Mathieu Valbuena can justly pride himself on being a key player for France, as he proved again this month with a superb free-kick to help Les Bleus triumph 1-0 in Portugal. Having scored eight times in 50 appearances, the midfielder has earned widespread praise as a gifted picker of defensive locks, not to mention a tireless worker whose energy levels and selflessness demand respect.
But despite his current standing, the 30-year-old had to toil harder than most to carve out a career at the highest level, as he explains in this exclusive interview with FIFA.com. Released by Bordeaux's youth academy due to his size at the age of 18, the 5'6 dynamo never gave up on his dreams or his passion for the game. "Thanks to hard work and self-sacrifice," Valbuena eventually won over coaches, team-mates and supporters alike, using his early knockbacks to his advantage on his journey to the top.
FIFA.com: Your passion for football famously began when you travelled to Barcelona with your father as a child. Could you tell us more about that experience?
Mathieu Valbuena: It's true that I always went on holiday to Spain, my father's home country, and I could never resist going to the Camp Nou. The stadium held 115,000 spectators back then and it really made an impression on me. I always went to the museum, to see the boot with which Ronald Koeman scored in the final [of the European Cup in 1992] as well as Hristo Stoichkov's Ballon d'Or and so on. It was extraordinary for me and I never grew tired of admiring everything there. I only got to see a match once, but I often attended the unveilings of new players followed by training sessions, where 40,000 spectators would show up every time. I was already passionate about the game, but that gave me even more strength and hunger to become a professional. I had a big postcard of the Camp Nou which I kept on the bedside table in my room, and on it I drew my dream scenario: dribbling past ten players and scoring.
Which players did you enjoy watching most?
My idol has always been Ronaldo, Il Fenomeno, who could do incredible things with the ball. Romario and Rivaldo also fired my imagination back then and did great things for Barça. They didn't play like everyone else – they were football geniuses. When you're a kid, it's players like those who get you dreaming. They're the reason people say football is beautiful, and they create passion for the sport.
Your own image is that of a player who had to work harder than most to get where you are. Why is that?
It's never been easy for me because of my build, which raised question marks for a lot of people. I started out at Bordeaux at the age of eight and completed my training there, but when I was 18 and it was time to progress to the first team, they put the brakes on. It was because of my size, or perhaps because I wasn't ready to take on the physical challenge at the time. I left and had to finish my training elsewhere, at smaller, amateur clubs. It was tough because when you go from training sessions every day to sessions twice a week, you need to train on your own to be able to continue believing in your dream. When you get rejected at 18 you can't exactly be a tower of strength, but I busted a gut and never gave up. It ended up making me stronger.
How did you react at the time?
I cried. It really made me sad because I felt like my world was suddenly collapsing. My parents, and my father in particular, were the driving forces who pushed me to keep believing. They told me I was still young and that I needed to work and follow a different path to keep progressing in order to get there in the end. I went to Langon and then Libourne, where it was tough for me to impose myself, but I've always been able to achieve my goals. My strength has been my capacity to stick at a task despite nothing having ever been easy, whether it was becoming a professional, winning a starting place at each new club or getting into the national team. Thanks to hard work and self-sacrifice, values which have always been my strengths, I've always managed to turn things around.
How did your difficult start in the game make you stronger?
It was a blessing in disguise. I didn't get everything handed to me on a plate. Today you see a lot of players who sign professional contracts very young and suddenly find themselves in a comfortable situation. If I'd signed with Bordeaux, perhaps I never would've had the career I've had and wouldn't have become an international. The fact that I was cast aside was like a wake-up call.
What aspect of your personality made it possible for you to overcome all those challenges?
I think it's a kind of carefree attitude. I also had a respect for hard work which I got from my parents, and I was passionate about football. Football is my whole life and I get huge pleasure from playing games or kicking the ball around with friends. These days you don't find as many passionate people in football. I'm just happy when I get to train and kick a ball, and when I play I'm not thinking about anything else. That's what gives me strength.
Does that same quality explain why you have tended to perform well in big games?
For me, it's a pleasure to play in a big game. You have to approach it positively and enjoy it. If you work hard, you'll always reap the rewards. It's true that I got to score in some important matches when I was at Marseille. My debuts have tended to be successful as well. For example, my first Champions League game was at Liverpool, where I scored. It was the same with my international debut. For me, that's a positive pressure. I try to make the most of it so as to have no regrets when I end my career.
These days you don't find as many passionate people in football. I'm just happy when I get to train and kick a ball.
What do you remember about your international debut?
It was a friendly against Costa Rica towards the end of May 2010, just before the World Cup in South Africa. Before the match, Patrice Evra said to me, "I have a feeling you're going to score." Then Abou Diaby gave me the ball after a superb run and, with one of my first touches, I shot and scored. It's an incredible feeling to get your first international goal. To start out like that, even though I'd only been given 20 minutes on the pitch, set the tone for what followed and gave me a lot of confidence. OK, what happened next in South Africa wasn't great, but I felt positive about it overall because things went well for me afterwards. It's never easy to earn your stripes at international level.
How did your experiences at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ change you?
On a personal level, it was an adventure like nothing else I'd ever experienced. Leaving aside the fact that we all performed well, the cohesion in the squad was extraordinary, as were the stadiums and the ambience. And that fact that it was held in Brazil added something very special to the mix. It was a great moment and scoring a goal against Switzerland remains my greatest career memory.
Given your love for the France team, the 2010 World Cup must have been very painful for you. Did reaching the quarter-finals in Brazil go some way to erasing that memory?
A little bit, yes. It's true that we'd had a pitiful World Cup, given everything that happened and the episode on the bus. Even though we only had three or four players in Brazil who'd also been there in 2010, we still had that sense of catastrophe which, despite everything, will forever be engraved in our memories. We'll never erase it completely, but we were able to make people think about it a bit less, and win them over by projecting a better image of the France team again, both on and off the pitch.
You continued being called up after leaving OM for Dynamo Moscow in August 2014, despite the rest of the squad being based in the five major European championships. Were you grateful for the way Didier Deschamps kept faith in you during that period?
Yes, it was a huge sign of confidence. But even if the Russian championship attracts less attention, it's still very competitive. My decision to go there was both sporting and financial because you have to think about these things, especially at my age. But I was sure that if I continued performing well, I'd be called up by the national team, and it didn't prevent me keeping my place and playing. Football is an eternal cycle and nothing is ever guaranteed. I just keep following my path with determination and humility so that I can play as much as possible. My time in Russia was a wonderful adventure. It's always difficult to move to a new country, and I was hesitant at first, but when I learned more about the project there and felt that I was wanted and they had faith in me, I went for it. I'd come to the end of a cycle with Marseille: I'd been there eight years and needed something new. I'd won titles and we'd done some incredible things in the Champions League, and I just needed to experience something else.
Why did you decide to return to France and sign for Lyon this summer?
OL's project was very attractive. They'd had a superb season, were returning to the Champions League and are about to move into the Grand Stade. They're progressing really well, with some talented players I knew before I moved, plus my family is nearby in Aix-en-Provence. On top of that, Dynamo had lost a lot of players, so the sporting project no longer matched up with what I'd been promised at the outset.
Having spent a year in Russia, what are your expectations of the 2018 World Cup?
I can tell you that they're thinking about it a lot. We're thinking about it too, but it's still some way off because we're due to have the EURO in France. Having seen the stadiums and the projects under construction, I can assure you that the infrastructure is fantastic and that it'll be a truly great World Cup.
What are your thoughts on France's qualifying group, with Les Bleus drawn alongside the Netherlands, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg?
There are no easy groups whatever happens. We lost to Albania at the end of last season. There are no small teams any more – the days when you could beat Azerbaijan 10-0 are long gone. We'll have to fight hard, as in every qualifying campaign. We had to go through the play-offs to reach the last World Cup, so I hope that this time we'll finish top.