It is the football equivalent of the classic ‘good cop-bad cop’ partnership: one centre-half exhibits passion and aggression, is a dissuasive force, and inspires fear, while the other is calm and elegant, possesses persuasive power, and inspires confidence.
In an interrogation room measuring 105 by 68 metres, where every question pertains to putting the ball in the back of the net, Alaeddine Yahia and Syam Ben Youssef are experts at making opposing forwards crack under pressure.
“I’m a more technical player; I like to build from the back, and I take care when clearing the ball,” responded Ben Youssef to the same question.
Given these answers, it is not all that surprising to hear Yahia offer the name of Carlos Mozer, the rugged Brazilian defender, as an example of a player he admires, while Ben Youssef provides the light-footed pair of Paolo Maldini and Laurent Blanc as his idols.
Team-mates at Ligue 1 outfit Caen since the summer of 2015, the North African duo have learned to complement each other, even though the 34-year-old Yahia, drawing on his vast experience, does not hold back from offering his fellow centre-back – seven years his junior – some pointers from time to time.
“He likes to use the ball more than most defenders, especially when we’re building from the back,” he said. “But beautiful football involves an element of risk. He tends to deal with dangerous balls by trying to carry them back up the park, but sometimes it’s better to just clear them. Of course, simply knocking the ball out of play doesn’t look all that stylish, but he’s a defender first and foremost.”
“I’m already thinking about taking the ball back up the pitch before regaining possession,” admitted Ben Youssef, who is experiencing his first spell in the French top flight, having previously enjoyed stints in Tunisia, England and Romania.
“Sometimes, that can backfire. And so Alaeddine tells me to take care of my basic defensive work first, and then do more if I can. He gives me lots of advice on positioning, accuracy and aggression. He pushes me every day so that I really challenge myself.”
In fact, Yahia took his compatriot under his wing from the very first game they were paired together, for Tunisia against Cameroon in a play-off for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in October 2013. “He really put me at ease,” recalled Ben Youssef.
“He told me that he would look out for me, and that I should look out for him. Things developed naturally. He’s a good player who’s had a great career, and when you play alongside him, things are a lot easier. You can tell he’s a fighter, someone who’ll always be there for you.”
The result of this immediate understanding was that the Eagles of Carthage held a strong Cameroon side – featuring Samuel Eto’o, Pierre Webo, Jean II Makoun and Alexandre Song – to a 0-0 draw.
“We had a bit of a ragtag team that day. But after playing beside my new defensive partner, I actually put in my best international performance,” said Yahia, who was part of his country’s squads at the 2006 World Cup, the 2004 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament and the 2004 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, where Tunisia triumphed for the first and thus far only time.
It was therefore only natural that, when the coaching staff at Caen asked Yahia for his thoughts on a Tunisian defender at Astra Giurgiu that they were thinking of signing, he would give them a glowing report.
“They asked me if I knew him, and I told them he was a very good player,” said the former Lens, Guingamp and Nice star. “His career’s taken quite a winding path, but I’m really happy for him now, because he’s a nice lad, and an excellent footballer. He’s adapted extremely well to the demands and standards of Ligue 1.”
“Honestly, he was one of the main reasons I came to Caen,” said Ben Youssef. “I trust him completely. Although he’s a good footballer, he’s also a great guy. When I heard that Caen were after me, I gave him a call, and he filled me in. It’s an interesting situation, because he plays in the same position as me, and so in theory we’re competing with each other, but it’s a healthy type of competition. He gives me so much advice; he only wants the best for me.”
Beneath Yahia’s rough-and-ready exterior clearly lies a protective mentor whose first thought after scoring against Troyes on 19 March was to run across the pitch and throw himself into the arms of his protégé, a substitute that day, who he would love to see properly step into his shoes at international level.
“That’s it for me - my time has passed,” said the veteran, who has not always enjoyed the easiest of relationships with the Tunisian coaching staff, and who earned the last of his 23 caps versus Egypt in November 2014.
“There are younger guys there, like Syam or Aymen Abdennour, who are very good. I’m 34. I’ll be 35 by the Cup of Nations in 2017 and 36 by the 2018 World Cup. What would be the point in me continuing, from my or the team’s point of view?” he added.
“I think he still has a lot more to give to Tunisia. He doesn’t think so, but I keep telling him that he’s still got two or three good seasons in him. If I’ve got one piece of advice to give him, it’s that he should make the most of his last couple of years, not think about the end, and push back retirement as long as he can.”
Fortunately for Caen’s supporters, the Ben Youssef-Yahia tandem still has many pertinent questions to ask of France’s penalty-box predators.