French playmaker Valbuena in line for starring role

France’s midfield dynamo has the vision and ability to lay on the goals

Mathieu Valbuena (left) celebrates with Olivier Giroud during the last-16 match against Nigeria at Estadio Nacional in Brasilia. Photograph: Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Mathieu Valbuena (left) celebrates with Olivier Giroud during the last-16 match against Nigeria at Estadio Nacional in Brasilia. Photograph: Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 08:00

It says something about the state they were in that a major footballing power like France can be regarded by so many as a surprise package at this World Cup.

Four years ago they were striking and issuing statements from the team bus. But on this occasion they have excelled.

Key to their success so far has been midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, whose story mirrors the fall and rise of the 1998 champions. Originally on the books of Bordeaux, he was released aged 18 – some say because of his size. He stands 167cm (just short of 5ft 5in) tall. Others claim he was let go because he failed to make the required progress. He spent the next year in the amateur leagues while working in a sports shop to make ends meet.

Valbuena was a winger in under-age football who had never once been rated highly enough to receive a call-up to one of the nation’s youth squads. But he stood out at Langon Castet where he ran the show as a number 10. His year there earned him a return to the professional ranks, with third division outfit Libourne Saint Seurin where it took a change of manager just to get him into the team. Still, having helped them to promotion in his second season Marseille came calling and picked him up for a song.

He was far from an instant hit at the Stade Velodrome. Injuries delayed his debut and indifferent form then limited his impact. But he finished the campaign well and scored the goal that got the club back into the Champions League. From there, he started to push on.

Over the next couple of seasons he played well and became a favourite with the fans but then Didier Deschamps arrived and almost immediately said that Valbuena did not feature in his plans as he didn’t have the abilities required to fit into his preferred 4-3-3 system.

The new manager’s authority was immediately challenged when the club hierarchy told him that the player would be staying. But they could not compel the World Cup winner to put him in the team and by December 2009, the then 25-year-old had had enough.

Valbuena demanded a face-to-face meeting with the coach and said he wanted a transfer during the January window. He was subsequently quoted in the press as saying he would announce his new club within days, but in fact he never left.

Instead, Deschamps brought his powers of persuasion to bear and talked him around.

“He said some things that were good for him to say, but hard for me to hear,” acknowledged Valbuena recently. “He shook me and I woke up.”

The player waited a short time longer for his chance but he stormed through the tail end of that campaign, his flurry of goals integral to the club’s title success. Moreover, his form was deemed good enough to earn him surprise selection to the national side and a trip to the World Cup in South Africa.

Valbuena confesses he was “a novice” at that tournament and seemed to take a back seat while senior players made an international laughing stock of themselves. He played little part in the competition either but he had his foot in the door which opened wider under Domenech’s successor, Laurent Blanc. Now, he is the only player to have featured in all of Deschamps’s games in charge and it is his form that allowed the manager to omit Samir Nasri and cope so comfortably with the loss of Franck Ribery.

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