Digne coming of age in French squad
France coach Didier Deschamps made six changes to his side for the final Group E match against Ecuador in Rio de Janeiro, despite his players dismantling Switzerland 5-2 just five days before. One of the six brought into the side was Paris Saint-Germain left-back Lucas Digne, who was handed his first full senior start for Les Bleus.
"I'm delighted to have made my first start for France at the Maracana -- it's not bad at all," he told the media shortly after a 0-0 draw Wednesday secured the top spot in Group E. "I enjoyed myself out there."
Digne is the latest in a line of exceptional French talents -- including Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann -- who have been fast-tracked onto Deschamps' squad. The reason he has not received as many chances, for now, is that he is competing with veteran full-back Patrice Evra for the starting berth.
Despite being 33 years, the Manchester United man is still one of Deschamps' most trusted players. Because of that, the incredibly mature 20-year-old has had to be patient since earning his first call-up for the 2-0 friendly victory in March over the Netherlands in Paris. But, as he showed against Ecuador in his first full start Wednesday, his time as France's first-choice left-back could be closer than many think.
Digne spoke exclusively to ESPN FC during the French World Cup training camp held at their Clairefontaine headquarters pre-tournament, acknowledging that he is ahead of schedule in his development.
"I think that this is a reward for all of my hard work," the Meaux native said of his inclusion on the final 23-man squad. "Since my time at Lille and including my first season at PSG, I have made good progress. This World Cup is repayment for everything that I have achieved."
The precocious talent arrived in the French capital for 15 million euros from Lille last summer, but had to be patient in his debut season at the Parc des Princes. There, Digne found himself behind another veteran -- the 33-year-old Brazilian Maxwell -- in the pecking order.
Waiting patiently for his chance to arrive in Evra's absence is nothing new then, but like at club level, where he made the most of his 15 Ligue 1 starts, Digne knows the importance of making those opportunities count.
"I grew up watching Patrice Evra play for Manchester United, one of the biggest football clubs in the world. He is a true leader," he said of his teacher and positional rival. "My role in the squad is to make every minute count each time I am given a chance to play. I am there to provide competition and push for a place in the team. I am expected to work hard to impress, to wait for my chance and then to take it."
Digne seized his chance against Ecuador, putting in 90 encouraging minutes and looking dangerous on the left side as he went marauding forward regularly. Questions were asked when he made the move from Lille to PSG over whether his development would be hindered without starting every game, but he believes that his being in Brazil has proved those doubters wrong.
"I have improved myself at PSG, despite not always getting to play," he said. "I have proven that I did not make the wrong choice. I am immensely proud of this call-up. Making a World Cup squad was a dream and an objective of mine and I have already realised it."
For the past 12 months, Digne has been living a dream. No sooner had he celebrated winning the FIFA under-20 World Cup in Turkey as one of the standout members of a talented French side, he completed his move to PSG. Now with his feet under the table in the capital after a trophy-laden debut season, he is targeting continued success ahead of the 2016 European championship on home soil.
"Between now and the European championship in 2016, I am hoping to get more playing time at both levels," he said. "I want to make every minute that I play on the pitch for PSG count and I want to go on to win many more trophies. Why not the Champions League?"
PSG certainly appear capable of mounting a serious challenge for ultimate continental glory this season, and Digne can expect to be a key figure in that push for further success, with Maxwell starting to look every bit of his 32 years (he will be 33 in August).
For now though, the focus is on France and the World Cup.
One thing that has surprised many about Deschamps' new-look French outfit is their strong sense of unity after years of in-fighting and underachievement. As a new arrival to the setup along with the likes of Griezmann, Les Bleus' collective strength immediately hit Digne, and he believes it was the right time to make the step up to senior level.
"Yes, I am confident that this is the right time for me to be joining the team. Between the home match against Ukraine and now, we have created something extremely positive," he said. "There is a group, cohesion and a sense of collective unity. Starting at that moment, we set the tone for our World Cup campaign and we now want to build on that."
Just how far that momentum can take Deschamps' side, Digne is not sure. However, he is not getting carried away with the early suggestions that France could be World Cup-winning material.
"I don't know whether we can win the World Cup this summer," he said, laughing. "I hope and I dream of winning it, but really we can only do our best and try to go as far as possible."
Recent history proves that when France do make it out of the group stages, they tend to go on a deep run. The way they have been performing so far this summer also suggests they will once again be in the thick of it come the latter stages.
For Digne, the dream year continues. Could it end with the ultimate prize come July 13, back where he made his first full start for Les Bleus: the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro?
Jonathan Johnson is based in Paris and the voice of PSG TV. He also writes for French Football Weekly. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.