Sunday, 12 July 2015

Dimitri Payet: Terreur d'Elite

"Those who think they know me are simply lacking in information..."
Lying tranquilly some 120 miles off the east coast of Madagascar, bobbing alone in the Indian Ocean, the tropical island of Réunion boasts a diminutive population of only 800,000 inhabitants. Other than world-record breaking daily rainfall levels in 1952 and the occasional epidemic of the mosquito-borne disease chikungunya, it seems to the casual observer that it could almost be the land that time forgot. Indeed, in footballing terms, other than Jean-Pierre Papin's brief end-of-career cameo at JS Saint-Pierroise, the overseas département of France could be described as an anonymous spectator in world football. Until two weeks ago that is. When Réunionnais native Dimitri Payet made the 'eight-figure' move from Marseille to West Ham United it sparked such virulent reaction on both side of the channels- French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet called it a national embarrassment- that for a brief moment sugar and Michel Houellebecq was no longer the island's most famous exports...

"I was born in Saint-Pierre but I grew up in Saint-Philippe, south of Réunion," says Payet when discussing his first tentative steps on the journey from to Île Bourbon to London's East End. "This is where I made my first passes and scored my first goals. I was five and at first I was playing striker because [like everyone else] I was a fan of Papin. My father introduced me to football and just like that I immediately wanted to become a professional footballer." Even as a young boy he dreamed of the idolized life of the football player? "To be adored! No, it was not even that," he says. "It was my dream to just be able to play forever." If you ask any of the Saint-Philippe locals now they will tell you there was never any doubt the young Dimitri would achieve his ambition. "At that time, he was already clearly separate from his play-mates," recalls Payet's Uncle Andre, who still lives a few steps from the stadium. "For his small size he was already fast and skillful and in front of goal he had a calmness of mind above the rest of the group."
"Unhappiness isn't at its most acute point until a realistic chance of happiness, sufficiently close, has been envisioned..."
After three years Payet joined Jeunesse Sportive Saint-Pierroise – the largest club on the island – but was not there long before he found himself parceled off to mainland France. "At 12 years old I was at the best youth club in Reunion," he states. "As there was a partnership between the club and Le Havre, I was sent there." The club from Upper Normandy had previously exploited the profitable relationship with the likes of Florent Sinama Pongolle and Guillaume Hoarau but for Payet his four year spell with Les Ciel et Marine was rocky at best. Accused of having a difficult character and a 'lack of motivation', in 2003 at the age 15 he eventually made the decision to return to the Réunion Premier League in the sixth tier of French football. "I missed my family," he explains with genuine sadness. "Apart from an uncle who was in Paris, my whole family lives on the island. On my return, I signed with AS Excelsior, where my little brother also plays now." Payet, the eldest of three siblings, would spend a further eighteen months with the Saint-Joseph club before finally returning to metropolitan France in January 2005. "I had thought it was over and I did not want to return," he admits, sincere in his belief that his career would never progress beyond Excelsior. Now, having slowly rebuilt his confidence, he was 'retrying his luck' by signing a trainee contract with Ligue 1 side Nantes; his choice of destination again dictated by a formal agreement between the two clubs. In reality, so wary of his reputation were they, Nantes insisted on a clause in the small print stipulating that the arrangement could be cancelled after six months before they would agree to take him back to the mainland.

After hinting at what he could muster in the reserves over the course of the remaining 22 matches of 2004-05, Payet was given his full debut aged 18 in December of the following season. "I started against Bordeaux," he recalls, although little else about the goalless draw sticks in his mind. "For my second match in Metz, I scored. It is a moment that remains one of my fondest memories." After that came further sporadic opportunities in the first team, with Payet displaying what Le Parisien termed a 'class action anthology of attractive potential and erratic performance'; the youngster frequently criticized for a lack of involvement and, conversely, some dilettantish excesses. In what would become a familiar pattern throughout his career to date, Payet only truly started to deliver in his second season; like the plant which produces a low-growing rosette of leaves in its first year only to be resplendent in flower and seed the next. "I do not know why it happens," admits Payet. "There is always an adjustment period whether it's longer or shorter. It's also true that it can be more complicated in the first year and many things can affect how well you adjust to your surroundings." It is a fact, he says, that he has not always be used in his preferred position and thus been shown to his best advantage. The 2006-07 season would witness the first full blooming of Payet's latent potential; a campaign of personal triumph amid the collective fiasco that would ultimately lead to Les Canaris’ relegation. Now a first team regular he scored on four occasions and assisted three times in 27 appearances before signing his first professional contract. By season's end that tally had risen to five goals in 33 games. It was all the more impressive because of the instability of two coaching changes, one of which hit particularly hard. "I was deeply affected by the departure of Serge Le Dizet," admits Payet. "It was he who threw me into the deep end and I can never thank him enough. Early in that season he told me that he was counting on me and I worked so hard to not disappoint him. Of course, when things go wrong it's the coach who toasts while the players remain unscathed and for this you feel at fault."
"It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it's that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable..."
Predictably, for a player once described by his former reserves coach Stéphane Moreau as 'immensely talented despite his nonchalant attitude', not everything that season was unreservedly positive for Payet. "It is through difficulty that one forges character," he states, "and I experienced extraordinary things with the team and intense games." Firstly there was a red card against Valenciennes for a violent lunge on Mody Traore that earned him a three game suspension. Then a few weeks later away at Saint-Étienne, just twenty minutes after he had entered the field of play, his coach Michel Der Zakarian gave him the hook. The latter incident, he says, was digested and forgotten about within a day. "It was not a humiliation, even if it was very difficult to live with at the time," he insists. "I was supported by the fans and my team-mates and the experience was just another valuable part of my training." Finally, in April, he was involved in the notorious 'Barthez Incident'. That day, in training, a robust tackle from behind by the veteran goalkeeper on the young Réunionnais caused Payet to angrily storm off the pitch. The footage was widely disseminated through every conceivable media platform and used as a tool of castigation; empirical evidence, it was said, of the ill-discipline that permeated the club embodied by two players whose reputations were already less than pristine. Caught in the 'eye of a cyclone', as Payet describes it, Barthez attempted to de-escalate the frenzy by calling the skirmish 'good fun', before adding that his young team-mate 'better change jobs if he is going to be startled by every slight touch'. "It doesn't matter whether you are the perpetrator or the victim," reasons Payet as he reflects on the incident now. "The club was in deep relegation trouble and I just thought we needed everyone and it would be stupid to get hurt in training; it really could have ended badly." He says that he has since 'turned the page' and holds no resentment towards Barthez, who actually walked out of the club shortly afterwards.

In truth, he notes, the combustible moment came at the end of a long fuse sparked months before when the keeper openly criticized Payet's lack of involvement in the defensive side of the game. "These events have hardened me and every footballer goes through such moments," he states. "For my part, I continued to work. I had always recognized that I could be blamed for my lack of defensive investment at certain times in a game, even if not an entire game. I knew I had to physically improve and intensify my work rate. So mentally, it enriched me." Everything that happened with Barthez, Payet declares, was just part of life when working within a group. "Despite the difficulties that the club knew, it was an extraordinary experience to live through," he explains. "That season I feel I progressed in several areas. For example, I learnt how to approach matches with a lot less pressure, and in game my shooting and positioning naturally improved as a product of being immersed in the environment." It is, thinks Payet, how any young player develops; technique and understanding becomes so ingrained on an instinctual level through the experience of playing, that the game fundamentally becomes almost a 'process of automation'. When you are able to expend minimal conscious energy on the basics it provides greater scope for self-expression and creativity. So while many viewed Payet's emergence as a sudden blooming, the player himself views his progression as something entirely more serene. "It was the reward for the endeavour that I had put in," he says. For even if there is necessarily an element of fortune somewhere, he ponders: "Is it better to simply say 'I have been lucky' or am I wiser to think that I have reaped the fruit of my work? I do not know the answer, so at the very least I should work hard! Besides, I've never been one to rest on my achievements and there are always things you can improve."
"When we think about the present, we veer wildly between the belief in chance and the evidence in favour of determinism. When we think about the past, however, it seems obvious that everything happened in the way that it was intended..."
It is the reason he was so determined to stay in Ligue 1; Payet handing in a transfer request shortly after his club's relegation was confirmed. "I was always fully focused on maintaining Nantes in Ligue 1," he says. "Although I will not hide the fact that I had other clubs interested at that time; you have to be smart and let competent people take care of this area. I expressed to my representatives that all doors be closed until the end of the season. Yet for a player like me, who was on his first full year in the first team, relegation would not have been the best. We must admit that for footballers early in their career Ligue 2 can put a brake on personal ambitions." Saint-Etienne was the first club to come forward, reveals Payet, and although he had other offers (including both Lille and Sochaux), he was hooked right away. The horse, as they say on the island, was already bound with rope. "ASSE is a very popular club in Réunion," he explains. "This was a team that has always attracted me. Whenever I saw a match of Les Verts on TV, I loved the atmosphere of the Geoffroy-Guichard stadium. It really spoke to me. By signing there, I made the choice of the heart." Putting pen to paper on a four year contract ahead of the 2007–08 season, Payet says above all the club offered him the guarantee that he would be on the field, which was his main priority. "As long as I had the opportunity to play, I never asked myself the question as to where I would be in six months," states Payet, when considering those early seasons in Ligue 1. "I just wanted to do more and be better, move forward without worrying about the rest. I have evolved in this context, always with the idea of doing better."

Unfortunate then that in his first season at Saint-Étienne, Payet could hardly have done much worse. Having made his debut by early August in a 1-1 draw with Monaco, Payet would be a starter for the majority of the campaign but fail to contribute a single goal or solitary assist. Struggling to assert himself on the pitch while the likes of Bafétimbi Gomis, Loïc Perrin and Blaise Matuidi shone around him, personal criticism was only slightly mitigated by the fact the club secured it's best finish (5th) during its current stint in the top flight, thereby qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1982. "Just as the last year in Excelsior had given me a springboard to bounce," says Payet, "so the previous sojourn in Nantes had allowed me to feel ready to face this life I have chosen." If, in the words of Huxley, experience is not what happens to a man but what a man does with what happens to him, Payet had by now developed a 'hardened shell' to deflect the bellicose glare of the media spotlight. "Honestly, it's part of the game," he muses. "When you're good, you're very good. When you're bad, you're bad. Thus, I try to be the most natural I can be. If my actions are interpreted variously, then I can not help it." It is why when his former Nantes teammate Jean-Jacques Pierre would later speak out that some members of the group had cheated the club with their behavior during their relegation season, Payet insists he was unmoved. "He spoke of cheaters but did not mention names," he points out. "Besides, it's not the kind of statement that will make me worry one way or the other. I disregard what these people say about me. Some also think that I 'took the big head' but no I'm still the same."

As predictable as the Biennale Internationale Design exhibition rolling through the Massif Central, it was again Payet's second season that would witness the first unveiling of the player's true innovation and style. Prior to the start of the 2008-09 campaign, he took the armband in a friendly match against the Réunion national team in an emotional return to the island, before subsequently appearing in 30 league matches scoring four times and supplying six assists. His European bow came in September in the first leg of the team's first round tie against Israeli club Hapoel Tel Aviv, plundering the opening goal in a 2–1 win. A first league goal for the club arrived just weeks later in a 1–1 draw with Bordeaux, and in December Payet scored the game-winning goal against his former club Le Havre. Then came a strike in a 3–1 win over Danish club Copenhagen and in the UEFA Cup knockout rounds an instrumental display in Saint-Étienne's 5–2 aggregate victory over Olympiakos. In the first leg, Payet assisted on a goal in a 3–1 win, while in the second leg he netted the opener in a 2–1 win. Saint-Étienne would be eliminated from the competition in the next round by Werder Bremen; losing 3–2 on aggregate with Payet appearing from the substitute's bench in both ties. Although the club's European exertions had seen its league form plummet to just one place above the relegation zone, Payet's own contribution had been enough to earn the player a two-year extension to his contract despite a sometimes acrimonious relationship with manager Alain Perrin. "You didn't need to be a visionary to know there would be trouble between the two," wrote Planet Football's Mathieu Delattre. "You could smell divorce even from the drinking of the wine of honour on the wedding day."

If the Les Verts faithful were still waiting for Payet to fully ignite the Geoffroy-Guichard, noted Delattre, then it was all the more frustrating because the slumbering potential was becoming so clear. Just as then France Under-21 coach Rene Girard was proclaiming the player to be 'a very clever boy with both feet and able to make ​​the difference on both wings', so there was a growing suspicion at club level that Perrin was 'binding the branches of the young sapling'. December of the following 2008-09 season saw the under-fire manager finally relieved of his duties but not without a final parting shot at his enigmatic playmaker. "He is a player who has technical qualities, above average speed and is able to make the difference by his dribbles and ball striking," noted Perrin when discussing Payet. "Yet his application does not always follow. He does not have a big enough engine to last 90 minutes, or the ability to replicate the aforementioned talents in tight matches. It is complicated for him and mentally he still needs to make improvements in his consistency and aggression. This is an aesthete who loves the ball and the beautiful game, but this is not a fighting player." For Perrin, the heart of the problem was 'carburetor awareness', as he likened Payet to a 'nervous little Japanese car' rather than a 'robust German sedan' before questioning whether he could ever deliver the level of performance required on a bigger stage. "When you are at a big club, facing adversity, you are obliged to raise your game to compete against the competition," he added. "At a medium club, it is merely hoped you can surprise the opponent. That heightened expectation, the demand for energy and athleticism he may not ever have the ability to consistently deliver. Does he have the energy? Is this not too hard? You have to be able to play 120% every three days, and for Payet this is not possible."
"I think that if I am notorious, it is because other people have decided that this is how I should be..."
As if to underline the point Payet's form continued to be sporadic; too often sputtering in the league over the course of 35 appearances in which he scored just twice and provided six assists, but resounding to a throaty roar during a succession of impressive Coupe de France performances. In late January 2010, under the guidance of new coach Christophe Galtier, he scored a double in a 4–1 victory over Lorient and two weeks later claimed the winner against Vannes on route to an eventual quarter-final defeat to Lens. Then in May, with Saint-Étienne again flirting with the relegation trap-door, an otherwise forgettable season for Payet suddenly erupted in a physical altercation with his captain Blaise Matuidi during a 1–0 home defeat to Toulouse. Midway through the first half of a tense match Payet found himself berated by team-mate Yohan Benalouane for a perceived lack of aggression. Then confronted by an agitated Matuidi, echoing Benalouane's sentiments, the pair found themselves face-to-face before Payet delivered a headbutt; the two finally separated by the combined effort of referee and teammates. Payet was immediately substituted after 31 minutes and sanctioned by club president Roland Romeyer before apologizing for the incident shortly after. At the time Payet described the incident as 'an argument that had no place on a football pitch' while Matuidi blamed a 'lack of maturity' on the part of both players. "Against Toulouse, it was a chaotic end of season game," explains Payet now. "There was pressure, a strained relationship between the team and the supporters. The tension was palpable and it was an unfortunate rush of blood. It's ancient history and I accepted the punishment because it's true that I did things that I did not have to do in this particular instance. When I see the images, I am not proud. Yet there are a few people who knew me well enough to know I could change and my wife, my family, my cousin and my agent all helped me make the point."

Payet says the turning point happened that summer in 2010 while on a restorative vacation in Réunion and it involved 'starting from scratch'. "We had to change a lot of things," he admits. "I weighed the pros and cons, saw what was wrong and most importantly, I thought about what to do to put myself in the best possible condition. The result was unequivocal and there were many things to change in my lifestyle and behaviour. For example, I took the decision to work with a dietitian. As a person from the island, I liked to eat the same meals as everybody else at family gatherings but it is simply not suitable." He also married, for real this time, and discovered fatherhood for the first time. "It was a daily grind," admits the player's close adviser, Nicolas Onissé. "We made the observation that things had stagnated and from this realization came the challenge. We knew that by simply repeating the same things he was going to make the same mistakes. Since that moment, Dimitri turned over a new leaf: regular sleep patterns, proper hydration and menus composed by a nutritionist. In these moments he become a man." Payet says it always used to be difficult for him to return to France after a stay in Réunion and the thought would leave him with a 'heavy heart'. Now, he insists, he could not wait to reconnect with the game. His team-mates certainly noticed a change. "Basically, Dimitri was always shy and a little crazy," stated his Malian international friend Bakary Sako. "But when he came back he was also focused and determined."

A metamorphosis had taken place and the effect was now irrevocable observed Delattre. "A new player illuminated the stadium," he wrote. "In his bullet passes, his acceleration, the quality of his strikes and sense of purpose, the potential exploded. As soon as he touched the ball, he illuminated the stadium." Payet scored in the team's opening 3–1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain and at the end of August netted his first professional hat-trick in a 3–1 victory over Lens; his visibly overwhelmed mother Michelle watching from the stands. "I was crying and I could not breathe," she recalls. "The way the crowd was cheering, it was beautiful to hear his name fill the stadium." With six goals in six games her son was catapulted to the top of the scorers chart. After the international break, Payet added a double against Montpellier and in late September delivered a 'superb and untouchable' free-kick goal in the team's Derby du Rhône victory against Lyon. The win sent Saint-Étienne to the top of the league and secured for Payet the Player of the Month award. In October Laurent Blanc bowed to the inevitable and called him into the France team for the first time. At the Stade de France, Payet came off the bench with a few minutes remaining against Romania to deliver a decisive pass to Yoann Gourcuff with his first touch. In the follow-up Euro 2012 qualifier against Luxembourg he would repeat the trick with the exact same result. A return to domestic affairs brought with it extra exposure but also seemed to signal the end of Payet’s goal scoring exploits; a single strike away at Nice was his only other goal in 2010. "He’ll always be setting up goals because he loves it," bemoaned Galtier at the time. "But for where he plays on the pitch, he should score goals. He talked with a lot of people who all told him the same thing: 'You have buckets of talent, but now you have to show it! Consistently.'"
"Without points of reference, a man melts away..."
Saint-Etienne only managed a couple more wins during the last two months of the year and in January faced frenzied transfer speculation. With notable English vultures such as Manchester City and Liverpool rumoured to be circulating around Payet, it was Paris Saint-Germain who officially declared their interest as they sought a replacement for the recently departed Stéphane Sessègnon. Payet agitated for the move behind the scenes but Saint-Étienne demurred, choosing instead to put a seemingly unrealistic €8 million bounty on their prized asset's head. Ahead of the closure of the transfer window, a frustrated Payet failed to show up to training in a final effort to engineer a move. When he was later spotted in Paris he insisted that he was only there as a tourist to visit the Eiffel Tower. On his return a few days later- oeuf sur son visage- he found himself demoted to the Saint-Étienne reserve team and forced to miss the league match against Montpellier in early February. It would take until April for Payet to rediscover his earlier form with four strikes that month taking his final tally for the season to 3 assists and 13 goals; two more than he had previously managed over the course of his entire career. One reason for the upsurge, noted French Football Weekly, was the transition from left wing to right overseen by Galthier and embraced by the player. "I've never been pissed off with my left foot," confirms Payet. "It has always been able to talk a little." Where most players will say 'my left foot, it's just for getting on the bus' observes Delattre, it is rare for a French forward to 'martyr defenders with the same brilliance and the same ease in both feet'. "The sunshine is not just in the laces" he concludes in his description of Payet. "His finishing is about viscous striking but with a watchful feline grace to be applied where and when it is needed. The distance and his position relative to the goal is never a problem. He is able to to hit the heights from outside the area, on both sides, and that changes everything."

His relationship with Sainté ASSE now irredeemably compromised, Payet finally secured his move away that summer when he joined LOSC Lille for a fee (€9 million) in excess of the sum thought unattainable just months earlier. Decamping to a club that had just landed the domestic double (56 years after the its previous trophy), and linking up with former Irons favourite Joe Cole, Payet says the lure of Champions League football ultimately led him to ignore renewed overtures from Paris Saint-Germain. "I was attracted by Lille's ambition," he states. "A new stadium in a year and a competitive team meant that there was everything needed to succeed." For his part, Les Dogues manager Rudi Garcia justified the outlay by declaring Payet a player who 'breathes football and should therefore adapt well to our team'. His plan was to deploy his new charge on the right of a fluid 4-3-3 in the position vacated by Arsenal-bound Gervinho. Also given the opportunity to drift to the left and cut inside onto his deadly right-foot it seemed the ideal fit for both player and club had it not been for the dreaded 'first season syndrome' that had dogged Payet for his entire career. Life in northern France, at least initially, did not run smoothly; a string of niggling injuries and the over-bearing presence of Eden Hazard as the team's creative force combined to leave Payet firmly in the shade. Despite managing just six goals, 8 assists and making his Champions League debut any criticism for a failure to meet expectations in the 2011-12 season could not, at least, be aimed at attitude or application. "Dimitri laughs a lot and is always joyful," Garcia assured the press. "This is his way of being in the group and it is pleasant to be around him every day. Sometimes he can be upset, which I like, because it proves that he has character. This is a player who 'pees his pants' to help defensively and he must keep this desire as long as possible."

Within twelve months that desire would see Payet voted into the Ligue 1 Team of the Year, back in contention for Didier Deschamp's national team and become the only player in the French league in the 2012-13 season to achieve the statistical 'double-double'; that is to say reach double figures in both goals and assists. For the latter he took his place among such esteemed company as Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller. "No Lille player benefited more from Eden Hazard’s move to Chelsea that summer than Payet," notes BS Sports' Jimmy Coverdale. The winger had a spectacular explosion emerging from the Belgium's shadow, he notes, bouncing back from a lacklustre first season to record some astonishing stats. Now operating predominantly from the left, only ten players scored more in Ligue 1 than Payet that season and those goals came from 138 attempts at goal- the second highest total behind PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Crucially, Payet was equally impressive as a creative influence, his 12 goals combined with his league leading 13 assists meant the player directly contributed to 42.4% of Lille’s goals; his key pass total bettered only by Mathieu Valbuena. Naming Payet his 'terreur d’élite', Deschamps recalled the player back into the international fray telling the assembled press: "He still has that technical quality, the ease and ability to be decisive, but now he proposes some continuity in his game. I like his aggressiveness, in a good sense, his behavior on the field and his determination to create and score goals. I am extremely sensitive to attitudes and that of Dimitri currently meets the requirements to operate at this level. His decisive actions on both wings gives the opportunity to play both right and left. Technically, he's a boy capable of achieving some really interesting things."

If Payet had enjoyed a fabulous season for Lille on a personal level, it was a disappointing campaign for the team in general as 'The Great Danes' missed out on Europe all together. While Garcia was talking in glowing terms about his playmaker- "In our way of working, almost all the time with a front three without a No. 10, Dimitri has a great offensive attitude. He feels good in this system because he is free"- Lille deputy director general Frederic Pacquet was publicly stating the club were now 'open to offers' for their talented star. "We are listening and if there is an offer which corresponds to his market value, we will think about it," he told Radio Monte Carlo that summer. "In the end LOSC must benefit." Predictable then, that before the end of June Payet would be packing his bags once more; this time headed for Marseille in a deal believed to be worth around €11 million. The French international insists it was purely a "sporting choice" as to why he joined L’OM despite supposed interest from both Arsenal and Newcastle United. "The prospect of the 2014 World Cup was a key element in my thinking, but not the only one," he explains. "I wanted to stay in France, but with OM it was also about playing in the Champions League, the chance to evolve in a quality group of players and to achieve high goals in the league. Marseille’s history speaks for itself, it is full of titles and emotions. The club is a monument in French sport." For Les Phocéens coach Élie Baup, who had guided Marseille to a surprise second place finish in his first year in charge, Payet's signature- before those of Florian Thauvin and Giannelli Imbula- was his main transfer target. "Payet is a high quality player, who had ​​a good season playing left, but can also occupy the right side as he did in St Etienne," he stated. "Compared to everyone else, it must be said that he was a priority. It is important to have a player of such talent, a very good passer, good finisher, someone who takes the set pieces and someone who can occupy multiple attacking positions."
"It was like pissing in a urinal full of cigarette butts: nothing gets flushed, and everything starts to stink..."
With the Mediterranean sun on his back Payet's Marseille career got off to a flying start with a brace fifteen minutes into his debut against Guingamp, followed up with another goal in a 2-0 win over Evian. By the end of August Les Olympiens were sitting atop the table and the player himself seemed to be adjusting well to his new role in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Then came the unmitigated disaster of an historically bad Champions League campaign- Marseille suffered the ignominy of becoming the first French team, and the biggest European team to date, to record zero points in the group stage- and a once promising season quickly disintegrated. Payet made his delayed European appearance away to Dortmund in October before picking up a red card for simulation in the reverse fixture in late December. It came just a few weeks after the highly regarded Baup had been sacked following a 1-0 loss to Nantes at the Stade Velodrome, a defeat which had left the club languishing in 5th position and some 13 points behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain. Then came a significant injury to Mathieu Valbuena ahead of the winter break and any remaining hope for the season was lost. By the following March the club sat sixth in the table having already lost a third of their games, including six at home, and the atmosphere inside and around the club was by now venomous. "First of all, there was friction reported between the younger and older players in the squad," noted Julien Laurens. "The older players didn't understand the mentality of the newcomers and there was seemingly a massive gap between the two factions, and the dressing room utterly divided. Then there was also tensions with the supporters; some of them had written an open letter to the players in January asking other fans to make the players' lives 'hell everywhere they go, even at the bakery.'" Although Payet had returned a respectable 8 goals and 6 assists amid the turmoil, he had also found himself substituted over twenty times. For an 'adopted' Frenchman now unable to even buy his croissants in peace it must have been hard to shake the feeling he was no longer wanted.

By last summer the possibility of a premature exit from the club after just one season seemed more than a possibility. Facing a looming tax bill and squeezed by the financial imperative of losing Champions League revenue, Marseille's need to raise emergency funds (£4.8million before June 30) dictated at least one of its star would be sacrificially disposed. For Payet, already carrying the 'stink of the previous Baup Anigo regime' and now the subject of a very real €8 million interest from Swansea, the writing seemed on the wall. Then there was the impending arrival of new manager Marcelo Bielsa, who had already reportedly expressed a desire that the services of Steve Mandanda, Mathieu Valbuena, Andre Ayew and Nicolas N'Koulou be retained. What happened next, says RMC's Jeremy Bilinski, was the story of a resurrection. "You see, Dimitri Payet is kind of stubborn," he wrote. "The 28-year-old fervently believed he could win over the Velodrome as well as the new coach and therefore decided to stay on the Canebière. Arriving without a clear idea of ​​the potential of the player, Bielsa quickly fell in love. The selfless mindset and his performances in the pre-season friendlies enough to persuade the Argentine coach to entrust the player with the responsibility of being his new No. 10." As if to emphasize the point, the talismanic Valbuena was allowed to depart for Dynamo Moscow in early August and his shirt number symbolically retired. Just as at Saint-Etienne and Lille, noted Bilinski, the phoenix responded by taking flight in his second season. "More comfortable than when on the wings," he states, "Payet started to control the game and serve Gignac and company brilliantly." Much to the obvious delight of Bielsa: "He's a very complete player, very serious in training," he enthused at the time. "He has the advantage of using the left and right foot. He has a peripheral vision to see everything around him in attack and an innate talent to put the ball where the opponent will really struggle to recover. He is brilliant at spotting all available players and manages to put them in favorable situations." For his part, Payet says he felt 'good' from the very start of season. "I managed to be a regular in the team by finding some consistency," he says. "I was able to be effective and efficient in the 'ten' role and felt that it allowed me to get on the ball and affect things. Obviously it was important that the coach gave me confidence that I could make it work and it then became increasingly easy and quick to adapt. From there, with the trust of the coach and my own growing belief it allowed me to have the successful season I had."

Now playing at the height of his powers, last November saw Payet create two goals against Bordeaux in a 3-1 win and then another in a 2-0 victory over Nantes. Shooting to the top of the Ligue 1 assists chart, it was an honour he would not relinquish for the rest of the season. "In my position, you have no choice but to create and to score," he says. "At that moment I could see my team-mates with great clarity and I was enjoying it immensely. It was good for my confidence to become effective once again." A perennial bridesmaid among the league’s best players, and with the national side as well, the ever-itinerant Payet was also racking up career-high numbers in successful dribbles, key passes and passes completed per match. Shortly after Metro News published an article simply titled: 'Dimitri Payet, the best player in Ligue 1'. The departure of Valbuena is obviously the cause, it surmised, and the fate of the Reunion player would surely have been different if 'Small Bike' had not left for Russia thus illuminating the 'true meaning of his understudy's game'. "We will never know if Payet would have become so important to Marseille if his former partner had stayed in the Old Port," wrote Jean Canesse. "And that's good because what we have been allowed to see over the last several months, is that this Payet is also an outstanding playmaker. This is a great discovery which we must not overlook when assessing his career." Adding his voice to the chorus of approval, former Marseille and Rennes midfielder Jocelyn Gourvennec stated: "Finally, it shows the fullness of his talent in a position for which he is made. It is all the more remarkable that Payet is able to do this by taking over from Valbuena, who is exceptional in my opinion." While Carlo Ancelotti was also happy to go on record to profess his 'admiration for Dimitri'. "I love Payet," he admitted in a post match press conference. "I think he's the best in France at his position."
"I admit that invective is one of my pleasures. This only brings me problems in life, but that's it. I attack, I insult. I have a gift for that, for insults, for provocation. So I am tempted to use it..."
Imagine the 'thunderclap' then when in mid December Payet suddenly found himself dropped for a match against Lille because Bielsa perceived a lack of motivation in training. Sent for an early shower before the end of a practice session, Payet was 'invited' to take a leave of absence until the resumption of the season after the winter break. "It was actually pretty good for me," concedes Payet. "It allowed me to have the time to question myself and get back to one hundred percent." On his return Payet's form miraculously continued on its ascendant course. He added a further nine assists in 2015, including a four match spell in April and May where he provided a goal a game for his grateful teammates. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so Michy Bastshuayi had been turned into a instant star while both Andre-Pierre Gignac and Andre Ayew were being spurred on to career-best numbers. Not that everybody appreciated Payet's promptings. In a fraught 1-1 draw away to Rennes in February there was a much publicized altercation with Florian Thauvin. Following several 'encouraging remarks' aimed in his direction, the young Orléan finally snapped in the last fifteen minutes; the moment he screamed 'son of a bitch' at Payet captured in full glory by the television cameras and then aired repeatedly. "These things are a fact of the game, nothing special," shrugs Payet, before acknowledging he is not always the easiest of characters. "I'm very complicated although I have mellowed a bit. I can not give an example, it will not help me now, but I'm not tender and I can do things that can upset." The following month he was banned for angrily remonstrating with the match officials in the tunnel of the Vélodrome after Marseille had a late goal ruled out against Lyon. "That was not justice," he says, irrespective of the vociferous and very creative nature of the insults that would have made Malcolm Tucker quail. "As I said before I was not aiming my words at anyone specifically, it was mostly frustration. It is just when these things concern Paris or Marseille, we know that there is immediately an extra buzz." Offering up a conspiracy theory for the tin hat brigade, Payet insists he was more accurately the victim of 'scandalous and unfounded' machinations. "I saw very real evil," he adds. "Those manoeuvers to weaken us were harsher than my words. The real question is who benefitted from the media lynching?" So in a similar situation he would manage the situation differently, next time? "Sure, this serves as a lesson," he admits. "If this should happen again, I will wait to be in the locker room to express my anger (he smiles)."

Back on the pitch and Payet was still delivering even as the club itself started to fall away. "Against top opposition, against strong defences, on the road, at home, in the first half, in the second, in 2014, in 2015, Payet continually chipped in assists and the occasional goal, no matter the binary," observed FFN's Eric Devin. "By his performances against the best opposition in the league- PSG, Monaco, Lyon and Saint-Etienne- the OM player proved himself to be much more than a flat track bully." His final tally of 17 assists- earning him the 'Meilleur Passeur' award- equalled the mark of Sochaux's Marvin Martin as the best in the last ten years of football in Ligue 1; the number of successful through balls only bettered in the top five European leagues by Lional Messi. He also led the French league for key passes at a rate of 3.25 per game- 40 more than any other player- and did so with an 80 percent accuracy rate. The 134 total chances created saw Payet set up a teammate every 23 minutes and was unmatched in any of the continent's best leagues. "So how has Dimitri Payet been able to take such a step?" asks Canesse. "Well firstly he has been extraordinarily consistent. This information is not trivial when you know that the native of Saint-Pierre has often struggled to string together good performances. But it is obviously not enough to explain the new dimension taken by the player. Technically skillful and adroit with both feet, there is a inestimable purity to the way he connects with the ball." It is, in the description of Liberation Sports Grégory Schneider, as if he could strike an egg with the exact same force and it would not break. Then, states Canesse, there is the 'rare clairvoyance of his passing'. "To play No. 10, what is fundamental is to see even before you receive the ball," agrees Gourvennec. "When he (Payet) receives the ball, he already knows what he will do. In addition, he has exceptional passing skills and the speed with which he is able to release the ball is a noticeable change in his approach to the game. It is precisely this ability to manage time that is the preserve of big players."
"Life sometimes offers you a chance but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it, life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things..."
It is also one of the reasons Payet has now been capped 15 times by France. A regular member of the squad, his first goal came in a friendly international against Belgium in Paris as recently as last month. "It is certainly true my inconsistency was something you could reproach me for," admits Payet. "But I think I have managed to show that I am able to do a full season. In terms of stats it was pretty decent and it also means people will expect more of me. My motivation is to prove I can do it again. If I am given the means, I think the second part of my career can be even more enjoyable that the first." To the consternation of Noel Le Graet that meant 'one of France's best kept secrets' swapping the 'sunshine of the Côte d'Azur for London fog'. With Marseille's eventual failure to qualify for the Champions League and Payet's salary about to drop by £12,000 this summer, it is no secret, noted Eurosport's Lucile Alard, that the player was attracted by West Ham United's 'pot of gold'. Although Bielsa had publicly called for his playmaker's contract to be urgently renegotiated the chance to play in the Premier League ultimately proved too strong. "Everyone is free to make choices in their career," says Payet. "At a certain age you have to ensure your future. The reality is that OM could not even give me what I earned for the last two seasons so it's understandable that I made ​​a decision based on what's best for myself and my family."

Yet resisting attempts in France to paint him as 'simply a mercenary', Payet is adamant that monetary concerns were not his only consideration. "At Marseille there have been many departures and the situation became a blur," states the 28-year-old. "There were certainly no guarantees of replacing the players who left [Gignac, Ayew, Morel]. West Ham really showed me that they wanted me to come, both the joint-chairmen and the manager. That's very important for me. I was also keen to sign up to a clear project. West Ham’s is very interesting and matches perfectly with my ambitions. Firstly I spoke with the manager, who really wished for me to come here and had been watching me a lot. He made it clear that he wanted me to sign and that too was important in my choice. I'm an attacking footballer so for sure I like attacking football and that they're counting on me to help achieve that gives me a sense of responsibility. The fact that I'm here is also down to that." Then there is the impending switch to the 55,000 capacity Olympic Stadium. "In coming here I took into account the new stadium and that's obviously part of the project. You move to a new stadium with ambitions and it can lead to progression for the team and the club. I've been involved in my fair share of history, so to speak, what with St Etienne, Nantes and Marseille. So I'm looking forward to playing a part in this history, because it has a magnificent feel about it." "It is," concludes Alard, "just the latest example of the fascination for the Premier League that many French players have." Or, to paraphrase Houellebecq- Réunion's other favourite son- if you can read in the words and deeds of a club such an energy and passion, then you can not help but find it attractive.


spyinthesky said...

'London Fog' I will have to check with Dick Van Dyke about that one haven't seen one since I was a kid though I can do a bit of cokedney rhyming slang to make him feel at home if you like.

Anonymous said...

Another cracking read but I could've done with out the Tampax imagery

WimVanHanegemaAgain said...

That's Houellebecq for ya, the dirty French perv ;)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece of writing as usual, thanks. I'm really looking forward to seeing this boy link up with Sakho but I can't help feeling we need another one like him to play on the wing. If downing does go then it will leave us having to rely on Jarvis and Amalfitano and that seems a little weak to me.

Leo said...

Brilliant post as I've come to expect but he does sound a bit of a 'difficult' character judging from this. I guess it didn't do Di Canio any harm in the eyes of most fans and we haven't really had a nutjob in our ranks for a while now.

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic read! You really can't beat the buzz of seeing an exciting new signing pull on the shirt for the first time when you're still full of hope and expectation and anything is possible. Normally you end up crashing back to earth when he turns out to be a Savio rather than a Sakho but it doesn't stop you dreaming.

Kendrick said...

Thanks, really enjoyed that although it has left me a little less confident that he will be an instant hit. Might need some patience and understanding, which I'm sure our fans will give him, lol!

Florin's Gone Shopping said...

Awesome effort much appreciated. Does any one else think he looks a little bit like Pablo Barrera though? (shudders)

Anonymous said...

I was thinking more Luis Jiménez but then that's not much (if any) better. We really have had our fair share of swarthy ineffectual dreck over the years.

Anonymous said...

I don't normally leave comments but this is a great article and an excellent blog. Thanks and keep up the exceptional work.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant stuff once again- many thanks

Soccer prediction game said...

Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

This is a sublime blog but why is it not updated anymore???


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