Sometimes it takes nothing more than a fortuitous collision of circumstances for a player toiling in the shadows to be catapulted into the limelight. An unexpected call-up followed by a goal out of nowhere and suddenly it can seem that everyone knows your name. So it goes for a select few players each year and, with 2010 coming to a close, FIFA.com now recounts one such tale – that of young Franco-Comorian striker Mohamed M'Changama, for whom the last three months have resembled something out of a Christmas fable.
Born to Comorian parents in Marseille on 9 June 1987, Mohamed and his brother Youssouf – younger by three years – fell in love with the beautiful game at an early age. Both dreamed of making the grade as players, but while Youssouf began attracting attention from scouts, his elder sibling’s talents went unnoticed. With many convinced that Momo would never realise his ambition of turning professional, the youngster began concentrating on his studies instead, while relishing every chance he got to play football with his friends.
Aged 20, he was representing lowly Aubagne in a local amateur league, the seventh tier of the French game, but his prospects finally improved after two seasons punctuated by dozens of goals. His prolific form earned him a move to Gardanne, a club two divisions higher, and although he remained an amateur, M'Changama made sure to pull out all the stops whenever he faced the reserve team of a professional outfit. After all, who knew who might be watching on the sidelines?
“I didn’t get the same chance my brother got to be picked up by an academy,” he told FIFA.com. “I encountered a lot of discouragement along the way, but that just made me stronger and left me wanting to make everyone eat their words. So when Nimes came looking for a striker for their B team in the summer, I told myself this was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Brought on board by Les Crocodiles, M'Changama was still playing his football in the fifth tier, but the crucial difference now was that he had entered the ranks of a professional side. Opportunities came to train with the first-team squad, plying their wares in Ligue 2, and the newcomer was rapidly spotted by coach Jean-Michel Cavalli, on the lookout for fresh solutions following a sluggish start to the 2010/11 season. M'Changama was given a place on the substitutes’ bench as early as September and, wearing his No31 shirt from the reserves, made his debut with a minute to go against Le Mans on 1 October.
Everything moved quickly after that and, just eight days later, M'Changama made his international debut for Comoros alongside his brother in a 1-0 CAF African Cup of Nations qualifying loss to Mozambique. “It was the first time Youssouf and I had set foot in the country of our parents,” he said. “To represent their country next to my brother… I felt like I was dreaming for several days. I loved discovering the country and I hope to return there very soon. I immediately felt at home. The people there may be suffering but they never lose their smile. It’s not like here, where people moan about the slightest inconvenience.”
No sooner had M'Changama flown back to France than his progress continued with a starting berth away against Istres, and Cavalli made a point of praising his contribution at the end of a creditable 0-0 draw. Four days later, he was included in the first XI to tackle Evian and notched his maiden goal, only for the match to end in a 3-1 home defeat that increased the pressure on the coach. Two more goalless stalemates and another loss in Nimes’s next three outings then sparked a change at the helm as the club swooped for renowned miracle-worker Noel Tosi to replace Cavalli.
Having built his reputation with the likes of Mauritania and Congo, the new man in the dugout arrived with his own ideas. They included leaving M'Changama out of his first line-up for the meeting with Youssouf’s club Troyes on 12 November, but the discarded youngster quietly accepted the news and readied himself for a return to the reserves. Events were about to take quite a turn, however.
“I was meant to play with the reserves on the Saturday and I’d planned to rest on the Friday before watching the pros at the Stade des Costieres,” recalled M'Changama. “I had a short sleep after lunch and then went to the dentist before heading off to buy a few things at a shopping centre. Basically, it was just an average day, but then I was on the phone with my brother and we were saying how sad it was we wouldn’t be meeting on the pitch that evening when I got a second call. It was Sebastien Gimenez, one of the assistant coaches. He asked me to join up with the squad because one of our forwards was ill, so I went home and calmly prepared my bag. Either way, I knew that I was only going to the stadium to make up the numbers on the bench, nothing more. I got there barely an hour before kick-off.”
From the sidelines, M'Changama noted that one of his colleagues was struggling to find his feet in a critical game for the club, but even then the thought never crossed his mind that he might be sent on to have his say. He admits now that his mind was elsewhere at the time, as he weighed up the relative merits of the jackets he had been trying on just two hours previously.
"Then the coach came over to ask me if I was ready to go on. It was the 70th minute and I immediately thought how 20 minutes of play would mean I couldn’t turn out for the reserves the following day, according to the rules. So I told myself to run as much as I could and enjoy myself, because this was going to be like an intensive training session. Five minutes after coming on, I saw a deep cross heading for the far post. The ball flew over our centre-forward and bounced two metres in front of me. I had to hit it with my left foot but I didn’t hesitate for a second.
“As soon as I saw the ball in the net, I thought about my brother. Because our discussion had been cut short by the call from Sebastien Gimenez, I’d phoned him back just afterwards to tell him I was going to be in the squad after all. His first reaction was to say ‘Write history’ as that was the name of the song he was listening to at the time. I hung up on him because I thought he was putting pressure on me, but I’ve bought the CD since then.”
It is not only his music collection that has blossomed in the aftermath of that strike, which sealed a 1-0 triumph for his team. A popular figure in a side that has won five matches and drawn one since that outing, M'Changama has yet to be granted a starting place, but he has regularly come on at the ends of games and has now been offered his first professional contract. Not that he is about to let his recent success go to his head, of course. “For 2011, I’m hoping above all for good health for those close to me and myself,” he explained. “Naturally I’d very much like to become a professional but I don’t really have any wishes to make when it comes to football. I know there are highs and lows in a career, which means you should never take yourself too seriously. Even if you feel down, you must never give up. It’s often when you expect it the least that good things happen – and I know that better than most.”