“Énorme, énorme, énorme.” Those were the words France coach Francis Smerecki used to describe the role of Gueida Fofana in Sunday’s thrilling win over Nigeria in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011.
“Gueida is an important player,” continued the admiring Smerecki. “Just when the match was turning against us, he urged the team on and lifted the morale of his team-mates. He’s a born leader.”
Aside from skilfully fulfilling his midfield duties against the Flying Eagles, the Bleuets No8 earned additional plaudits for his inspirational captaincy of a team that seemed poised to go through in normal time, only to concede an equaliser in the third minute of stoppage time.
Undeterred, Fofana raised his team’s spirits with some choice words before extra time got under way, and then restored his side’s lead by coolly chipping the ball over Nigeria keeper Dami Paul from outside the box.
Though France added another two minutes later, it was Fofana’s impudent finish that ultimately undid Nigeria’s challenge, a goal he described exclusively for FIFA.com: “I just had time to look up and see where the keeper was, and when I saw he was off his line I decided to risk it. Luckily, it paid off.”
Though his team-mates teasingly dubbed him a “goal poacher” as they boarded the bus back to their base camp, a somewhat bashful Fofana made it clear that he is not in the habit of scoring goals. “It’s not really what I do,” he said. “Obviously I was happy but it’s not my biggest concern. I was delighted because it played a big part in us going through, and that’s what really mattered.”
The Le Havre player is far more accustomed to driving his team on from his midfield position, where his job is to thwart opponents, direct operations and get his side moving forward.
“It’s a role I enjoy doing because it fits right in with my character,” said the Bleuets skipper. “That’s the way I’ve been since I was young. I like being a leader, driving people on and giving advice. That’s what I tried to do when they equalised right at the end.”
Leading from the front
A forceful presence on the pitch, Fofana cuts a far more relaxed presence off it. A France international since the age of 15, he has gladly fulfilled the function of the coach’s right-hand man since France won the UEFA European Under-19 Championship on home soil last year.
His cool head proved a valuable asset when France crashed to defeat to the host nation in their opening game at Colombia 2011, a setback Smerecki’s side have since recovered from in compelling style, moving to within 180 minutes of the title.
“It’s good to see that we’ve come on a lot since that terrible start,” said Fofana, casting his mind back. “It was a big blow but it helped us remember a few things and show that we have far more potential than we revealed in that game. We’re a very tight-knit squad, we keep our shape on the pitch, and we definitely do not want to stop here. I know we can get even better and I know we can end this World Cup on a high.”
Unruffled in the middle of the pitch, Fofana has been similarly unflustered in weighing up his career options, choosing to stay with second division Le Havre despite attracting interest from clubs of the stature of Aston Villa or Real Madrid.
“I still think it’s too early for me to leave,” he said in reference to his increasingly promising club career. “It’s my home town. I grew up there, I have my family and I’ve just got married. I’m very happy with life right now, and that’s important for my career. I played a whole season in the second division when I was 18 and I’m still on the right track. And if I did have to leave soon, then I’m sure all the experiences I’ve had will help me perform at a higher level.”
Fofana can certainly expect a higher level when France meet Portugal in Thursday’s semi-final in Medellin. “It’s bound to be a tough game,” he predicted. “They beat Argentina, they haven’t conceded any goals and their defence is extremely solid.”
Yet, in plotting the downfall of the Portuguese, Fofana is also looking at the bigger picture: “We want to show that we have one of the strongest generations of players in the world and that the senior team can rely on us in the future. It would be a very significant title for our country.”
Win, lose or draw against Portugal, France already have much to celebrate, with the emergence of another gifted crop, marshalled by a consummate leader in the shape of Fofana. As coach Smerecki acknowledged, his midfield general has been crucial to the progress they have made in recent times: “It’s been a long journey but we’re going to keep on working because we want more. One thing needs to be said, though. If we didn’t have Fofana, we wouldn’t have achieved this much.”