For some coaches, choosing a captain is one of toughest parts of the job, a fraught decision that can have lasting consequences. “It takes time to know which men are capable of the role,” said Laurent Blanc, who has yet to hand the France armband out on a permanent basis. “Everything comes into question: experience, career history, position on the pitch and the ability to be a good captain.”
And then there is Rudi Garcia, who had no hesitation in electing his Lille skipper. “For me, choosing Rio Mavuba appeared the most obvious decision, given his background, his standing in the squad and the targets he sets himself,” the coach explained at the start of the 2008/09 season.
Since then, the tenacious midfielder has more than lived up to expectations, taking on his extra responsibilities with a natural flair. “It’s a role that’s very close to my heart and always has been, and one I take very seriously,” the man in question told FIFA.com. Indeed, looking back at his admirable past, it is easy to see Mavuba as a born leader.
It was on 8 March 1984 that Rio Antonio Zoba Mavuba came into the world, on a boat in international waters somewhere between Africa and Europe. His parents were fleeing the civil war in Angola and made a new home for themselves in France’s Gironde département, but at the age of just two, Mavuba’s mother died. He was still only 13 when he then lost his father, ex-Zaire international Nacimento Ricky Mavuba Mafuila. “That obviously has an impact on your life,” said the 27-year-old. “You grow up quicker and feel a sense of responsibility very early on.”
He was certainly singled out as captaincy material early on, wearing the armband as he swiftly rose through the youth ranks at Bordeaux. He made his debut for the senior team in 2004 and marked his first start with a goal, one of only three the defensive midfielder has registered in Ligue 1.
“I like to pay attention to the people around me and it’s the same on the pitch,” Mavuba said. “I see it as my priority to help others.” The statistics bear out that analysis, with Mavuba one of the most prodigious passers in France’s top flight. In fact, he reached the 1,000-mark for passes this term in mid-January, a feat that only Rennes’s Yann M’Vila can also boast.
Mavuba left Bordeaux in 2007, having lifted the League Cup and earned himself six France caps during his stay. His tally has not increased since then, however, partly because his progress was stalled by an unhappy year at Villarreal, where he was granted a mere 14 starts, from which he scored once. From there, he packed his bags for Lille and has become the metronome at the heart of the northerners’ side, helping them claim a historic league and cup double last season.
“We had a group of players who knew each other very well and had been playing together for two or three years,” he said, with a hint of nostalgia. “Our football was perhaps a bit more fluid than it is now.”
Currently third in Ligue 1, ten points shy of leaders Paris Saint-Germain, Les Dogues have not been able to set the same high standards this year. They have also made early exits from the UEFA Champions League and both domestic cups, but Mavuba is quick to defend their efforts to date.
“Personally, I’d point out that we have almost the same number of points as we had at the same stage last season,” he said. “We’re not weaker. What’s different is the consistent rhythm PSG and Montpellier have been able to set. We’re not talking about winning the title for now, just winning matches. Let’s concentrate on ourselves and we’ll see where that gets us at the end of the season.”
The end of the season will herald the start of UEFA EURO 2012, and Mavuba has by no means written off his chances of travelling to Poland and Ukraine. “That will only come following good performances for Lille,” he noted, still hungry to collect his first cap since 2007. “Having said that, I won the double with Lille last year and that didn’t really change things. But you never know – it’s not over yet.”
The 27-year-old would undoubtedly bring impressive qualities to a France side still lacking an official captain, and he admits to also having one eye on the next FIFA World Cup™ – a competition his father graced in 1974. Legend has it that the corner specialist used to wave a white handkerchief before delivering the ball to indicate that he was going to score, and Mavuba is anxious to follow his father on to the sport's greatest stage.
“That definitely puts the pressure on,” he said, smiling. “I would have loved to have made the trip to Germany 2006 as that would have been a lovely twist of fate. My father played in a World Cup and I haven’t, but I still have a bit of time left to catch him.”
If he continues to perform wonders for Lille, fate could yet hold a few surprises in store. After all, what would be more natural than seeing Rio in Brazil?