Although some footballers, such as Pele, Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney, enjoy a rapid rise through the ranks and cement their elite status in virtually no time at all, not everyone in the game follows a similar career path. Among this less high-profile group, there are players like Luxembourg’s Maxime Chanot who, up until last July, had never had the chance to rub shoulders with FIFA World Cup™ winners like Patrick Vieira, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo on a daily basis.
“I learn from those players and the coach every day – they all had incredible careers,” Chanot, who signed for New York City FC in the summer of 2016, told FIFA.com. “What's impressed me the most is their work ethic. They’re the first to arrive at training and practically the last to leave. Despite their natural talent, they’ve shown us that, without marrying that talent with hard work, you won’t reach the highest level. These days, I’m living my dream – this is why I started to play football when I was a kid.”
Chanot did not experience the happiest of childhoods, losing his father at the age of five and subsequently exhibiting disruptive behaviour that led to disciplinary action in youth academies in Nancy and Reims. “I’ve not had your typical career, because it took me a while to get going and find an environment in which I could blossom. Now, I’ve found some stability, and that’s the most important thing,” said the 27-year-old, who secured his first professional contract at Sheffield United in 2007, although it would not prove to be the most gratifying of periods for him.
Following two seasons with the Blades, during which he embarked on two loan spells with Mansfield Town and Hamilton Academical and played in just 18 matches in total, he was released from his contract, after which he returned home to France. Brief stints at Le Mans and then Gueugnon, where troubling times on the pitch were exacerbated by difficulties – unpaid salaries, dire financial circumstances – off it, saw him forced into sub-letting his flat and returning to live at the club’s youth academy in an attempt to save some money.
“I’ve got to be honest; if I had been good enough, I would have broken through in England and perhaps pursued my career there,” said the robust centre-back. "But I was young, and when you play in the middle of a back four in England, you need plenty of experience. And I also made some bad decisions – for example, going back to France was a mistake. If I’d been more patient, I might not have struggled so much during the years that followed. That had a negative impact on my career until I found a way out.”
With a lack of tempting offers on the horizon, Chanot took what was available, signing for Belgian second division outfit RWS Bruxelles, where he performed well enough to earn morale-boosting moves to top-flight sides Beerschot and Kortrijk, establishing a reputation over five seasons as one of the most proficient defenders in the league and obtaining a call-up to the Luxembourg national squad in 2013.
“I came to the realisation that a footballing career is tricky. As long as you can accept that there’ll be ups and downs, you know that during difficult periods you can’t let up and hard work will pay dividends in the end,” said the player who has now become a regular for the D'Roud Léiwen (the Red Lions) and was personally recruited by New York coach Patrick Vieira, after the former France star was impressed by his performances in Belgium.
And while he has not yet reached the upper echelons of Planet Football, he has had the opportunity to play alongside and against some truly outstanding players. “I want to keep climbing the ladder – I’m only 27, which means I’ve still got a good few years ahead of me,” he stated.
In addition, two memorable goals on the international stage – a powerful header that flew past Gianluigi Buffon in a historic drawn friendly (1-1) with Italy and a penalty in a defeat (1-3) by the Netherlands during the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup – further boosted his profile, as well as that of the country he represents.
Heavy defeats now appear to be a thing of the past for Luxembourg, and the tiny nation has also made great progress as regards their style of play. Gone are packed defences and long clearances upfield, to be replaced by a brand of football that is more pleasing on the eye.
“Fans who last saw us play four or five years ago would be surprised, I think, because we don’t hide when we’re out on the pitch anymore, or play with ten men at the back,” said Chanot, who was born in France – the country Luxembourg face in a Russia 2018 qualifier on 25 March – but chose to instead defend the flag of his mother’s side of the family. “Of course, we’re still Luxembourg, and we’re aware we’re going to struggle in some matches, but our approach has completely changed compared to a few years’ back,” he added.
While Luxembourg’s philosophy has evolved, the challenge now is to convert that progress into a qualifying slot at a major tournament. “It’s a shame, because the results don’t reflect our performances. If you look at the table, we’ve only got one point – people who’ve not seen us play probably assume that we’re the same old Luxembourg,” said the international defender, whose 22 caps include his country’s recent tight losses to Bulgaria (3-4) and Sweden (0-1).
“We lack a bit of experience – players who know how to take the rough with the smooth, which is something we still struggle with. And what we could really do with is a clinical striker, the kind of player who makes a difference and can pop up with a goal when you really need it. When it’s 3-3 or 0-0, for example, and you’re pushing for a winner. But that’ll come in time. We’ve got some great young players coming through.”
While it may take a few years yet until the Red Lions can properly compete for a World Cup berth, Chanot knows more than anyone that even the little guy can share the stage with giants if he is determined enough.
“Football is a sport that requires patience,” he said. “Sometimes fans and non-players don’t understand that. We’re still a small country with a lot fewer players and less basic quality than major footballing nations. It would be a bit presumptuous to say that we could qualify, but why not have a go at building up a respectable points total during our campaigns? That would be a good start in terms of showing that we’ve closed the gap between us and the top teams.”
Chanot’s meandering career path, which has now led him to star-studded NYCFC, is testament to this patient approach. “When you’ve experienced difficult periods, it makes the good times all the sweeter and helps you appreciate what you’ve done to get where you are,” he said, concluding, “I’m happy with how I’m doing, even though I think I could still develop further. In the world of football, you always want to experience a higher level. But if my life and my career have taught me one thing, it's this: don’t assume you know what’s going to happen ahead of time.”