"I don't think he has the profile to play for Barcelona and even less so for that price," noted a sceptical Rafael Marquez in summer 2014, when the Spanish giants side first looked poised to sign Jeremy Mathieu. A Camp Nou legend after winning two UEFA Champions League titles and four Liga crowns between 2003 and 2010, Marquez is someone the supporters listen to, and he was not convinced. "Hopefully the club officials have thought this through. For that price, they may as well get someone who's worth it."
The price in question was €20m, but Barcelona soon paid it to bring Mathieu on board despite the groundswell of doubt, which included one local newspaper labelling him "the worst signing in Barça history" before he had even kicked a ball. Needless to say, the then 30-year-old could have been forgiven for feeling unwelcome as he joined from Valencia. If so, he kept it to himself, and never more so than when one supporter took him to task following a training session. Angry that Barcelona had just drawn 0-0 with Malaga, the fan accused Mathieu of having cost him the €200 he had bet on a win – oblivious to the fact that the Frenchman had not even played.
It was on the pitch that Mathieu responded, though, as he helped the Blaugrana complete a sensational campaign. The Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League were all conquered in style, before Mathieu and Co added the UEFA Super Cup, followed in December by the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. "All of a sudden, things have been moving fast," he admitted, when FIFA.com pointed out that his collection of winners' medals is now growing as quickly as his popularity in Catalonia. "I didn't expect this when I arrived, but that's why I came to Barcelona. We pretty much won everything last year and I'm very happy to be part of this team."
Leaving a trace
Luis Enrique's side have carved out a place in history – no mean feat at a club so rich in past triumphs. Like the line-ups coached by Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff before them, the current Barça crop have not just racked up trophy after trophy, they have done so in a manner that has won them admirers across the globe. "What's important is to leave a mark and go down in the history of the club," says Mathieu, who started out as a left-sided midfielder before settling in at left-back until he was moved to the heart of Valencia's defence by Ernesto Valverde in 2013. "This team is in the process of doing that. We'll start to realise it little by little and maybe we'll look back on this as the years go by. It's not easy for us to realise we're in the middle of achieving something historic."
Mathieu may have a more objective take on success than most of his team-mates. After all, he made the leap from modest French side Sochaux to the Liga heavyweights with just two steps along the way, at Toulouse and Valencia. "When I first saw this player who was tall, quick, left-footed and good in the air, I said to myself: 'If that's not enough to make it as a professional...,'" recalls Guy Lacombe, the former Sochaux coach who gave him his breakthrough at the age of 18. "He was too introverted, though. We needed to get him to open up to other people." Alain Casanova, Mathieu's old boss at Toulouse, retains similarly positive memories: "He's a humble, very straightforward lad and I like him a lot. We all knew his qualities. We knew what he could bring to the attack, and now he's improved a lot in defence – and look where it's taken him."
Still happy keeping a low profile 14 years on from his professional debut, Mathieu has made big strides in every area, and his progress brought him the captain's armband during his Valencia spell. Surrounded now by a galaxy of stars at Barcelona, he does not feel out of place. "It's a joy to be at training – it's a lot of fun and all good natured," he says. "The players in this team are always thirsty for new challenges, with a desire to win that's in their blood. I've always wanted to win as well. I've spent time at clubs where it was more difficult to win titles, but I've built my career little by little, making steady progress. I came to Barcelona quite late in life, but it was a reward for my work and I think I deserve these titles. We enjoy ourselves, which is the main thing, and the titles come hand in hand with our enjoyment. What more could you ask for?"
'I just want a discussion'
Not much, clearly, and the early criticisms have long been forgotten. Instead, supporters applaud each of his crucial contributions, a list that includes a Clásico goal against Real Madrid last March. No French player picked up more silverware in 2015, and Mathieu's mission now is to convince Didier Deschamps to select him for UEFA EURO 2016. The defender himself believes that he fully merits his chance, though he is prepared to stand by the France coach's final decision.
"I spoke after the Clásico and a journalist said I was demanding a place in the France team, but I never said that," he recalls, underlining his point. "I just asked for an explanation. Didier Deschamps doesn't have 50 players who play for Barcelona, the team that just won everything. So I merely want to have a discussion and get an explanation, nothing more. If he calls me and tells me I'm no good, or that I should play a little more often, I'd understand. That's all I'm asking, nothing more. I've never demanded anything and if there's no place for me, that's not a problem. I've always respected the decisions of my coaches ever since I was 17, and I haven't changed."
Perhaps not, but Mathieu has certainly developed a knack for making the doubters change their opinion of him.