1987 has turned out to be a very good year for French football, one in which Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jeremy Menez and Samir Nasri, the figureheads of a talented generation that won the 2004 UEFA European Under-17 Championship, were all born.
Though their claims for a place in the senior set-up were overlooked for several years by Raymond Domenech, who was perhaps wary of their reputation as troublemakers, his successor Laurent Blanc has already made what he calls the génération de fou (the incredible generation) an integral part of his plans. And though the likes of Benzema and Nasri might be its best-known representatives, great things are also expected of their peers, among them defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
Of Angolan descent, the Saint-Etienne man is one of Les Verts’ brightest hopes and has stepped up a level this year, his consistent performances in a midfield foraging role helping L’ASSE into a comfortable eighth position in Ligue 1. In the process he has also earned two caps for his country, just reward for his ability to get the job done with a minimum of fuss.
“I like to win the ball from opponents and play it as well as I possibly can to my team-mates,” he tells FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “That’s what my job is and that’s what I try to do.”
A breakthrough at Troyes
Matuidi’s virtues have earned him unstinting praise from his coaches. Deemed an “indispensable” player by his club boss Christophe Galtier, he has also been described as “alert, determined and above all unflinching” by Blanc. “His gift for winning the ball and his fluid dribbling remind me of Jean Tigana,” recalled Jean Marc Furlan, who gave him his Ligue 1 debut at Troyes in 2005, the youngster having made his professional debut for the club in the second tier the previous season.
After three years of steady progress at Troyes, where he scored four goals in his final season, Matuidi left for a bigger challenge at Saint-Etienne. It is one he has responded to, becoming an influential first-choice in the midfield linchpin role and taking over from Loic Perrin as captain in only his second season at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
“I’m really enjoying being skipper, and to have that honour at a club like Saint-Etienne makes it even more special,” he says. “When I’ve got the armband on I just try to contribute with what experience I have and my drive and determination.”
Though Matuidi has been an outstanding performer for Les Verts since joining them in 2007, it has only been this year that the club has pushed its way back into the upper reaches of Ligue 1. This season’s top tackler in the league with 107 successful tackles at the last count, in late March, the 24-year-old presents a formidable barrier for opponents and fully deserves his nickname of The Chewing Gum Man, one given to him by his friend Nasri in recognition of his ability to stick to opposing players.
Saint-Etienne’s one-man wall
Les Verts looked set for an even more promising season at one stage, though as Matuidi explains, they still have an important objective in their sights: “We were right up there for a long time, but we knew we might not stay there for the whole season. We know where we come from but we also know what we want. Sixth place is still within reach and though there are a lot of teams still in the frame, we’re going to do everything we can to take it and maybe get a place in Europe. We’ll be fighting all the way.”
Fighting for every ball is one thing you can be sure Matuidi will be doing between now and the end of the season, just as he did in making his first international start in the March friendly against Croatia. Impressed by the player’s “mental qualities”, Bleus coach Blanc had this to say about the young midfielder’s maiden appearance in the starting line-up: “I think Blaise Matuidi deserved his place tonight and during the squad get-together.” For the man himself it was the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition: “It was a childhood dream of mine. I couldn’t have felt happier.
“It’s not an end in itself, though,” he continues, underlining his continuing hunger to succeed. “I need to keep on working because I’ve still got a long way to go. That was just one game and you need more to become a really seasoned player. I need to keep applying myself to reach the next levels.”
Young but mature with it, Matuidi is guarded about his future. “I have a contract with Saint-Etienne right now and that means I can’t speak about any other club,” he says. “All I’m focusing on right now is the end of our season, not on any long-term objectives of mine.”
Yet, wherever that future takes the industrious midfielder, it promises to be a bright one.