When Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa joined Newcastle United in the winter transfer window, he became the latest in a wave of French speakers to join the Premier League strugglers. The 23-year-old former Montpellier defender is one of ten French players in the Magpies squad, and is now working hard to earn a regular place in central defence.
"It's a new league and a new team, he told FIFA.com. "It's not easy!."
Yanga-Mbiwa's first league start came last weekend in a 1-0 defeat by Swansea City, the kind of result that Newcastle cannot afford to repeat too often after their disappointing first half of the season. By and large, however, results in 2013 have justified the club's French-flavoured recruitment policy. Newcastle's new signings have helped lift the side clear of the relegation zone, with Moussa Sissoko in particular showing fine form since his arrival.
To some, Yanga-Mbiwa's decision to leave his formative club halfway through the season to join a team fighting for Premier League survival seemed a gamble. But the man himself has long dreamed of playing in the English top flight, and believes he is well equipped to succeed.
"There's good football here, and people are passionate about football," said Yanga-Mbiwa. "The fans live for their club, they're always behind their team and they do everything to help them perform as well as possible. There's also a great tactical culture and recognition for good bits of skill on the pitch, even defensive ones. There's everything I need here to thrive."
Apparently, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham do yoga and eat a lot of pasta with olive oil, but I'm still investigating!
Before joining Newcastle, Yanga-Mbiwa had heard positive feedback from existing Newcastle players while on international duty. And this, as he explained, helped to sway his decision. "Yohan Cabaye told us a lot of good things about Newcastle," he said. "Obviously, when someone you know talks about their experience in that way, it makes you want the same."
With Yanga-Mbiwa, Cabaye, Sissoko and Mathieu Debuchy all now in the Magpies squad, manager Alan Pardew has a core of regular France internationals at his disposal. The France squad has, in recent years, been made up of players based in various countries, and Yanga-Mbiwa believes that having so many Frenchmen in one place can only be good for the national team.
"Playing together all year round obviously lets you build an understanding on the pitch, and helps you to get to know one another better," he said. "If we then end up together at international level, that can certainly help the French national team."
A similar concentration of talent has worked wonders for Spain, whose national team is, for the most part, made up of players from Real Madrid and Barcelona. France host La Roja in late March in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, having earned a 1-1 draw in Spain earlier in the campaign.
Yanga-Mbiwa missed that game but will be hoping to feature this time. And while the defender has yet to establish himself at his new club, he is fast becoming a regular for France and is keen to build on an impressive 2012, which led to him being considered one of the brightest young talents in French football.
His rise started with Montpellier's surprise maiden Ligue 1 title, and culminated in a call-up from newly installed France coach Didier Deschamps, who put him straight in the heart of the French defence alongside Mamadou Sakho. Yanga-Mbiwa was included in former coach Laurent Blanc's preliminary squad for UEFA EURO 2012 but did not make the final cut, so he is savouring being part of the set-up now.
"Even though I didn't get to go to the EURO, it was great for me just to have made it into the provisional squad," he said. "It gives me even more motivation to work hard every day, so that I can continue to be part of this adventure in the years to come."
Yanga-Mbiwa had previously been invited to represent Central African Republic, the country of his birth. But the ambitious youngster chose to decline their offer and focus his attention on Les Bleus instead.
"Without wishing to offend anyone, France are among the best teams in the world," he said. "My goal was to do everything I could to get my foot in the door of the French national team. Being a France international is, for me, a key ingredient for a great career, and that’s exactly what I want to have. I want to play with the best players and for big clubs, and this is one of the steps."
Yanga-Mbiwa, it seems, already has his career mapped out, and has his mind set on playing into his 40s: "At the moment I'm looking for the recipe to stay in shape and keep playing for as long as possible. I've already researched the secrets of some of the Manchester United players. Apparently, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham do yoga and eat a lot of pasta with olive oil, but I'm still investigating!"