Mathieu Valbuena's rise to prominence has long been painted as the stuff of fairy tales. Turned down by Bordeaux for being too small, the diminutive winger never lost faith and enjoyed a stratospheric climb from France's fifth tier to the UEFA Champions League in the space of a few short months, his 2006 move from Libourne Saint-Seurin to Marseille later opening the doors to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ as well.
Things have not always been rosy since his breakthrough, however, and Valbuena has experienced highs and lows with both club and country. Two years after helping OM claim the Ligue 1 title in 2010, for example, the club lurched through a catastrophic campaign, while his France career has been characterised by impressive performances that have still yet to win him a starting place.
The 28-year-old is now hoping to tap a rich vein of success in 2012/13, with Marseille in the hunt for championship glory and France well-placed on the road to Brazil 2014. Both teams are feeding off Valbuena's copious talents, and the attacking midfielder spoke to FIFA.com about his hopes on all fronts.
FIFA.com: Mathieu, Marseille are back in action after the winter break. What are the club's goals for the rest of the season?
Mathieu Valbuena: The most important thing for us is to keep doing what we were doing so well before the break. We want to stay in that same groove and be consistent in our performances, which is what we've been unable to do so far. Although we had a good first half to the season, we need to build on that now, because we went into the break on the back of two home losses to Lyon and Lorient. We need to keep the same consistency and attitude that we've had recently, and if we do we'll be even better.
Many have been surprised to see Marseille at the top of Ligue 1 alongside Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon, despite having a smaller budget and a smaller squad than in recent seasons. Do you prefer to be seen as surprise contenders?
We're getting by the best we can and we're not doing too badly. We deserve all the points we have, though it's true that few people would have bet on us being where we are now when the season began. We're joint top, even if the other teams have a better goal difference, but I prefer it when people talk about Paris and Lyon and leave us alone to follow our own little path. Even though we've dropped silly points that were all our own fault, we're still in the race and could have done even better. It bothers me when I read that we don't deserve to be where we are. OM are a very popular and demanding club who expect to be in the Champions League every year. Last year, we had a disastrous season way below OM standards. This year, we're determined to finish in the top three and regain our place in the Champions League. If we manage that, it'll be because we deserve it.
Have you discussed your chances of winning the title behind closed doors?
We don't talk about it because there's still a long way to go in the championship. There's a lot of road ahead and plenty of points up for grabs, but obviously it's the dream of everyone at the club to become champions again. Everybody knows that people in Marseille get carried away quickly and start imagining us winning the league as soon as we go on a good run and find ourselves at the top of the table. By the same token, everything looks catastrophic if we lose two games in a row. We need to keep our feet on the ground and believe we're capable of competing for the title without getting carried away, especially as we're still so far from the finishing line. What we need to do above all is get back into the Champions League.
You have been at Marseille since 2006. Do you remember joining the club just days after training with amateur players in the third division?
I remember it as if it were yesterday. I had stars in my eyes and I was a bit intimidated by the people around me. I saw star players I'd been watching on television just a few months previously, like Franck Ribery, Djibril Cisse, Samir Nasri and Boudewijn Zenden – all of them internationals. It's difficult to find a place for yourself in a squad like that. I had to go through some initiation rituals – which are a part of dressing-room life – and that undoubtedly toughened me up. As someone who'd come in from the third division, I was pretty insignificant and it was up to me to prove myself. I discovered what professional football is like and it's a fairly strange place. Sometimes it's every man for himself, and everyone wants to stake their claim, even more so at Marseille. It was my job to fit in with them and the best way to do that was on the pitch.
For me, the coach is a teacher who knows more than I do and teaches me things at training.
You have been one of the best French players around for several seasons, both in terms of performances and statistics. Does it annoy you that many still think you need to prove yourself?
That's started to change for a little while now, but you can never please everybody. I try to be as consistent as I can with my club and the national team, and to make the difference and win titles. Maybe it won't change my image, but that's what I want to do. People demand a lot of me, which in some ways has to be seen as a positive. That means people know what I'm capable of and they feel that I can do better. That level of expectation helps me raise my game in each match and not rest on my laurels.
You tend to perform well in big games for France, as was the case against Germany and Italy in 2012, the key moment of the Laurent Blanc era against Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2010 and against England at Wembley the same year. Despite that, France coaches have never seen you as a regular starter. How do you explain that?
I know, and that's the way it's going to be throughout my career. I have to prove myself more than others, but whenever people think the next step is going to be too much for me, I manage to make it. Whenever people think I'm beaten, I show them I'm still here. That's the type of thing that motivates me even more. I can't explain it, but I know that I have a lot less credit in the bank than certain other players. That's the way it is. I accept that and it makes me even happier about my success. I know that no one's going to do me any favours. At the start, I thought about it a lot and it hurt to keep asking myself: "Why me?" I've come to terms with it, though, and now it gives me even more motivation.
Coaches like to say that their door is always open. Did you ever ask Raymond Domenech or Laurent Blanc why they left you on the bench at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO 2012 respectively?
I'm not someone who goes off to complain to the coach. For me, the coach is a teacher who knows more than I do and teaches me things at training. So that wasn't my approach. At the World Cup, it was a unique situation and I was a newcomer, so it was difficult to make any sorts of demands. But at EURO 2012, I'd taken part in the qualifiers and the preparation games, which all went well. I was surprised, disappointed and sometimes angry because I couldn't understand it, but I opted not to speak in the heat of the moment to avoid saying something I might regret. I chose to respond by working hard. Things are changing now and I'm getting my chance with Les Bleus. It's been good to play for Didier Deschamps, who knows me well. He put his faith in me in Italy [where Valbuena scored in a 2-1 victory]. Now it's up to me to be consistent in my performances so that I keep being given a chance.
You were in France's 2010 FIFA World Cup and EURO 2012 squads and are now in the team trying to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Do you think the current side is the best of the three, in terms of coach and players?
There were some pretty special players at the World Cup. For me, that was the strongest of the three France teams that I've known, as well as one of the best in South Africa. But when the results don't come and there's tension within a squad, it's difficult to make the most of your qualities. There was the mistake of what happened on the bus [the France squad refused to train and remained in their team bus] and lots of little incidents that meant things got out of hand. The team today has different individuals, but we have a shared goal and that's to qualify for Brazil. You can really tell that this is a united team, with everyone playing for each other and a common goal. We're on the right track, both in terms of our play and our attitude, and we have to continue like that.
Because of my background, naturally I'm a big admirer of Spain and the way they play football. It's a league that really attracts me.
When you returned from South Africa, were you afraid that you might never play for France again?
Of course, given the impact everything that happened had in France. Over there, we'd been a little bit cut off from all that. When we realised what had happened back home, I told myself we'd made a mistake and that it might cost me my future in the France team. I don't think we'd make the same error now if we found ourselves in the same situation. We hope to fix all that in Brazil. It would be an exceptional experience for any player to contest a World Cup in a country that lives and breathes football. We won't spoil the chance this time.
You drew 1-1 with Spain during qualifying in October. Was that a special game for you personally, given your Spanish roots?
Obviously. My whole family is Spanish and I've always supported Spain. It's a source of joy for me to see that they have such a wonderful team now. When we played against them, my parents were in the stands. It was strange, especially for my dad, who was watching his son play against his own country. Out on the pitch, though, my only goal was to beat them.
Do you ever tell yourself you were born on the wrong side of the Pyrenees, given how much of Spain's style depends on small, quick and technically gifted players?
(Laughs) It's true that Spanish football is very appealing. Because of my background, naturally I'm a big admirer of Spain and the way they play football. The profile of their players and their style of play suits me perfectly. It's a league that really attracts me.
What are your New Year's resolutions for 2013?
The most important thing is good health. After that, lots of sporting success, by which I mean making my dream come true of winning the French league again with OM. And also qualifying automatically for the World Cup.