Blaise Matuidi has become a French hero at Paris Saint-Germain
When Blaise Matuidi arrived at Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, he stood out, but not for his brilliance. What you noticed first was his awkwardness. He was so ungainly that he always seemed to be on the point of falling over. French magazine So Foot compared him to a tightrope walker. The ball jumped from his feet like a lump of hot coal. He almost never scored. Off the field he was almost anonymous, because he hardly ever said an interesting word.
Yet over the past six years Matuidi, 29, has quietly risen to the top of soccer. He has even become something of a French folk hero. As PSG prepare to defend a 4-0 lead against Barcelona in the Camp Nou on Wednesday, and take a big step to what would be their first Champions League final, Matuidi may at last be about to get the attention he deserves.
His parents fled Angola during the country's civil war. From Congo they made it to France, where Blaise was born. Like so many of today's leading French players, Matuidi was raised in a poor suburb of Paris. He supported what was then the fairly hopeless local professional club, PSG. Aged 16, he joined a much smaller outfit, Troyes, in the nearby Champagne region. Even as a teenager, he was already a committed worker. Slight though he looked, he built up a body like lead: adult teammates noticed that when they collided with him in training, it hurt. One day, aged 17, he arrived at the club to see the No. 33 on the teamsheet: that was him.
At 20, he took a step up to St Etienne, where he became known for his tackles and interceptions. Some pundits were reminded of an older French defensive midfielder with African roots: Claude Makelele.
Matuidi (like everyone else) lacked Makelele's uncanny positional sense, but he too was usually found patrolling in front of defence. If he won the ball, he'd give the simplest possible pass. He was a humble worker, what the French call a "porteur d'eau" (water carrier) -- nothing special.
His French peers Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez -- the golden generation born in 1987 -- went abroad early, but no big foreign club wanted Matuidi. Arsene Wenger at Arsenal spotted him early as "a great ball winner," but later admitted: "I knew him when he was in Troyes, already, because they spoke very well of him and after that we followed him in St Etienne and we had always hesitations. Do I do it or not? We had players in his position already, is he so much better?" Wenger may regret that now.
In 2011, the Qatari state bought PSG and decided to build a team of young French players, larded with the odd "marquee" signing such as David Beckham. Makelele, then 38, was just retiring at PSG. The obvious replacement was Matuidi. PSG paid about €10 million for him. His first game, at home to little Lorient, was a 1-0 defeat.
Nobody expected much of him but he seemed to improve by the month. Partly, it was because Makelele had become PSG's assistant coach. "He has always been my role model," Matuidi has said. "I'm happy to have listened to his advice, which has taken me to where I am now."
"I wanted him to be better than me," said Makelele. Matuidi proved to have a gift for absorbing instructions. He recalls learning from his hero not to charge around all the time, to avoid "being everywhere and nowhere." He learned not to receive a pass while facing his own goal; instead he aimed to get it while turned three-quarters towards his opponents' goal. He learned to use his long legs to enclose an opponent on the ball. He became more precise, while retaining his top-speed dynamism.
A hard worker in training, he almost never got injured. Moreover, because he always played with total concentration he rarely flopped and was therefore rarely dropped. As a result, he piled up a great quantities of matches, which helped him keep learning. (Frank Lampard's career followed a similar upward trajectory.)
Though PSG began signing international stars in 2012, "Petit Blaise" remained an automatic choice. He still constantly looked as if he would trip over his own feet, but he sent almost every ball where he wanted it to go. PSG's then coach, Carlo Ancelotti, said: "I'm a little surprised by the speed at which Blaise has improved."
Makelele had scored just 28 goals in 20 seasons. He challenged Matuidi to beat his total, which Matuidi soon did. Whereas Makelele had been the supreme holding midfielder, his protege had the pace and engine to become a box-to-box player. (France, with Matuidi and Paul Pogba, has the rare luxury of being able to line up two in the same midfield, though coach Didier Deschamps has to keep reminding them not to both go forward at the same time.)
When you see Matuidi up close, his extraordinarily thin legs mark him out not just from normal people but from other soccer players. At PSG, he has had the luck these last five years to play alongside his perfect complement: the somewhat rounder, little Marco Verratti. In gridiron football terms, the Italian is the quarterback and Matuidi the wide receiver.
Wenger says: "Matuidi has the kind of game that depends on the quality of the players around him. He has a good timing of his runs and then he needs a good service, he's not the guy who provides the service. He runs from deep and he loves that."
Even the best seem to envy that ability. While still at Juventus, Pogba told me he himself needed to learn "to call for the ball while running, when you come from far. Finding the right moment, which Blaise Matuidi does very, very well." But Pogba added: "That's easier in France than in Italy. In Italy there's less space."
Matuidi will never have Pogba's technique, elegance or flair. Nonetheless, he has become a French hero. French fans, who are fed up with spoiled stars, appreciate not just his work-rate but his low profile. When Figaro newspaper pushed him to describe himself last year, he came up with an unexceptional but probably accurate: "I try to melt into the collective. I give the maximum of my energy. That is my strength. Off the field I laugh a lot, and like to make people laugh. I forget some things, which earns me the nickname of 'Head in the air.'" In short, the guy is not celebrity material.
He is rare among French soccer players in his ability not to embarrass himself in public. Perhaps his worst gaffe came this Valentine's Day, when he tweeted a picture of his wife that -- judging by the words "Matuidi femme [wife]" on the image -- he had just googled.
French fans also like the fact that (uniquely for top-class Frenchmen of his generation) he has spent his entire career in his own country. He is now closing in on the milestone of 400 French league matches. It's partly because he has never made a big international transfer that he remains comparatively overlooked abroad.
Of course his long stint in Ligue 1 isn't entirely because he loves his country and PSG. He earns enough at home: after Manchester City tried to sign him a few seasons ago, PSG made him the highest-paid Frenchman in the league. And last summer, as he admits, he wanted to join Juventus. However, PSG's new coach Umai Emery, wouldn't let him leave.
At the time, Emery simply valued Matuidi as a player: "For putting on pressure, I think he's possibly the best in the team." But the coach says that as he got to know Matuidi, he realized he was important in the dressing room too: "He is an example of commitment, of playing with feeling."
Matuidi has retained his humility. During last month's thrashing of Barca in Paris, he told Andres Iniesta during a break for an injury to Verratti: "He [Verratti] is your successor." Iniesta had the grace to agree. But Matuidi may be underestimating himself. Barca would probably love to have him in place of Ivan Rakitic, though it's now not even clear whether that would be much of a step up. And though he turns 30 next month, Matuidi may still be improving. If PSG have a good spring, he could finally be acclaimed as the star he has become.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.