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Risen From Réunion: Dimitri Payet's Winding Journey to the Top

Part of the magic of football is that the route to the top is a magnificently inexact science. Dimitri Payet is now firmly established as one of Europe's most gifted players, but his rise to international success was neither simple nor fast.

by Alex Hess
07 November 2016, 11:10am

PA Images

Part of the magic of football is that the route to the top is a magnificently inexact science. Some lucky folk hit the big time as gangly adolescents and remain there until they approach grizzled middle age – alright for some. But for every Gigi Buffon or Ryan Giggs, there's a handful of pros who've realised their dreams via the scenic route, and are all the more fascinating for it.

The stories are myriad: Ian Wright only became Arsenal's record goalscorer after a good few years knocking around south London amateur leagues and making ends meet as a plasterer. Rickie Lambert worked in a beetroot-packing factory in his pre-Premier League days; at 15, Papiss Cisse worked as an ambulance driver in Senegal; the Brazilian striker Grafite sold bin liners on the streets of Sao Paolo before becoming the Bundesliga's top scorer and player of the year.

It's to this life-affirming footballing subgenre that we can add Dimitri Payet. At the age of 29 he is now firmly established as one of European football's most gloriously gifted players, but his means of getting there encompassed rejection, lower-league toil and, best of all, a stint as a shop assistant at a Nantes department store.

A starring role at Euro 2016 cemented Payet's status on the international stage // PA Images

Payet grew up on Réunion, a pinprick of a tropical island and a French dependency, 1,000 miles from Africa's east coast. Réunion's population is not even 10,000, but that's acted as no barrier to its oddly prolific footballing production line, which in recent times has also included Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Laurent Robert and Dider Agathe. (The island produces pro surfers at an even more impressive rate.)

Aged just 12, he was whisked away to France on a youth contract with Le Havre. But four years later he was dispatched back home, the club having declined to offer him a place in their senior setup, their reasoning being the age-old issues of size and attitude. "I don't blame Le Havre," he said last year. "Back then I wasn't an easy person to handle. I was always one of the first to mess around. But I was quite traumatised by the experience and the decision not to keep me. I thought the dream was over. I just wanted to stay on my island and play football there."

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And for a time, he did exactly that, the 16-year-old Payet becoming the youngest player in Réunion's top division and lighting up the league despite being kicked from pillar to post by men twice his size. Ironically enough, it meant he was soon catching the eye of scouts back in France. Nantes were the first to come forward with a traineeship position – although, having heard the tales of his misbehaviour at Le Havre, they insisted on a break clause – but, already scarred by one failed stint in France, Payet received the offer with trepidation rather than excitement. He was enjoying playing free of pressure in front of the scattered crowds of the Réunion Premier League, and the low-profile comforts of his hometown appealed far more than another trip into the brutal unknown.

"I didn't even want to hear talk about me ever going back to France," he said. "I argued about it with my dad and my uncle and they convinced me I should try my luck again. I accepted for my dad especially, because football is his passion and he never got the opportunity to go beyond Réunion."

So followed a second voyage to France (and the shifts as a shop assistant) but this time the promise of senior football became a reality, with Payet making his Nantes debut at 18 and establishing himself as an on-off presence in the first-team the following season. From there, momentum began to build.

A teenage Payet attempts to evade the attentions of a young Franck Ribéry // PA Image

West Ham fans, then, owe a few thanks to Alain Payet, without whom the club would never have come across the player many fans regard as their most naturally gifted since Joe Cole. Indeed, Payet shares a number of similarities with the young Cole – not least the sense of freewheeling exuberance that seems to inform every touch of the ball, every balletic jaunt into the penalty area. It's apt, then, that the two were for a time team-mates: in fact, the former West Ham icon kept the current one out of the side for much of their season together at Lille in 2011/12.

Back then, as with many playmakers, Payet's pitfall was his inconsistency. During his time at Nantes (who were eventually relegated), Saint-Etienne and then Lille – which is to say, well into his mid-twenties – Payet had a tendency to drift to a game's margins, a decisive talent who decided too few matches. But his two seasons at Marseille, under the notoriously demanding rule of maverick Argentinian tactical guru Marcelo Bielsa, did much to iron that out.

"Dimitri didn't always listen to his manager's advice and could be temperamental – he would react badly if things weren't going his way. He could be incredibly frustrating," said Damien Comolli, who signed the 20-year-old Payet nearly a decade ago while technical director of Saint-Etienne. "But Payet came across Bielsa at the right moment. Thierry Henry had Arsene Wenger, Cristiano Ronaldo would thank Sir Alex Ferguson and, for Dimitri, it was definitely Bielsa."

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The man himself agrees. "Bielsa left me out of the squad for a few games but that was a way of making sure I kept focused and didn't get complacent," says Payet. "I think he was right because that season I was very consistent." He's not wrong: his second season at Marseille saw him create the most chances of any player in Europe.

It's easy to read all this as a classic tale of the unruly kid learning the importance of hard work and discipline, and reaping the rewards accordingly. Much of that is indeed true: the youngster with a penchant for backchat and headbutts (one of which, while at Saint-Etienne, was administered on the pitch to his team-mate Blaise Matuidi) is now most famous for the sumptuous, arcing free-kicks that are the product of countless hours on the training ground.

And yet this narrative of a scoundrel learning to play by the rules overlooks the fact that the very thing that makes today's Payet so magnetic is the palpable sense of mischief he exudes every time he picks up the ball. Payet may have bucked up his attitude but, crucially, he's never started to take football too seriously: for him it remains, at heart, a source of fun.

Payet really reached his potential at Marseille, under the tutelage of Bielsa // PA Images

It's no surprise that, as a kid, Payet modelled his game on a certain bucktoothed Brazilian. "People say Ronaldinho enjoyed humiliating defenders but he was always efficient," Payet said of his idol. "The reason I'm a fan is because he was able to put on a show while remaining effective."

The high-point of Payet's West Ham career, a breathtaking 30-yard free-kick that flew into the Stretford End goal in last season's FA Cup tie and was labelled "the perfect goal" by Slaven Bilic, was as fitting a tribute act to the great Brazilian as you could conjure. But it's Payet's snake-hipped slips past defenders and his unquenchable thirst for nutmegs (Holland's Quincy Promes the latest in a long line of victims) that invite the Ronaldinho comparisons as much as his dead-ball genius. And it's a comparison that, stylistically, is wholly reasonable: both men play with the same roguish joy; both are natural showmen; both routinely resolve games with moments of splendour.

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That Payet's own career functions as a near exact mirror-image of his idol's – Ronaldinho already had a World Cup medal and had been named World Player of the Year at the same age Payet made his competitive debut for France – is testament to how the top can be reached by many routes.

And that Payet was one of France standout performers as his country hosted the Euros last summer was also symbolic of the volatile nature of potential. While the exalted French prospects of his generation, notably Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa, had fallen by the wayside after years of hype, Payet came good after a career spent in in the background. His dazzling, rocket-powered winner in the dying minutes of the tournament's curtain-raiser formed the glorious high-point of a top-level career that hasn't come as easily as his effortless playing might suggest.

Amid their slow start to the season, Payet has remained vital to West Ham // PA Images

Now, he's simply making up for lost time. Contrary to his reputation, his past two campaigns have offered a model of match-winning consistency; last month's absurd solo goal against Middlesbrough is an early contender for goal of the season. He may be 30 in March but as he creeps towards the age often dreaded by footballers, he only looks more dangerous, more complete, more of a livewire.

Maybe that's because age has only brought limited maturity in Payet: he still plays with the impish fearlessness that so powerfully connotes youth. A performer in every sense of the word, he's one of the few players that, as the cliché goes, you really would pay to watch. "He does things on the pitch that lift you out of your seat," says Bilic. "He excites you. This is what football is all about."

@A_Hess


via Nike