- Reunion has a tradition for producing skilful attacking footballers
- The Indian Ocean island is a French region and the outermost member of the EU
- Celtic legend Didier Agathe tells us about Reunion and the players it produces
Were you to be asked what Dimitri Payet and Laurent Robert have in common, you might think of their skill, swagger and shared penchant for spectacular goals. What you might not realise is that these France internationals were both born and raised on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean.
Situated between Madagascar and Mauritius off the east coast of Africa, and with a landmass of just 2500km², Reunion boasts an impressive football pedigree that extends beyond Payet and Robert.
Florent Sinama-Pongolle, the star of France’s FIFA U-17 World Cup™ win in 2001, who went on to play for the likes of Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, also hails from the island. So too does Didier Agathe, who emerged as a marauding attacker with Montpellier, Raith Rovers and Hibernian before being converted into a dynamic wide man – and serial title-winner – at Celtic.
And if you’ve noticed that all of these aforementioned Reunionnais are attackers – creators and entertainers at heart – Agathe insists that is no coincidence.
“I think it reflects the nature of the island,” he told FIFA.com. “Fortunately we don’t have a big problem with racism in Reunion, so you find a lot of mixed-race families. And for me that means you end with different qualities all coming through from the Asian, African and European people who live there.
“It’s true that we don’t tend to produce many big, tough defenders. There aren’t many No9-type strikers either. But when it comes to wingers or attacking midfielders, we bring through a lot of them. That flair definitely seems to be something we specialise in.”
Did you know?
Roger Milla was playing amateur football in Reunion before he received the fateful call to return to the Cameroon fold ahead of the 1990 FIFA World Cup™. "I’d had enough of the professional game in France and went there to stay at a friend’s for a holiday," he explained. "I ended up staying nine months and playing for one of the local football teams."
Despite its remote location, Reunion enjoys close ties to Europe through its status as an overseas region of the French Republic and the outermost territory of the EU. This has traditionally smoothed the passage of promising players to the Old Continent and, while France has naturally been their primary destination, Agathe – despite the dual challenges of COVID-19 and Brexit – has been opening up an avenue to the UK.
“I ran an academy in Reunion for a few years, so I knew the talent was there,” he explained. “Now I’m back in the UK, in Sunderland, working with Park View Academy of Sport (a role he combines with managing non-league side Chester-le-Street United). I bring some players over from Reunion to play here. They come for a six-week project, and the aim is that if they impress they can stay longer.
“Football is the number one sport in Reunion, no question. And although it’s a small island, we produce a lot of talent. Every year we have about 25 players leaving the island, and mainly they go to play in France. But now I’m trying to get more of them to come to the UK, learn English, adapt to the culture and mentality here, and I’m sure you’ll see some of them making a mark eventually.
“In Sunderland, I always warn the players: the weather and the accents here are tough. It’s like when I played in Scotland. But like in Scotland, the people here are very warm. And the players love it. It’s a dream for them to come and play football over here and, even if they don’t make it, they love the experience.”
Agathe knows first-hand that, should his fellow Reunionnais master the dialect, brace themselves against the wind and rain and, most important of all, impress on the field, they can become heroes. The 45-year-old, after all, remains a beloved figure at Celtic, whom he helped reach the UEFA Cup final and win their first domestic treble in 32 years.
“I’ve been blessed,” said the man who was described by manager Martin O’Neill as “having gone from being a £50,000 player to a £29 million player”. “When I went on the pitch I just tried to make people happy. The fact that led me to a fantastic club like Celtic, at a great time with fantastic team-mates like Henrik Larsson, was something incredible. I’m very proud of what I achieved there.”
Yet for all of his successes, Agathe never forgot his roots. And while the current travel restrictions in the UK prevent him from returning, it won’t be long – COVID-permitting – before he is once again en route to the beautiful island he calls home.
“I go back to Reunion a lot because all my family still live there,” he explained. “I see my future away from the island because I want to be a manager. I’ve done my A Licence and I enjoy the man-management side of coaching; talking to my players and getting the most out of them.
“But Reunion will always be home. It’s a beautiful country, very multi-cultural, and because it’s part of the EU it's easier to travel there than to other countries in the region. It’s a real paradise, very safe to visit, and I would say to anyone who has the chance to go there, ‘Take it!' I’m very proud to call Reunion my home.”