FEATURE | European Player of the Season, 9th: Nabil Fekir

This article is part of Get Football’s European Player and Coach of the Season series, as we countdown our ranked top 12 in both categories to name the winners ahead of the Champions League final at the end of the month. Read every profile and see the full ranking right here.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing down the Guadalquivir for Nabil Fekir. His first season on arriving from Lyon saw Betis finish 15th, with the midfielder scoring 7 and showing stretches of brilliance in a talented but misfiring squad. In came Manuel Pellegrini over the summer and the club’s fortunes dramatically improved, as the Chilean coach led them to a 6th-place finish by streamlining their talents and dramatically improving their defensive solidity.

This year has been a continuation of the former Manchester City manager’s work, with an improved defence and the performances of forwards Juanmi and Borja Iglesias leading them to another European finish and a Copa del Rey win. Fekir has inevitably been central to this success, with the outrageous talent that first saw him break out at Lyon once again on full display this year. 

Were it not for another ex-Lyon man playing in Spain, the 28-year-old would be the best French player this season on the other side of the Pyrenees. His talents have never been in doubt, even after the inconsistency of his post-2018 seasons, but this season has seen him step (back) up – now more than ever, he has become a fully-fledged bético.

It’s not been an easy journey to his first club trophy. Many in France thought he had made a mistake, a bêtise – pun very much intended – in joining Seville’s second team, when more enticing clubs were after him. The low transfer fee – €20m, a year before the end of his contract – was simultaneously a bargain and a gamble for Betis. From Fekir’s perspective, he was joining a team with a notoriously tempestuous history, who wear their reputation as the underdog with pride.

What’s increasingly clear now, though, is that Fekir will be relieved that his Liverpool move the previous year never materialised. This is a player that thrives on being at the centre of attention, for better or worse. One that comes up with moments of brilliance but suffers foul after foul and goes. One that needs to feel the confidence of his club, and that of an adoring fan base that cherishes every whimsical move borne out of his blazingly inconsistent genius. The hyper-mechanical nature of Premier League football and the unbearable pressure of English football would simply not have worked out for Nabilon, whose legend is built on moments rather than statistics.

The Copa del Rey win saw most of the attention centered on Joaquín. Understandably so, given the feel-good story that it was – the hometown boy returning to captain his club to a first title since he left in the first place. However, Fekir’s goal directly from a corner against the arch-rivals in the round of 16 will have been just as important a contribution as any, and just one of a spate of decisive flashes across the campaign. In the final, it was the Frenchman’s ball for Héctor Bellerín that led to Betis’ goal, from Borja Iglesias. In the league, he scored a double against Levante that included a free-kick goal. The Valencians appear to be one of his favourite targets, given he also scored from a slaloming Maradona-like goal against them last year to win La Liga’s goal of the year award.

Earlier this campaign, the midfielder had told ABC that his dream was to return to Europe’s premier club competition with Los Verdiblancos, which would ultimately be a true reflection of the team’s quality. As true as that is, heading into the final day of the La Liga season, a Champions League spot is unfortunately already out of reach. Defeats in both of their derby clashes in the league have ruled them out by virtue of their head-to-head record, sending Manuel Pellegrini’s men to the Europa League once again. His own form has also faltered in the last few weeks of the season, with the cracks of a long domestic and European campaign starting to show.

It appears unlikely that any of this could precipitate a departure from Andalusia, though, even with reported interest from Barcelona. Fekir’s visceral tie to Betis and the city of Seville has only grown over the last nine months, having flourished into the team’s creative leader after a difficult first two years. He is under contract until 2026, and all signs point to a long-term stay at a club that, like Lyon once, has wholeheartedly embraced him. Now more than ever, this is his club.

Fekir recently told Le Figaro that he felt he was coming close to the form he showed in the 2017-18 season, but that he still needed to truly rediscover his goalscoring form. That year saw him score 23 goals in all competitions as he captained his hometown club to a Champions League place and won the World Cup a few months later in Russia. Although his 10 goals this term don’t tell the whole story – the pre-assist and assist is where the Frenchman truly shines – there is a clear recovery from his post-2018 dip and a sign that much more is to come.

Should he continue in this vein, it would be difficult to argue against a return to the France squad in time for the tournament in Qatar, after a two-year absence from Didier Deschamps’ call-ups. In any case, remaining a central figure at Betis would be his best bet to give himself a shot at a second World Cup win.

Raphaël Jucobin

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