Mamadou Sakho is fast becoming a firm favourite with the French fans. It was his timely brace that helped to rescue France in the return match of their FIFA World Cup™ play-off with Ukraine in November 2013.
And during Brazil 2014, his strong performances have added a layer of security to a defence that Didier Deschamps has tinkered with constantly since his appointment as national coach.
In Les Bleus’ second group game against Switzerland, however, the commanding defender was forced to come off with a hamstring problem, an injury from which he now appears to have fully recovered.
“Things are going much better; I feel good,” Sakho, his thigh still strapped, told FIFA in the run-up to his country’s crucial quarter-final clash with Germany at the Estadio do Maracana. “I had to sit out training for ten days as a precaution, but now everything’s fine. I’ve got strapping on because I took a bit of a knock, but I’m all right. Rest assured.”
Supporters back home will be relieved to hear that, because while Laurent Koscielny has filled in admirably for the Liverpool star next to Raphael Varane, he has found it difficult to erase the memory of the red card he received and the penalty he conceded in the first leg of the play-off versus Ukraine.
In addition, the only two goals that France have let in during the tournament came after Sakho was replaced by the Arsenal man two thirds of the way through their 5-2 victory over La Nati.
“Raphael and I have played well, but Laurent has also been exemplary. The most important thing is for all of us to be up for the fight when the coach calls on us, and so far that’s been the case,” said Sakho, who was impressed with Koscielny’s faultless display against Nigeria in the previous round.
Known for his humour and good nature, the 24-year-old Frenchman is not the type to draw attention to himself. Regarded as a born leader, he captained Paris Saint-Germain – whose colours he defended until his transfer to Liverpool last year – at the tender age of 17 years and 8 months, becoming the youngest player to wear the armband in the history of the club and of Ligue 1.
On 27 May 2014, he skippered France for the first time in a friendly win over Norway (4-0), and was subsequently named the team’s vice-captain for the foreseeable future. Deschamps has not been slow to praise the powerful centre-back in Brazil, highlighting “the importance of his character to the squad” during a press conference.
“Addressing my team-mates in the dressing room is quite a spontaneous, natural thing for me. I’ve got a strong personality which helps me to get my message across. I often try to do it with humour; it’s the best way to make it stick,” explained Sakho.
“I’ve always had a big brother-style relationship with youngsters. When I was young, I appreciated it when older guys gave me advice. You always learn things from your elders. And now I do it too, sometimes – there are players that really respond to that kind of thing.”
Three steps from glory
While Sakho enjoys a growing influence off the pitch, he has become just as authoritative on it. Alongside the equally talented Varane, who arguably plays in a slightly less impulsive manner, they have formed a partnership not unlike the Laurent Blanc-Marcel Desailly tandem that anchored France’s unyielding defence at the 1998 World Cup.
For Les Bleus to emulate that successful side and lift the prestigious trophy, they must negotiate three more hurdles, starting with the formidable Germans on Friday.
“It’ll be an interesting match. They’ve got lots of good young players, but so do we. We just have to stick to what we’re great at, play our usual game and not get carried away. We need to continue what we’ve been doing since the outset, but adding in a bit of extra focus, determination and aggression,” he concluded with an air of confidence.
If Sakho’s team-mates heed his advice and thereby advance to the semi-final, his stock is sure to rise even further among the French faithful.