Umtiti, Bleuets pushing for perfection
© Getty Images

For most French players, being a regular in Ligue 1, winning the Coupe de France, experiencing the UEFA Champions League and preparing for a FIFA World Cup™ – all by the age of 19 – would be some achievement.

Samuel Umtiti, however, sets the bar higher than most. And while the ambitious Lyon youngster recognises the impressive nature of his career to date, he prefers not to dwell too much on past exploits, concentrating instead on what still needs to be achieved.

The next major task on Umtiti's to-do list is the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, where he hopes to play a leading role for France. Before then he has an end-of-season run-in to navigate with Lyon, but it is clear that he is already counting the days until the tournament kicks off. 

"Each time we join up with the national team, we know we're getting ever closer to the big day," Umtiti told FIFA.com during Les Bleuets' last international gathering in March, which produced friendly victories over Denmark (3-1) and Romania (3-0). "We've got three months left in which to prepare properly, but we're starting to think about it more and more."

Umtiti, 19, has already played at the highest level in France and has tasted elite European competition. Turkey 2013, however, will be his first time on the world stage. "I'm looking forward to it," he said, "because it's a great competition, and a very important step in a young player's career.”

"You have to experience this type of competition and play against the best teams if you want to move forward. It's a great competition to play in, but it also helps you to progress in terms of your future career."

Watch and learn
Umtiti has spent the whole of his young career at Lyon, working his way through the youth ranks before establishing himself in the senior squad. "Of all the players in his generation, he was the one who stood out the most," said Armand Garrido, coach of Lyon's under-17s.

"He was a quiet leader: mature, intelligent and respectful. I made him captain because of the qualities he exuded, and because he could read the game. He could win challenges cleanly and was hardly ever late in the tackle."

In 2010/11 Umtiti was brought into the senior squad by then coach Claude Puel, but did not make a single first-team appearance that term. The following season, however, Puel was replaced by former youth academy director Remi Garde, and that was when the young defender’s career really began to take off.

Umtiti made his professional debut in January 2012 and quickly found his place in a dressing room that also contained the likes of Hugo Lloris, Kim Kallstrom, Lisandro Lopez, Cris and Yoann Gourcuff. "I felt very shy among all those international players," he said. "I wouldn't say anything; I'd just stay in my little corner, watching what the others were doing and trying to follow their example."

Spain are the strong favourites, but we've held our own against them before. So we can certainly aim high.
Samuel Umtiti on France's FIFA U-20 World Cup hopes

Umtiti has adapted quickly to life in Ligue 1, keeping the division's forwards quiet with a number of fine performances. But despite his rapid progress, the youngster believes he still has a long way to go. "Of course, when you've got your coach and team-mates behind you, you feel much more relaxed, and you don't feel the pressure of being judged every time you make a challenge," said Umtiti, a central defender by trade but usually deployed as a left-back by Lyon.

"In recent months I've felt much calmer and things have been going very well, but I know I still need to improve and keep up a good level over the long term."

A sustained run of form was precisely what eluded France at the UEFA U-19 European Championships Estonia 2012, the European qualifying competition for Turkey 2013. Les Bleuets opened with convincing wins over Serbia and Croatia but lost their final group game against England, leaving them to face Spain in the semi-finals.  

"We shouldn't have, but we perhaps took our eye off the ball in that match as we'd already qualified [for Turkey 2013]," said the Cameroon-born defender, an admirer of former Indomitable Lions captain Rigobert Song, and Paris Saint-Germain’s Brazilian centre-back Thiago Silva. "We could have reached the final if we had beaten England. Those mistakes will help us at the World Cup."

Spanish standard
France lost to Spain on penalties in the last four, but they will not have to wait long for a shot at revenge, having been drawn with them in Group A alongside Ghana and USA. "They play exceptional football and they're an example to follow," said Umtiti, who believes that, on their day, Les Bleuets can be more than a match for La Rojita

"We have our own qualities and principles, too, and we're capable of achieving something. Spain are the strong favourites, but we've held our own against them before. So we can certainly aim high."

Having missed out on U-19 European Championship glory, Umtiti is now hoping France can go all the way at Turkey 2013. "We were very happy with what we achieved at the [U-19] tournament. We showed we have a great team, one that is both tight-knit and competitive," he said, pleased to have qualified for the world finals but still frustrated by his side's last-four exit. 

"Nonetheless, there was a strong sense of disappointment, because going out to Spain really hurt us. That defeat did, however, allow us to make progress and helped us to understand where we need to improve."

Progress is a theme that comes up frequently in conversation with Umtiti, but it is not just an empty buzzword. The Lyon youngster broke new ground in January by scoring his first ever league goal, and he had his name on the scoresheet again a month later when he found the net against Tottenham in the UEFA Europa League.  

"I don't often find myself in front of goal, but it'd be nice if I could [score an important goal] for the national team," Umtiti said. "And if it turns out to be in the World Cup final, and it's the goal that puts us 1-0 up, then what more could I ask for?"