
The rapid trajectory of the teenager does not surprise his former youth coach, Reda Bekhti, and he is predicting a bright future ahead.
In the Parisian sunlight, Reda Bekhti watched a group of boys chasing the ball aimlessly.
It was a typical U9 training session. The kids were still familiarising themselves with the ball and their teammates.
Until a shabby haired, spindly limbed boy took hold of the coveted treasure. With his first few touches, Bekhti could tell this was not a typical eight-year-old.
“I had Hannibal for the first time in the U9s with the 2002 generation,” Bekhti tells FTF.
“He was a year younger and I could tell straight away he was a very gifted player intellectually with an excellent technique, well ahead of his peers.”
As Bekhti worked with the young boy, he noticed there was more to him than just mere talent. He had a work-ethic and an insatiate mentality to play football.
“Hannibal was always an attentive boy and thirsty to learn. Our goal was to have him develop his individual qualities through collective sessions alongside his teammates.
“In training, he was a hard worker and a competitor. He was a perfectionist in everything. He wanted to master every drill before he was satisfied with the session.”
Bekhi taught Hannibal Mejbri how to spray passes across the field, developed his vision through extensive drills and his basic technique during the eight years they spent together. Even today you can see the essence of Paris FC’s concentrated technical work with the way Mejbri manouvers out of challenges like a painter dabbing his brush on the canvas.
The youngster can make the extraordinary seem effortless. He does not even have to try. He can frustrate his opponents like they were practise cones. And sometimes the only solution to thwart him is to scythe him down. Many mistake his poise for arrogance, but Bekthi disagrees.
“He is a confident and a strong character. People who did not know him used to think he was arrogant, but it’s the contrary. He loves competition, he just wants to win, that’s his charisma.”
On one or two occasions, Mejbri’s determination to win can cause him to lash out unnecessarily. His disciplinary record in United’s youth team is something that has been flagged as an area he needs to curb from his game.
But missing the first two games of the Premier League 2 season after a straight red card last season will have been an important learning curve and a caution to eliminate the petulant side of his game.
Football is in the Mejbris’ blood. Hannibal’s father, Lotfi, was a player himself in Tunisia before emigrating to France where Hannibal was born. His upbringing, according to Bekhti, has heavily influenced his career.
Mejbri’s family are tight-knit and they have helped him to overcome the vicissitudes that come with a professional football career. His father has guided his career closely and has instilled a hard-working attitude in the young man, which is present on and off the field.
Throughout his youth, Mejbri’s family always encouraged him to study and perform well in school.
“Hannibal has a family who are very close to him and very protective. They have been in charge of his excellent education and they are always taking care of him for his development. Because of them he is a calm and intelligent boy.”
Hannibal’s father played a key role in the offers that came their way as he attracted the attention of clubs around Europe.
The move to Manchester United was one which may have surprised some. The route to the first team at AS Monaco is certainly a more well-trodden path and less arduous. But even at Paris FC, Mejbri was never one to take the easy way out.
“I was not surprised. Looking back, it was the logical trajectory. But at the beginning I was a little sceptical of [Hannibal Mejbri] going abroad, because it is difficult.”
“In the end he showed a great deal of ability to adapt to a different style of football and a another environment. And you can see that hard work is paying off.”
A bright future
With his trademark locks in a bun, Hannibal Mejbri oozed confidence on his first Manchester United outing in the Premier League.
It may have been just eight minutes, but the young man looked composed on the ball with silky touches against a tough Wolverhampton side. He looked proactive with the ball, and he showed signs he belonged in adult football.
The brief flicker and impressive performances at U23 level was enough to earn him a call-up from the Tunisia senior national team – which Hannibal Mejbri accepted despite being eligible to represent France.
Bekhti believes Mejbri needs to overcome one last hurdle before he will be ready to compete at the very top.
“The Premier League requires a lot of athleticism and a strong physical capacity. He can still grow more muscle. If he passes this milestone and does not pick up any injuries, he will win over the boss [Ole Gunnar Solskjaer] I am sure.”
Manchester United may have strengthened in attack and defence this summer. But Solskjaer did not bolster his midfield, which gives Mejbri an opportunity to catch the eye and earn more minutes in the season ahead.
Many have compared Mejbri to Paul Pogba. The swagger and technical elegance is reminiscent of United’s current no.6. But for Bekhti, he sees Hannibal Mejbri emulating another Manchester United academy graduate instead.
“He can become a future Paul Scholes at Manchester United. He has all the qualities in the midfield to become a boss.”