Disappointment and disillusion may have dogged Philippe Mexes every step of his France career, but now, at last, the Roma man has silenced his doubters and taken what many feel is his rightful place at the heart of Les Bleus' defence. Almost nine long years since he made his international debut, the 28-year-old finally put in the kind of performance his fans have always known he is capable of, standing steadfast as his country overcame Brazil 1-0 in a friendly at the Stade de France last Wednesday. FIFA.com recaps the Toulouse native's stop-start international career; a tale of early misunderstandings, lengthy exile, and a timely renaissance.
To say the young Mexes had it all is hardly overstating the case. He burst on the scene at the turn of the Millennium, winning approval thanks to his mature displays for Auxerre in a modern sweeper role. Technically gifted and brave in the tackle, he was a UEFA European U-19 champion in 2000, and a losing finalist in the UEFA European U-21 Championship two years later. To many experts he was clearly an ideal successor to Laurent Blanc, groomed and ready to step in alongside the likes of Lilian Thuram and William Gallas in central defence.
It was no surprise, then, when Mexes won his first cap against Malta in October 2002, before forming part of the FIFA Confederations Cup-winning squad of 2003. Yet, no sooner had he appeared on the scene than he was deemed surplus to requirements. First, Jacques Santini left him out of France’s UEFA EURO 2004 squad, a perceived lack of versatility possibly weighing against him. Then, Raymond Domenech routinely barred his route to the national team, ignoring his credentials despite a successful move to Roma in Italy, where he was consistently lauded as one of the top three central defenders in Serie A.
Whenever he did get the call, the blond centre-back showed a tendency to try too hard if anything, so intent was he on making an impact. Nonetheless, on the back of a disastrous EURO 2008 campaign, Domenech did turn to him for the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign, and a match that will live long in Mexes’s memory - for all the wrong reasons.
That game was in Vienna in September 2008, when an uncharacteristically hesitant Mexes was involved in all three of Austria’s goals as Les Bleus fell to a shock 3-1 defeat. Banished to the international wilderness once again, he would witness France’s South African debacle from the comfort of his own armchair.
You have to make the most of times like these because they are the exception. I’ve been through a lot with the French team and these are the best times I’ve had in ten years.
Fate finally took a turn for the better when Laurent Blanc, his idol and mentor, took over as France coach in June 2010. Not only was Mexes welcomed back to the squad, he was made captain for Blanc’s first match in charge, a friendly in Norway on 11 August. “To be appointed captain was great. I feel comfortable, at ease with myself,” said Mexes at the time, visibly relieved that trust was at last being placed in him. The offer was not incidental either. Blanc is a fine reader of men, and sensed Mexes would respond in the right way.
Six months on, playing alongside Adil Rami, Mexes was confidence personified against Brazil. Timing his tackles to perfection, he kept a tight rein on strike duo Alexandre Pato and Robinho, while bringing the ball out of defence to great effect, setting up French attacks with his sliderule passes.
“Philippe’s confidence is growing. He’s becoming just the defensive leader we need,” said France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris after the match. Mexes preferred to emphasise the defensive teamwork involved. “We all talk to each other out there," he said. "There isn’t one leader, there are four,” he said, before taking time to reflect on the road travelled: “You have to make the most of times like these because they are the exception. I’ve been through a lot with the French team and these are the best times I’ve had in ten years.”
Now, though, Mexes is at a crossroads. First, he must decide on his future at Roma, where his contract is coming to an end. Then, he needs to put down firm roots in the France backline as Blanc plots a path to EURO 2012 glory and beyond. Twenty-nine next month, Mexes ought to look no further for inspiration than his national coach, who was at his imperious best from the ages of 32 to 35. Should he replicate Le Président’s golden late form, greatness beckons for a man who once feared that his time had come and gone.