“It hit me for six, but I got right back up.” That was Mathieu Valbuena’s way of describing the moment he heard of his inclusion in France’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ squad. It is an interesting choice of phrase, as it succinctly encapsulates his entire career, which at one point looked as though it would never get off the starting blocks.
What is most remarkable is that just over three years ago, Valbuena was still playing amateur football, his diminutive frame having provoked a rejection from Bordeaux’s academy in his youth. Ironically, his size – and corresponding low centre of gravity – was eventually a factor in the unusual style of play he developed for himself, which would in turn lead to Eric Gerets, then coach of Marseille, offering him a chance of top-level football. It was a vote of confidence that the attacking midfielder would repay with panache in October 2007, when he scored l’OM’s fantastic winning goal in a famous 1-0 UEFA Champions League win over Liverpool, the first-ever victory by a French club at Anfield, and the highlight of Valbuena’s career to date.
Valbuena had progressed from Langon-Castet in CFA 2, the fifth tier in France’s football pyramid, to Libourne in the third division, and it was there he caught the eye of Marseille’s coaching staff. Under Gerets, Valbuena broke into the first-team set-up at the Velodrome, but the Belgian’s departure in the summer of 2009, coupled with Didier Deschamps’ arrival, precipitated a disastrous six-month period for Valbuena. Incapable of forcing himself into the new coach’s plans and unable to recapture his previous form when offered rare opportunities in the starting XI, his days in the south of France appeared to be numbered. However, fate, in the form of injuries to team-mates and absences brought about by the CAF African Cup of Nations, was to decide otherwise. Following clear-the-air talks with Deschamps, and a change in attitude at training, Valbuena was offered a run in the team that saw him play a decisive role in his club’s Ligue 1 and Coupe de la Ligue triumphs.
A tireless runner, Valbuena's devil-may-care approach and dribbling skills have caused panic in many an opposing penalty area over the years. Those attributes have drawn comparisons to a player who followed a similar path at club level as well as in the international arena, and who was also called up to a FIFA World Cup squad as an uncapped player - none other than Franck Ribery.