"A mouse may often be of service to a lion," goes the proverb and the France players jetting off to South Africa are starting to learn the wisdom of those words. At just over 1.6-metres tall, Mathieu Valbuena is the shortest member of Raymond Domenech’s squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, but the diminutive Marseille winger is already making his presence felt after scoring the winner on his debut as Les Bleus downed Costa Rica 2-1 on 26 May.
If that was a fairytale start, then perhaps Valbuena best recalls Jack, with the coveted France shirt cast in the role of the inaccessible sky. Unable to find any magic beans, Valbuena has had to reach his goal through sheer force of will. Indeed, the 25-year-old has found his height an issue more than once along the way, having once regarded professional football almost as a child looks upon a packet of sweets on a shelf: visible but just beyond his grasp.
Rejected due to his size by the youth academy at his hometown club Bordeaux – while his friend Rio Mavuba was kept on – Valbuena found the doors to Ligue 1 closed and had to launch his career in the fifth tier of the French game at Langon-Castets in 2003. The player later nicknamed ‘Le Petit’ (The Little One) by Eric Gerets nonetheless bestrode the division much as a giant might, and that prompted a move to Libourne in the third flight. “He has the right qualities to succeed in a big team,” said Didier Tholot, his coach at the time and a UEFA Cup finalist in 1996 with Bordeaux. “He’s an explosive player, capable of quickly taking two opponents out of the game to create space, above all due to his dribbling skills.”
Proving his worth once again at Libourne, Valbuena was able to finally achieve his top-flight dream by securing a 2006 switch to Marseille. However, after having to content himself with substitute appearances and then fracturing his ankle, he also fell victim to the constant turmoil at the club. Instead of seeing all his progress undone, though, he grabbed hold of the stepladder fate thrust in his direction as Gerets took over as coach in 2007.
The Belgian tactician’s first match in charge could hardly have been a more daunting assignment, with L'OM on UEFA Champions League duty against Liverpool at Anfield. Valbuena was a surprise inclusion in Gerets’ starting line-up and against all expectations Marseille engineered a 1-0 win, the first time a French club had ever triumphed at the hallowed home of the Reds.
The goalscoring hero was of course none other than their previously unknown pint-sized dynamo, who only three years earlier had been plying his trade in the fifth division. Suddenly, he was being compared to Franck Ribery, who was also discovered in the lower leagues and who went on to capture the imagination after a dazzling spell at Marseille.
Despite the mounting attention, Valbuena was careful not to get carried away, listening carefully to the advice of his father, a Spaniard from Valladolid who works for Bordeaux city council. “My parents always taught me to always work hard and never start thinking that you’ve made it,” explained the France newcomer. “Without my parents, I might have become a salesman in a sports shop, which is what I was doing as work experience during my studies.”
A step towards the starsToday, Valbuena can indeed be found in sports shops, but only as a name emblazoned on the back of France shirts. That seemed a distant proposition when Didier Deschamps arrived at the Stade Velodrome last summer as the player was quickly shunted out on to the sidelines and put on the January transfer list, but he never stopped toiling away in training and eventually regained his place in the team.
Once back, he was able to continue his impressive march to the top and ended the 2009/10 campaign in superb form to lift himself to new heights. Most notably, his goals helped Marseille claim the French League Cup and the Ligue 1 title, 17 long years on from their last taste of success.
With that silverware under his belt, Le Petit could be said to have grown up, but his fairytale was far from over yet. No sooner had he grabbed hold of the sweets than he spied a box of chocolates on the shelf above, and he clutched the rope thrown down to him by Domenech to claim a place in France’s 23-man FIFA World Cup squad, despite having never won a single international cap. “I’m feeling joy and pride because I’ve come so far,” he said, a few days after marking his debut with a goal. “After such an exceptional year, this is the icing on the cake.”
"It’s bizarre to see him on television in a France shirt with the little star on it,” said Valbuena when he watched his old team-mate Mavuba in action for Les Bleus in 2004. Now it is his turn to aim for the stars, and after that even he may find it difficult to climb any higher.