Since making his top-flight debut in 2008 and turning heads with his assured performances for Monaco, Nicolas N'Koulou has grown to become one of the most coveted young players in French football. The Cameroonian defender is in the final stretch of a successful second season with Marseille, and continues to impress with his intelligence, positioning and shrewd reading of the game. N'Koulou received his schooling at the Kadji Sport Academie, a producer of some of the biggest names in Cameroonian football.
"It gave me a lot of perspective, and taught me to be composed and respectful," he told FIFA.com. "I had never been away from my family, so that first experience made me much stronger and helped me to look at life differently. It set me up to succeed in Europe."
That sense of maturity has been an important factor in N'Koulou's success to date. The young defender was recently named the second best African player in Ligue 1 for the second year in a row, having been voted the Marseille fans' player of the season in 2011/12.
A defensive rock for Marseille in the latter stages of the season, N'Koulou has helped his side concede just three goals in their current run of ten games without defeat. That solid form has allowed OM to secure second spot in the league with two games to spare, with last season's disappointing tenth-placed finish now a distant memory.
South African memories, Brazilian dreams
Playing for Marseille is clearly a great source of pride for N'Koulou – as is wearing the captain's armband for the Cameroon national team. "If you had told me this a few years ago, I wouldn't have believed it," he said. "It's an honour for me, and a mark of confidence. It's my turn now to repay my country for what it has given me, by performing well and getting good results."
Cameroon are currently top of Group I in African qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. N'Koulou, for his part, is determined to play at his second world finals and improve on his maiden campaign at South Africa 2010, where the Indomitable Lions bowed out in the first round after three straight defeats.
"It was wonderful to play [at South Africa 2010], even though it was quite a difficult period for our national team, with lots of misunderstandings," said the 23-year-old. "But it was nonetheless a World Cup, and for me there's nothing better than that. I went there and competed, and I hope to be able to play at more World Cups in my career."
N'Koulou and his team-mates, however, know there is no room for complacency. Indeed, their Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign resumes in June with two tricky away trips, first to Togo and then to Congo DR.
"We still have an awful lot to do, and nothing is decided yet," he said. "We only need to fail to win one game to slide back into difficulty.
"The national team has faced a lot of problems in recent years, so it's important for us to strengthen at all levels, and to get everyone to pull together. We must stay calm and focused, and build on the good things we've done recently to ensure a better future. It's satisfying to be top [of the qualifying group], but we don't want to rest on our laurels."
Having failed to qualify for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2013, Cameroon are determined to re-establish themselves as a force on the fiercely competitive African scene.
"We've already felt the pain of watching two Cup of Nations tournaments unfold without us," said the Cameroon captain. "It's been hard to take.
"Now, though, I can't imagine Brazil 2014 without Cameroon. I think it would be a big surprise, because I have complete confidence in my team. We've often underachieved in recent years, which is a waste when you consider the quality of our squad.
"We've got a good group of young players, one that holds a lot of promise for the future of the country. We also have some very big names in our squad, such as Samuel Eto'o, who remains a great asset for our national team. With his vast experience and playing achievements, he is also a guide for the new generation."
"I think we have everything we need to succeed. But we mustn’t just rely on our big-name players: we all have to prove ourselves on the pitch."