Clement Grenier is a shy, quiet character, and at times during the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 he has almost seemed invisible on France’s bench. The midfielder was a substitute for Les Bleuets’ first three matches of the tournament, and he watched for the most part as his side lose 4-1 to the hosts before bouncing back with a 3-1 win over Korea Republic and a 2-0 victory against Mali.
Les Bleuets were decisive in the latter stages of both matches, and it is surely no coincidence that their fortunes improved after Grenier entered the fray. Similarly, in their opening defeat by Colombia, an improvement came almost immediately after Grenier’s introduction from the bench.
Whether deployed as an attacking force or a stabilising presence, Grenier can do it all. Perhaps even more importantly, he is prepared to work hard even when he is not on the pitch. It was no doubt a combination of these qualities that led coach Francis Smerecki to name the youngster in the starting line-up for France’s Round of 16 encounter with Ecuador.
“I knew I was going to the tournament as a substitute, but I worked really hard in the build-up and I’ve continued to make a big effort to win a place in the starting line-up since we arrived,” Grenier told FIFA.com after France booked their place in the quarter-finals. “But my goal isn’t just to get into the team. I also want to stay there, to play well in a starting role and help the team as best as I can.”
Grenier was certainly true to his word in his last match. The Lyon youngster worked tirelessly to help out his defence, win back possession in midfield, spread the play to the flanks, provide service for the front men and even carve out the odd chance for himself. “I’m always trying to improve and do more on the pitch,” he said. “If I can provide an assist or help out the defence along the way, then all the better.”
“I’m not obsessed with scoring,” Grenier explained. “I’m not an out-and-out attacking midfielder. The thing I like most is allowing my team-mates to play, by winning back the ball, moving it on and trying not to lose possession.”
On the subject of his own goalscoring record, he added: “I haven’t scored yet – that’s the only thing that’s still missing. I’ve lacked a bit of sharpness or composure in front of goal, but hopefully that will come in the next match.”
France’s next opponents are Nigeria, who have won all four of their matches to date and who most recently defeated England. “I know they’re a strong team, both physically and technically,” said Grenier, a keen admirer of Barcelona trio Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets and who enjoyed watching Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger against Brazil on Wednesday. “Nigeria have just knocked out England, who are not exactly a small football nation. We know we’re not in for an easy ride, but it won’t be simple for them either.”
Grenier has every reason to feel confident. The young midfielder has worked his way from the substitutes’ bench to an influential starting role, and his whole team have been on a similar upward curve since their opening defeat by Los Cafeteros. “The defeat was possibly a blessing in disguise,” said Grenier, who has already made 12 first-team appearances for Lyon.
“We hadn’t lost for a long time, and the defeat made us realise that the slightest lapse could undo all our hard work from the last two years,” he added. “It forced us to go back to work, and we’ve since picked ourselves up and won our last three matches on the trot. We’re confident again and the whole experience might even have made us stronger. It’s better that it happened early in the competition rather than now.”
France have quietly gone about their work and now find themselves within touching distance of a first semi-final appearance. “Now that we’re on a roll, we’ll try to make sure it doesn’t stop here,” the midfielder concluded. “There are three matches left and we can achieve good things if we keep our team spirit and continue to fight for the same cause. If I have to return to the subs’ bench, I don’t mind and I’ll be ready to do everything I can to help out.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Grenier is most useful to his team from the bench. Coach Smerecki is no doubt aware that it is never wise to change a winning team, and when Grenier is on the pitch, Les Bleuets very rarely lose.