Good natured but reserved, Arsenal's Bacary Sagna cuts a thoughtful figure when interviewed by the press, as well as bearing a constant look of mild surprise as to why he should be the centre of such fevered attention. Yet, after Les Bleus' long-standing right-back Willy Sagnol was forced to hang up his boots through injury, Sagna has firmly cemented his place as France's first-choice.
"I honestly don't tell myself that it (Sagnol's retirement) was good timing for me, nor that things were made easier by the fact the place was up for grabs," said the former Auxerre man in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. "I've done everything required to reach the very top and I always give it my all. The national team is the reward for my performances at club level."
Indeed, the gifted defender also wasted little time in making the right-back spot his own after joining the Gunners in July 2007 and quickly adapted to English football and life in north London. He has even taken the recent birth of his first child in his stride, explaining that "these few days before Saturday will do me good in order to recover a bit," in reference to the two days' of gentle recuperation work being done by Les Bleus ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying double-header with Lithuania.
"After that we'll focus on tactical work, we're aware that these are two vital matches," he continued. "Everybody has a genuine desire to do well."
Despite only being called up for senior international duty for the first time in August 2007, Sagna gave the impression right from the off of a man more than at home in the famous blue jersey. France coach Raymond Domenech made the dreadlocked defender his first-choice from the start of South Africa 2010 qualifying, just as Arsenal supremo Arsene Wenger did after bringing Sagna to England. So, has he now settled into his role with Les Bleus? "Not at all!" jokes the man who used to play in a forward role before his successful redeployment at the back.
"It's true that I'm more relaxed in the national team set-up now. It's similar for all the players because we have our references, we've found our bearings and so you can relax a bit more," added Sagna, who shares a room with his good friend and club-mate Gael Clichy. "At the first few (international) get-togethers you feel more on edge, it's different."
As a result, he is also well placed to judge how new call-ups Guillaume Hoarau and Andre-Pierre Gignac have adapted to life in the French camp. "They chat with everybody, they've settled in really well," said Sagna, as the interview drew to a conclusion. "And in any case, there's a great atmosphere within the group and stress hasn't taken hold yet despite what's at stake in these two matches. But it will set in at some point."
Currently lying five points behind Group 7 pace-setters Serbia and Lithuania, having played one game fewer, France and Sagna would surely swap a little extra stress for two vital wins on the road to South Africa.