Long before he ever dreamed of making a living with his feet, Lalaina Nomenjanahary used to put his hands to good use, fashioning little toys out of recycled tin cans, a common sight on the market stands of his native Madagascar and across Africa as a whole.

The little boy from Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar – one of the poorest countries in the world – later defied the odds by building a career in France with RC Lens. It was a decision borne of economic necessity because, as he explained to FIFA.com, earning a living from the game in Madagascar is no easy task.

“It’s really difficult to get by when you play sport in general and football in particular,” said Nomenjanahary. “It’s an amateur game here. There’s no exposure and no one comes to see the players. It’s a tough situation and you have to fight to make a living from your sport and embark on a professional career. For a Malagasy person it’s impossible to do that if you stay in Madagascar.”

A defender by trade, Nomenjanahary made his way first of all to Reunion Island – the promised land for Madagascan players – and then on to France. In the meantime, however, he has never forgotten the difficulties faced by his compatriots.

As a boy, playing the game in the streets, he never harboured dreams of becoming a professional. His obvious talent gave him a chance to reach for the top, however: “I played in my local neighbourhood and I was spotted and asked to sign for a local club.” His first team was Ajesaia, for whom he played in 2007 and then rejoined two years later, after a season with JS Saint-Pierroise on Reunion Island.

Play, study, work
While playing for a club on his home island had its advantages, Nomenjanahary, who was in his early 20s at the time, still had the problem of making ends meet. “It was an opportunity but it wasn’t easy to play football, keep up with my studies and make some money at the same time,” he explained.

“I wasn’t thinking about turning professional. I was just thinking about day to day: playing, going to college and getting enough money together so I could eat. I was tired and I kept falling asleep in class, but I needed to hang in there. I finished my classes at midday and I started training half an hour later. Then, in the evening, I had to work to make some money.”

The job in question involved delivering goods for wholesalers, while he devoted the rest of his time to his other passion: making little toy cars from recycled metal. The budding footballer enjoyed making them so much, he earned a nickname from it: “I loved making cars from tins and cans, which I’d sell around the neighbourhood to get a little money. One day, my aunt said I liked cars too much and she started to call me Bôlida (bolide being a French word meaning “racing car”).

In the meantime, he strove to achieve his personal goals and make all his hard work pay off, departing for Reunion again to join Saint-Pauloise FC before suddenly making the journey to France, to sign for northern amateur side CS Avion.

“You don’t really expect to find a club in Europe when you play in Madagascar. So when I arrived in France, I said to myself that I’d need to stick in there because it was a fantastic opportunity to change my life,” said Nomenjanahary, who recalled what he did with the first pay packet he received in France: “I sent the money back to my mother, and after that I always tried to save as much as I could for her and my brother.”

Those first wages would have been even higher had he remained with Saint-Pauloise. That Nomenjanahary turned the extra money down was due in no small part to former Lens player Herve Arsene, a fellow Madagascan who was working as an assistant coach with the national team at the time and who offered him the opportunity to sign for Avion.

“To begin with he didn’t want to come,” said Arsene, a member of the Sang et Or side that won the French title in 1998. “You have to look at things from his viewpoint though: there he was with the chance to get a good salary on a neighbouring island, and there I was telling him to come to Avion.”

The high life
A few weeks after signing for Saint-Pauloise, Nomenjanahary called Arsene to say he had changed his mind and was heading to France after all. Explaining his decision, the 29-year-old defender said: “When I went to Reunion, my girlfriend passed her high school exams and went to France to study. So I rang Arsene and told him: ‘Coach, if you still want to give me a trial, then I’m ready to come’.” Arsene duly paid for his flight and did not regret the investment.

Nomenjanahary spent a season with Avion in the French third division before being snapped up by neighbouring Lens, which shares facilities with the lower-league club. After helping Les Sang et Or gain promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2014, he scored his first top-flight goal in their opening win of last season, a 1-0 defeat of Lyon.

In the meantime, he married his girlfriend, Julia, who discovered that though her beloved Bôlida was still the same, their lives had most definitely changed: “The players’ wives congregate in the VIP boxes at the Stade Bollaert (Lens’ home ground) and enjoy a very swish buffet with cocktails, champagne, wine, appetisers and the like,” she recalled in August 2014. “I was offered champagne the first time I went in, but I turned down because I thought they were going to make me pay for it later.”

That is just one of the perks of having a hard-working footballer for a husband, a man who is now hoping to see more of his fellow countrymen break into the professional game. The upcoming qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, the first round of which will see Madagascar take on Central African Republic this Saturday and again next Tuesday, could well help them do that.

Capped 26 times since 2006, Nomenjanahary is unavailable for their forthcoming fixtures but will be cheering on his former team-mates all the same: “I’m right behind the national team because there are some players with real potential in Madagascar and they deserve the best.”

Acknowledging that qualification for Russia 2018 is but a dream, he believes nevertheless that a place in the second round is within the reach of Les Barea, and that the qualifiers could be an important stepping stone for his compatriots: “The national team needs to play more matches against the big teams in order to progress, which would give Madagascan players more visibility and give some of them the chance to get spotted.

“For the sake of our football, I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more Madagascan players coming to Europe.”