Mathieu Valbuena has a useful habit of bouncing back from adversity. It seemed at one point as if his days with France were numbered, but the Marseille man fought his way back into contention and secured a spot in Les Bleus’ starting eleven for their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ opener against Honduras.
While the media spotlight will doubtless focus on Karim Benzema’s goals and excellent all-round outing against the Central Americans, the sprightly attacking midfielder also put in a fine performance in Porto Alegre. Whether on the right, left or through the middle, or from dead-ball situations, his astute decisions made a significant contribution to the former world champions’ impressive 3-0 victory.
“It went very well," Valbuena told FIFA.com afterwards. "You get days like that, when you realise that everything’s going to go your way, that every pass could lead to an opportunity. But it was the team performance that made me feel at ease,” he added quickly, pre-empting a question related to the difference between his club and international form.
The truth is that Valbuena did not experience a season to remember in Marseille colours, failing to lift a trophy and putting in several disappointing displays. “There were quite a few matches where I didn’t play all that well, and it’s understandable that the fans weren’t happy. That’s why, when I play well everyone notices the difference,” he said.
“But it’s not that I was putting in less effort. It’s all to do with the context, the players you have around you, and the team dynamic. Here, we’ve continued the good run we’ve been on over the past few months, and there’s a positive feeling running through the camp.
“I’m trying to bring myself up to their level. At Marseille the opposite was true. The team doubted itself a bit, and it made sense that I wasn’t able to express myself in the same way.”
A lynchpin for L’OM for several seasons, Valbuena was instrumental in the French heavyweights’ championship-winning campaign of 2010, despite initially being omitted from the side by Didier Deschamps, then coach of Marseille, Valbuena bided his time, worked hard and persevered, without ever complaining.
Now in charge of France, Deschamps was left with no choice but to bring him back into the fold and provide Valbuena with a massive confidence boost. He proceeded to stick by the skilful midfield man, even when he suffered from a considerable dip in form.
“That trust that he placed in me, that I managed to earn, shows me that when you do things well you get your just rewards,” he continued. “I know I’ve got important responsibilities within the team now, and that my team-mates trust me. That changes everything. Tough times are a part of life. I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if everything had been easy.”
Indeed, the resolute Frenchman’s career has been punctuated with setbacks from which he has emerged a stronger person, starting at Bordeaux, whose youth academy rejected him for being too short. He subsequently embarked on a spell in France’s fifth tier, during which he made ends meet by working in a sports shop.
These experiences, as well as his diminutive stature, have not prevented him from establishing himself at one of the biggest clubs in Ligue 1 and at international level.
“The situation has to be really desperate for me to give up,” he said, clearly proud to have overcome these obstacles. “It shows my perseverance and my consistency over quite a few years.”
Parallels can be drawn with his international career, four years after France’s ill-fated venture in South Africa. “I took part in that World Cup, which was something I’d dreamed of, but I didn’t do myself justice,” he admitted, referring to his solitary appearance against Mexico.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get another chance to play in a World Cup. But I’ve always put in 100 per cent just in case an opportunity arose. And I’m very happy that it did,” he concluded.