Speak to the people who know Ryan Mendes da Graca’s game best, and they will tell you he has an awful lot going for him.
“He’s a kid with some fantastic attributes, especially his pace and acceleration,” said Cedric Daury, his former coach at Le Havre.
“Speed, power and technique: those are his strong points,” chipped in Francois Rodrigues, the man who brought him from his native Cape Verde Islands to Normandy.
“I needed someone quick, who could give us depth, take defenders on and run at people with the ball, and he has all those qualities,” was the opinion of Rudi Garcia, his new coach at Lille, summing up the rich promise of the nippy 22-year-old forward.
Given those attributes, it is no surprise that the youngster from the island of Fogo is enjoying a dramatic rise to prominence. In the space of three short years Mendes established himself as one of the classiest acts in France’s Ligue 2, his performances with Le Havre attracting the attention of the biggest teams in the land.
Last year came his big break as he stepped up to the French first division and the UEFA Champions League with Lille, an exciting development that he discussed in an interview with FIFA.com.
“Everything’s come about very quickly,” he said. “I started the year playing at places like Istres in front of a few hundred fans and ended it at Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla with several thousand watching. It was a big change I can tell you, but it was just the thing I’ve been working so hard for. It’s a dream to be where I am right now.”
Despite taking the fast track to the top, things have not always been easy for Mendes. The son of a painter, he scratched out a living with a brush in his hand before his footballing skills earned him a passage to Europe.
“I was spotted when I was 18 in a tournament in the suburbs of Le Havre,” he said, taking up the story. “Quite a few clubs came in for me, Benfica among them, but it was Le Havre who won me over with their offer of a five-year contract.
“My first few months in Europe were very difficult: the climate, the language and even the football were different. I’ve had a lot of help though, I’ve really stuck at it and I don’t have any regrets about anything. I’m where I want to be.”
Blue Shark on the prowl
His move to Lille last summer was the fulfillment of a dream, and though he has struggled with injuries and his club are out of the Champions League and lie a lowly eighth in Ligue 1, Mendes is smiling through it all:
“Things have been a bit tough for us, for sure. There have been a few changes in the squad and some new players have come in, me among them, and we need some time to gel. We’re working at it though, and we’re doing all we can to set things straight.”
He added: “On a personal level I made a pretty good start, though the injuries have been a bit of a setback for me. Hopefully I can steer clear of them in the second half of the season.”
After scoring Lille’s final goal of 2012 and his second in the league in 12 appearances, Mendes has plenty to look forward to in the near future, starting with the upcoming CAF Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, where he will form part of the 23-man squad as Cape Verde Islands make their first ever appearance in the competition.
Discussing that momentous occasion, he said: “Qualifying for the competition was a big event for my nation. I have never seen the country in such a state of excitement as it was after the game in Yaounde [where Cape Verde clinched qualification against Cameroon last October].”
Despite the ecstasy triggered by that win, there is no question of the young Mendes getting ahead of himself before the big event: “We’re going with no pressure on our shoulders and we’re just happy to be there. We’ve already pulled off a shock by knocking out Cameroon, and we’re going to put everything we can into it and show the fans exactly what Cape Verde are capable of.”
“Our group is a tough one,” he continued. “Angola, Morocco and South Africa are all big teams in Africa, and Bafana Bafana will be at home too. But you never can tell how things are going to work out.
That goes for the qualifiers for the World Cup in Brazil too. We lost our opening two games, but there’s no way we’re giving up. We’re still going to go for it because things can happen very fast in football.”
The upwardly mobile Mendes knows that as well as anyone.