Raphael Varane is fulfilling the rich promise he showed in his teenage years. Described as a key member of the France team by national coach Didier Deschamps despite having only played twice for his country, the classy 20-year-old central defender seems set for an outstanding career.
Deschamps is far from alone in rating Varane highly. Lens gave him his professional debut when he was only 17, and a year later Zinedine Zidane spirited him away to Real Madrid, where no less than authority than Jose Mourinho tipped him for the top and proved he meant it by elevating him to the first team.
FIFA.com met up with the rising star of French football and asked him about his rapid emergence, his success at Real Madrid and his hopes at international level.
FIFA.com: You’re often described as having an old head on young shoulders. Where does that maturity come from?
Raphael Varane: I think it’s all to do with my relationship with my big brother. He’s two-and-a-half years older than me and I’ve always wanted to catch up with him, though he’s done all he can to stop me from doing that (laughs)! I think that’s what’s made me grow up a little more quickly. And then I went to boarding school when I was young, at the age of 13, which maybe helped me mature too. I’m quite a calm person. I don’t lose my cool and I don’t put unnecessary pressure on myself. Things like that helped me turn professional at the age of 17.
You signed for Real Madrid when you were 18, after just one season with Lens. Did you have any hesitation about making such a big move? Were you tempted to stay on and develop your game at a smaller club?
Yes, of course. A lot of thought went into that decision. My initial feeling was that it wasn’t worth it and that I wouldn’t get a game. Then when I heard what the coach’s plans were I changed my mind. I didn’t go into it with my eyes closed. It was Jose Mourinho who convinced me. He said that I’d progress, that I’d reach the very highest level and that the move would be nothing but positive for me.
What kind of welcome did you get in the Madrid dressing room?
I’ve had a lot of help from my team-mates. I love to learn and share my experiences with other players, and that’s been appreciated in the dressing room. I’m a fairly quiet person who doesn’t make a lot of noise and that’s helped me a lot too. I didn’t speak Spanish when I came and having a few French people around made it easier for me. Zinedine Zidane made a point of telling me to approach the others, to share things with them and chat to them. He said it was up to me to make the move, and he helped me to come out of my shell a little and mix in.
Is there any advice you’ve had so far that’s stuck in your mind?
My parents always told me to be humble and that’s something that’s stayed with me. You can’t take anything for granted and you can’t think you’re above everyone else. You have to be yourself. I’ve made a point of sticking to those principles, and I’ve been reminded of them by some experienced players. One player who gives me a lot of advice at Real is Pepe. He’s taught me never to give up. He always gives 100 percent on the pitch and he tries to instil that winning mentality in me.
You made your first start for Madrid on 21 September 2011, not long after your arrival at the club. Did you expect to be thrown in at the deep end so early?
I was expecting it, because it came up in the chat I had with Jose Mourinho. He told me that I’d have my chance to play and that I was going to find out about myself and get to know myself better. I’d never been under a lot of pressure before, either on the pitch or off it, and he said that I’d soon be given the opportunity to find out how I’d react to it. Mourinho kept his word. In the two years I played for him he always kept his word, and he also knew when to throw me in at the right time.
What is it that makes Mourinho such a special coach for you?
I’m only young and haven’t had many coaches, which means it’s difficult for me to make comparisons, but I’d say it’s his personality and charisma, which were felt by the whole team. He’s a winner, a competitor, and he transmits that to his players. Wherever he’s gone he’s always created combative teams with lots of character.
You earned a lot of praise for your exceptional displays against Barça in the Copa del Rey at the start of the year, a tie in which you scored in both legs. Do you think that was the point when people really started to sit up and take notice of you?
Sometimes you sit back for five minutes and you realise that it’s all so crazy and that it goes by very quickly. But those are the times when you have to stay humble and keep your feet on the ground. Things happen very fast in football, and when it’s all going well you need to take a good look at yourself and fight for everything. We had a lot of important matches around then, especially in the Champions League. It was important for me to focus hard and that’s what I did. It’s all part of my education, and it’s something I’m able to do myself now. Then there’s the fact that I’m the third of four children. I’ve got a big brother and a big sister, and if I ever started acting differently to the way I was brought up, they’d be there me to put me back on the right path.
Which defender do you model yourself on?
I watch a lot of players in my position, but if I had to name a role model, I’d say Lillian Thuram because of the way he carried himself on the pitch and everything he did in his career. I loved his enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, desire and competitiveness, and I admire his personality and charisma too. I’ve even read his books, and I think he’s someone who can inspire youngsters. I was five when he scored his two goals in the semi-final against Croatia at France 98, but I remember it and it made an impact on me. To score those two goals at a time like that was special.
You’ve been earning lots of comparisons with Brazil’s Thiago Silva lately. How much pleasure does it give you to receive compliments like that?
(Laughs) He’s the number one in my position right now so it’s very flattering. I don’t like comparisons much but I am a similar kind of player to him in the way that I bring the ball out and defend, though we don’t have quite the same style. I feel I’ve still got a lot of improving to do and that I can get better in many ways. I’m starting my third season at Madrid and I’ve picked up a lot of experience already. I know what’s expected at the top level and I know you have to concentrate all the time, be strong in the one-on-ones and accurate when you play the ball out of defence. I try to draw on the skills I’ve got and iron out any weak points in my game.
Whenever you venture up front you tend to do the right thing. Does it come naturally? Did you play up front when you were younger?
It’s just something that’s in me. It’s instinctive and I don’t think about it. I follow my instinct and just do it. I think I can score a lot more goals though. I got two last season but it’s something I need to work on.
You picked up quite a bad knee injury in May. What went through your head when you realised you’d be out for a few months? Did Brazil come into your mind?
When it happened I told myself it wasn’t a big deal, but it came as a big blow when I went to hospital and they told me what the problem was. It was my first serious injury. It wasn’t until later that I started thinking about the World Cup and I told myself that I needed to come back fit, and fast too (laughs). Zizou was important for me. He saw how impatient I was getting during the pre-season and he calmed me down, something he’s pretty good at. It’s only normal, though. If you don’t have that desire, then there’s not much point being on a football pitch.
What do you find inspiring about the fact Brazil is hosting next year’s World Cup?
It’s a great footballing country and having the World Cup there makes it even bigger. Their record in the competition speaks for itself, and it’s a country that lives and breathes football and the joy of playing the game. All the big teams should be there, so it should be quite a show. It promises to be a great World Cup and I really want to be there and go up against the best.
If France qualify, do you think they can do well and compete with the big European and South American teams?
It won’t be easy but I don’t think it’ll take long for us to come together as a unit and achieve something. That’s what we need to aim for and we need to do everything we can to make it happen. It takes time to build a great unit, with undisputed first-choice players and experienced leaders who can steer the team in the right direction. It doesn’t take long to get a team to play as a unit though.