A defensive midfielder by trade, Johann Paul has enjoyed anything but a straightforward career. Describing himself to FIFA.com as “just another midfield battler”, the 34-year-old Madagascar international has spent season after season in Ligue 2 and the French third tier, battling against injuries and fighting for starting places and the chance to play in the elite.
A measure of success is finally coming his way as the captain of the Barea, success made all the sweeter by the obstacles he has overcome along the way, the biggest of them befalling him on 15 April 2006.
“That was the day I nearly died,” he recalled.* *“It was in a match against Angers in the National. I was playing for Chatellerault and ran right into one of my team-mates. I fell to the ground like a boxer who’d been knocked out.
“I was out cold. I swallowed my tongue and started to choke. My pulse slowed right down and it would have been critical if they hadn’t cleared my airway. I spent the night in hospital and was out the next day. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s no big deal. I haven’t suffered any after effects and the only sign of it is a scar just above my eyebrow. And I don’t want that incident to be the defining moment of my footballing career.”
There is not much chance of that now. Having dispatched his club duties with honour, the Frejus/Saint-Raphael man is now excelling on the international front. Madagascar’s captain since 2012, he has been instrumental in their recent run of success, which began with a best-ever third place in last May’s COSAFA Cup, an annual competition contested by southern African nations, and continued with a 5-2 aggregate defeat of Central African Republic in the first round of the CAF qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
“There’s a lot of work gone into those results and we’re building on that now,” said Paul. “We really feel that the national FA are making a big effort to develop Malagasy football. They’re doing all they can to give the players the best possible conditions. There’s a stable environment in the national team now and we’ve got players coming through in a number of championships. We really are on a high at the moment.”
The Madagascar No6 made a rare goalscoring contribution to that defeat of Central African Republic, opening his international account after 12 long years by heading home to complete his side 3-0’s win in the first leg.
“I’m not just saying this, but all that matters to me is qualifying," Paul remarked. "If it had been a last-minute winner, it would obviously have felt more special, but it was only the goal that made it 3-0. It felt nice, but it was nothing compared to the happiness I felt at qualifying.”
Where the heart lies
The last time Madagascar made any headway in their bid to reach the world finals was in the qualifiers for Mexico 1986, when they suffered a painful penalty-shootout defeat to Egypt in the second round. Since then, the Madagascans have made a habit of falling at the first hurdle, a fate that befell them in the preliminaries for Brazil 2014, when Equatorial Guinea were their conquerors.
Aside from adding an extra dimension to his sporting career, fighting Madagascar’s cause is also a source of pride for Paul: “There’s no stronger emotion for a player than wearing the national team jersey and running out on the pitch to represent your country. You don’t get as attached to a club as you do your country.”
Though born in the French town of Issoudun, Paul has never had any doubt as to where his heart lies: “I grew up in France and I’ve spent my career here, but my roots and culture are Malagasy. I talk and eat Malagasy.”
Discussing his French-sounding name, which certainly stands out on a team sheet featuring the likes of Chretien Andriamifehy, Njiva Rakotoharimalala, Francois Andrianomenjanahary and Ferdinand Ramanamahefa, he said: “It does look a little bit different. It comes from my great-grandfather, who was a sailor from Brittany. He moved to the island a long time ago and settled in Diego Suarez, in the north of Madagascar, where he started a family. That’s my home port.”
Before he retires and returns to the island, where he is planning to stay in football, Paul has a few more challenges to meet, starting with the second-round Russia 2018 qualifying tie against Senegal: “We can’t wait for it to come around. Most of the Madagascar team play in minor leagues and matches like this don’t come around for them very often.
“It’s no ordinary tie. There’s a real buzz, expectations are high among the fans and we’re in demand with the media. It’s 11 against 11 and we’ll have our chances. I’m not a daydreamer and I’m not thinking about the World Cup, but it would be pretty good to make the group phase.”