Still only 23, Dimitri Payet has had a big hand in St Etienne’s strong start to the Ligue 1 season, his sparkling displays helping them to the top of league standings.

The attacking midfielder, who hails from the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, has been rewarded for his efforts with a maiden call-up to the France team, deserved recompense for a player who has already endured his fair share of ups and downs in his fledgling career. As he prepares for France’s upcoming UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers against Romania and Luxembourg, charts the rise of the new boy in blue.

Fittingly, Payet’s career in France began in another famous blue shirt, that of Le Havre. In making the trip to Normandy, the then 13-year-old was following in the footsteps of fellow Reunion islanders Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Guillaume Hoarau, who, like him, had taken their first steps in the game at local club Jeunesse Sportive Saint-Pierroise.

I’ve seen for myself that he’s on top of his game with a club that’s going places and that he’s reproducing the form you could see he was capable of in the last few seasons.

France coach Laurent Blanc on Dimitri Payet

The gifted teenager would spend five years in Normandy but failed to make much of an impact - the main reason cited being his supposedly difficult character. After spending the next two years in the sunnier climes of his island home, Payet was lured back to France by Nantes. Making the most of his second chance, he performed with distinction in the league and forced his way into the France U-21 side.

In so doing he attracted a legion of admirers, among them Stephane Moreau, a former reserve-team coach with Les Canaris: “Dimitri had a nonchalant attitude but he was immensely talented all them same. He had the gift of being able to bring his team-mates into play and cancel out the opposition.” Payet’s Nantes sojourn, which was also notable for a much-publicised spat with his then team-mate Fabien Barthez, brought him five goals in 39 appearances, although his dead-ball skills and all-round gifts were not enough to save the club from relegation in 2007.

Staying in France this time, Payet decamped to St Etienne, where his class took some time to shine through. Goalless in his first season in green, he struck four in the league and three in the UEFA Cup the following campaign. He again brought his playmaking talents to bear last season, providing six assists in addition to two more goals, although he gained further notoriety after falling out with Alain Perrin and several of his team-mates, among them Blaise Matuidi.

Green for go
Thankfully for Payet, his personal life has brought him the equilibrium he needed to fulfil his undoubted potential. “The birth of my first child has given me stability,” said the man himself. “It’s allowed me to be a little bit calmer and to work a little bit harder.”

And as Payet acknowledges, St Etienne coach Christophe Galtier has done the rest: “The manager argues a lot with me and there’s a lot of dialogue and chat. The team really listens to what he has to say and that’s had an effect on the pitch. We’re playing more freely now. From a personal point of view, I can express myself more on the pitch when I know I have the coach’s confidence.”

That renewed self-belief allowed Les Verts to take to the top of Ligue 1 for the first time since the halcyon days of Michel Platini and Co, some 28 years ago. Though his side are now in second, a point behind Rennes, Payet is the country’s leading scorer with seven goals and has turned in a series of exceptional performances, none finer than in the 100th derby with local rivals Lyon. Not content with scoring the only goal of the game with a free-kick that would have done Platoche proud, the all-action Payet also cleared two goal-bound efforts off the line at the other end.

Displays such as that have made it virtually impossible for Laurent Blanc to bypass the Stade Geoffroy Guichard in recent times. “When you’re in the process of rebuilding a team like we are and you have a couple of players in great form then you can’t afford to leave them out,” commented the Bleus boss. “I’ve seen for myself that he’s on top of his game with a club that’s going places and that he’s reproducing the form you could see he was capable of in the last few seasons.”

“It’s fantastic news and I’m savouring the moment,” said Payet after Blanc had drafted him into the France squad. “I can’t really picture it to be honest. I feel very proud to be representing my country and it’s something I’ve already experienced with the U-21s, although this is on a different level. It’s a new phase in my career but a difficult one. I haven’t made it yet, far from it, and I’m going to have to apply myself even more now.”

Having worked hard to get this far, it will be no surprise to see Payet produce the goods in his country’s time of need.