Rugby and football are often seen as two completely different sports, sharing little in common except grass pitches, studded boots and team spirit. Even the balls are different. The story of French international rugby player Dimitri Yachvili, however, suggests that the two sports may be more similar than you thought.
Indeed, the Biarritz scrum-half – renowned for his exceptional kicking game and considered one of the best in the world in his position – was a useful footballer as a youngster, and continues to use football as a base for fine-tuning his technique.
Yachvili, the French national rugby team’s second all-time leading point-scorer, gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com, in which he spoke of his early encounters with football and described the influence the game still has on his rugby career.
FIFA.com: At what age did you start playing football?
Dimitri Yachvili: I played club football for Nice from the age of eight to 12. My family was from Brive (in the south-west of France), but my father was transferred to the Cote d’Azur for work and we stayed there for five years. I did a year of rugby and then played football for four years, which was a great experience. I was a left-footer, and as there were few others around, they put me on the left wing. That suited me perfectly.
Your father, Michel, was an international rugby player. Was he happy for you to switch sports?
It’s true that we’re a rugby family, but he let me choose. I had loads of friends at school who played football, and I wanted to try a new sport. My father had no problem with me changing from rugby to football. When my family moved back to live in Brive, a rugby town, it was only natural that I took it up again.
Would you say it was football that helped you develop such an excellent kicking game?
Yes, I certainly think it has helped me. It’s not the same kind of kicking action, and the ball is different, but the sensation of foot on ball is still very similar. Playing football allowed me to have a better feel and touch, which I think really helped me.
Do you still practise your kicking with Jean-Michel Larque, the former international footballer?
Yes, we’ve been working together for about a decade now. We have a session every week, which allows me to correct my kicking action and be more precise and consistent. His top-level experience and professionalism help me a great deal. It gives me an outside perspective, which enables me to fix things straight away and to understand why I make certain kicking mistakes. From the positioning of your body and shoulders, to planting your standing foot in the right place – the principles are the same in both sports.
Those sessions seem to have paid off, as you’re now considered one of the best in the world in your position.
What I can tell you is that it takes a great deal of hard work every day – both on and off the pitch – with lots of rest and stretching to make sure I stay as flexible and loose as possible.
If you had been a footballer, which position would you have liked to play in?
I really enjoyed being a left winger, but I’d love to have been a centre forward. I’m a No9 when I play rugby, and I’d really like to have had the same shirt number as a footballer.
Which goal from the past do you wish you had scored?
There are one or two! Perhaps one by Jean-Pierre Papin, who had a spectacular eye for goal and scored the kind of volleys you don’t see these days. Or maybe one of David Beckham’s free-kicks, like the one he scored in 2001 against Greece in a 2002 World Cup qualifier. And then there’s Eric Cantona at Manchester United, and his famous lob into the top corner after that brilliant burst upfield. When you see that goal, it makes you shiver.
Which player do you admire the most?
If I had to choose one, it’d be Cantona. He was an unpredictable, extraordinary player with lots of class and combativity. His charisma was unmatchable. To achieve what he did in England, and to get the whole of Old Trafford singing the French national anthem... well, I have to take my hat off to him.
Who would be your choice for the FIFA Ballon d’Or award?
What Lionel Messi’s doing at the moment is extraordinary, and he certainly has a strong case with everything he’s achieved this year. I would say, though, that we tend to be a bit too quick to reward forwards and attacking midfielders, simply because they score the goals and provide the assists. We don’t give enough credit for the work of defenders, who are every bit as deserving but whose efforts are less visible.