Fofana: I love Ronaldo but Messi will win

As the son of a football coach, Wesley Fofana could easily have found himself pursuing a career in the beautiful game, having fallen in love with and played the sport from an early age. It was not to be, however; the oval-shaped ball proved too tempting, and 27 years later, the Parisian is now a star centre for the rugby teams of ASM Clermont Auvergne and France.

Although his current career involves 15 players and calls for superb handling skills, he has never lost his passion for the 11-a-side game played with the feet. caught up with the affable Frenchman to discuss his footballing roots, his lifelong support for Paris Saint-Germain, and his FIFA Ballon d’Or prediction. Wesley, in your early sporting memories, are you playing with a round ball or an oval ball? Wesley Fofana: It was football all the way! The 1998 World Cup in France is a memory that comes back to me straight away. I was still a young boy, but for the first time, was old enough to understand. I would dream of becoming a professional footballer rather than a rugby player – that came later.

When you grow up playing football, how does it feel to be on the receiving end of a rugby tackle for the first time? At the beginning, when you’re young, you don’t really spend too much time thinking about it. I felt comfortable playing the game straight away, and that’s why I stuck at it. My PE teacher had tried to get me to give rugby a go for a couple of years, but I’d refused. The day I finally tried it, it just clicked with me immediately. The first year, I kept up with football and rugby, but it was difficult juggling training sessions and matches in both sports and having to choose between them. On the one hand, I had a lot of friends who played rugby with me, and on the other, I’d always played football and followed it closely with my dad.

Speaking of your father, how did he – a big football fan and a youth coach in Paris – take your decision?Inevitably, at first he was a little disappointed. He didn’t really get it because, although he’s come a long way since then, the rules of rugby weren’t really his thing back then! (Laughs). In the end, he told me that he accepted my choice, although he still admits that he would have preferred to see me playing with a round ball.

What are your first memories of attending a football stadium as a supporter?That’s going back a bit now – I was very young. My dad was a season ticket holder at the Parc des Princes, and I would go and watch PSG with him from time to time. I was too young to remember the exact match or players, or to really understand what I was watching, but I do remember the noise and the atmosphere. I still support PSG to this day.

I get truly excited by the thought that any time I go, I’ll be able to see players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lucas Moura or Angel Di Maria.

You must be pretty satisfied by recent goings-on at the club.I’m very happy to support the team, and even happier to be able to watch such incredible players. It’s fantastic to see these stars arrive in French football. It’s great for Ligue 1 and for the fans that attend all the matches. I get truly excited by the thought that any time I go, I’ll be able to see players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lucas Moura or Angel Di Maria. What a pleasure that is.

Of all the big names that make up the current PSG side, which one gets you up off your seat most often?I really like Ibrahimovic, but I also appreciate Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi, who have a style of play and football brain that I love, as well as Thiago Motta, who controls the midfield. They have an exceptional team, so picking out specific players is tricky, and that’s a good thing. Ibra obviously stands out, but the rest are also amazing.

Is it not a bit too easy to support PSG, given the lack of competition in Ligue 1?No. The level of these players may attract other big names to France, and thereby raise the overall standard of the league. That can only be a good thing. There’s no doubt that, for the moment, the league is a little too comfortable for PSG. But in football, everyone knows that nothing’s over till it’s over – the players still have to work for the three points on the pitch. And although the league isn’t all that testing, there are other challenges that are more demanding for PSG. And so it’s still breath-taking to watch.

You played youth football in Paris with Jeremy Menez, the French international who played with Monaco, PSG and Roma, and who is now with AC Milan. What do you remember from that time? He must have been 13 or 14, and I was a year younger. We were very young, but you could already see the difference. Other players like me, parents, and coaches all talked about how he was going to become a professional and a top-class player – it was practically a sure thing. He would win matches and tournaments all by himself.

And what about you? How did you compare?I think that I played at a reasonable level. It’s difficult to say whether or not I’d have been able to make a career out of it, although I would certainly have given it my best shot. I was a good player but I would have had to work extremely hard to do it professionally and build a career. I’ll never know, unfortunately, but it would definitely have interested me.

Can elite athletes succeed in any discipline? For example, could Diego Maradona, Michael Jordan or Dan Carter have excelled in another sport? From experience, I think so. I tried out a lot of sports, and I always managed to, how can I put it, not look out of place, put in a maximum amount of effort, and rise to the challenge. It always worked out well. And so I think that an athlete with the mentality of a great champion could become a success in any sport. But I’ve got no regrets about choosing rugby, and I don’t even think about what might have happened if I’d opted for another sport.

Do you have a favourite footballer?I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love Cristiano Ronaldo. I think he’s a great player and a hard worker. His current level is simply the product of his own efforts.

Ronaldo is one of the three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar. How do you rate his chances of success? Honestly, I think Messi will win it. I know that for Ronaldo, it won’t be enough to just make it to the three-man shortlist, but it really is an incredible achievement. However, this year Messi has been like something from another planet. He’s such an immense game-changer. If he wins it, he’ll deserve it.

As a PSG fan, which of the three finalists would you prefer to see at your club? That’s a difficult one! There were rumours about Ronaldo joining at one point. He’s one of my favourite players, so why not him? That said, if you offered me Messi or Neymar, I wouldn’t turn my nose up.

During the Six Nations Tournament in 2013, you scored a memorable try against England at Twickenham, where you ran 70 metres while evading six tackles. Was that the rugby version of Maradona’s goal against England at Mexico 1986? (Laughs) Well, when you put it like that, maybe a little bit. If you were explaining it to someone in the street, describing the distance involved and the number of attempted tackles, perhaps you could say that there are similarities. But you can’t compare the two: catching someone with a ball in their hands and catching someone with a ball at their feet are very different things.

Does football get discussed in the Clermont Auvergne or France dressing rooms?At club level, there are three or four of us who support PSG, and the rest don’t really follow football. There’s maybe a fan of Marseille or Lyon here and there, but that’s about it. When the French squad gets together, though, several of us are into football, so we make fun of each other quite a bit. We also play a lot of FIFA on the PlayStation, especially when we’re all together for friendlies or Six Nations matches. Some are pretty good, and others, less so. On FIFA 15 – because we don’t have FIFA 16 yet – PSG weren’t rated as highly as they should be, so I always used to pick Real Madrid. That’ll change this year, though!

When you’re good at football, do you automatically have a good kicking game in rugby? Well, let’s just say that my kicking game is not too bad, but I have to get to a point where I can use it naturally on a rugby pitch. That’s a bit trickier. I don’t think being good at football necessarily gives you a better kicking game. It’s a different ball, and you approach it differently. There’s the ability to strike the ball hard, of course – that’s definitely an aspect you can compare. But an oval ball can do strange things and mastering it takes time. You can have a good kicking game and be terrible at football, and vice versa, I can tell you. There are a lot of players like that, but I won’t mention any names! (Laughs).