Why Chelsea spent £70m on Wesley Fofana: Street calm in ‘True Warrior’

Watching Wesley Fofana crowd a back line and it’s easy to assume he’s not surprised, the youngster who faced every challenge during his nascent career en route. Those who have trained him will say that he is rarely cool, calm and collected.

However, a little over three years later he fell back to the halftime break on his first-team debut and this was actually a player mired in self-doubt. A newbie under 19 wondered for a moment if everything was coming to him too quickly, too soon.

The scene was Stade Geoffroy-Guichard as Saint-Etienne, who rose Fofana through the youth ranks, welcoming Nice in their penultimate match of the 2018-19 Ligue 1 season.

The teenager came into the fray midway through the opening period for striker Pierre-Yves Boulomat, an emergency full-back still adjusting to the pace of the game when his side took the lead five minutes into the lead. . Long after that, it was still a blur as Alain Saint-Maximin led the visitors’ attempts to shake up the substitute, but the scant advantage remained almost the same with the halftime whistle.

Head coach, Jean-Louis Gasset, and his players returned to the dressing room at home relatively satisfied with their lot, only to have their Fofanas make a beeline for the toilets.

“I was sick all over… It was horrible, disgusting, disgusting,” the defender later revealed, although somehow he kept his quiet streak from his manager and teammates at the time. “I was very scared. I was very nervous. When we came back (in the second half) I heard the Nice coach telling his players, ‘Everything is falling apart’ for him side, okay? ‘. I was so afraid of what might happen…

“But, in that second half, I played really well. I grew up in it. Maybe it was all because of illness.”

This incident was a rite of passage for the young defender. The toilet cubicle may have suffered, but he came out stronger than those worrisome first 25 minutes on the lawn.

However, for all the laid-back personality he’s had on the pitch since then, the notion that a center-back can be unstable at times due to circumstances might not really be surprising. This is a player whose status has risen from a young player at Saint-Etienne to a £30m Premier League player, and now, a £70m ($87m) defender is poised for life in the Champions League with just one season of uninterrupted premium football. under his belt. Even then, in 2020-21, he served spells on two teams while matches were played behind closed doors.

The loss of seven months of rehab from a broken fibula, dislocated ankle and associated middle knee ligament damage, all due to Villarreal’s Fernando Nino’s interference in a pre-season friendly just over a year ago, has distorted how the outside world measures offer it. He feels as if he has been on the scene for quite some time. But the truth is that Fofana, at 21 and already one of the most expensive defenders the world has ever seen, has just 57 Premier League games to his name. It has already been rising at a rapid pace. Chelsea Fofana flew to the US for treatment at the weekend.

Wesley Fofana, who plays for Saint-Étienne, jumps over new teammate Thiago Silva (Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images)

the athlete He profiled Fofana while making his mark in Leicester, and charted his background in Vitroles, just north of Marseille, where he was raised by his mother and grandparents, through local youth clubs Youth Sports Benes Mirabeau and Bel Air.

He slipped by the side of the wannabe striker, bent on emulating his hero Didier Drogba, to the heart of the midfield. Bel Air manager Casey Hanachi always thought he would end up in defense and instead urged him to learn from Kurt Zouma, the young talent emerging at Saint-Étienne at the time who would move to Chelsea in 2014. His coach, Anthony Lopi, described Fofana as “our very own team, Basile Poli, who scored important goals from set-pieces and a true warrior in tackles”.

The young Marseille fan, who forever hides annoying injuries from the youth team coaches in his passion to play, was courted by many clubs, but ended up joining the academy at Saint-Etienne, a team known for bringing him through the youth, at the age of 15.

It was sometimes used in midfield in junior teams, which gave him another opportunity to watch the match from a different perspective. “But the first time I saw him, he played in central defense in the under-17s and partner of William Saliba,” recalls David Wantier, former head of recruitment for Saint-Etienne. “It was against Besancon on synthetic ground in the training center and we won 9-0. I said to myself, ‘Who is this guy?’. He was very fast with a big jump and he was tough on his opponent. He seemed like a real possibility.”

Saliba, who was more physically stronger than his defensive partner, graduated early in the French club’s first setup before signing – and re-loaning – in the summer of 2019. Fofana, the steadiest in the frame, has truly proven himself at the French club. In the fall after his debut he launched a dazzling series of games starting in mid-October, although the skills Wantier mentioned have consistently featured him in the ensuing years.

“Wesley has always been calm and has fantastic physical abilities,” said Loic Perrin, a mainstay in Saint-Etienne’s defense over the 17 years he spent at his hometown club, and Fofana’s teammate in those early days. “He is very tall but thin, quick and quick in the first few metres and excellent in aerial fencing. He is the complete player.” Perrin envisioned the younger man representing France’s senior squad even after glancing at his qualities in those early Ligue 1 matches.

RB Salzburg tried to give him an award from Saint-Etienne early on but it was soon priced out of the market. Leicester’s French scout Le Congerton, the club’s head of recruitment at the time, alerted him to the youngster’s abilities and carried out extensive checks. Congerton, now in Atalanta, was quickly persuaded and pushed to secure the signing, fully aware that persuading the hierarchy to agree to the second-highest spending in club history on a teenager who made under 30 appearances for France’s first team was. It will probably never be easy.

Fofana’s performance against Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar and, for 33 minutes, Kylian Mbappe in the French Cup final in the summer of 2020 – Saint-Etienne lost 1-0 – did something to convince Leicester owners that he could still be valuable to them. money.

However, this step was not straightforward. The player has always been ready to make bold decisions if he realizes they will improve his career and, having started the season at the team in Saint-Etienne, is eager to move to England in October 2020.

The similarities are clear with this summer’s events.

Neymar competes for the ball with Fofana (Photo: Frank Fife/AFP)

The French club’s coach at the time, Claude Puel, described the young man as the player’s “monster” and a “cornerstone” for his team and pushed to keep him. He told him there was no way the club would accept his sale. “But when the money is there, you have to take it,” Fofana told l’Equipe A few weeks before the transfer finally settled. “It would be crazy to say no.

“Where I come from, the northern suburbs of Marseille and with a family that’s not well off, that’s not possible. I’d be crazy to say no to Leicester. This contract could change my life. I need to protect my family by keeping them safe. If I stay and don’t have a good season, I will.” We all regret it. And it will be too late. Who can guarantee that I will reach 40 million euros or 50 million euros?

“Who was sold at this price when he didn’t play in the Champions League or was not a full-fledged international player? Nobody. All the clubs are affected by the health crisis. Moreover, in one year it will be almost impossible for me to go to England because of Brexit. from the European Union.”

Saint-Étienne was still fighting back until the revised deadline for the transfer approached, Fofana’s focus becoming blurred. He admitted that he was somewhat off in training. “(Boyle) saw that I wasn’t really there anymore, and that I was thinking of being in a place where I could see myself better,” he said.

Thinking about life with an unstable and disappointed player, the club eventually gave up and the move was punished. Indeed, history repeated itself two years later.

The divorce from Leicester was equally brutal, but Chelsea bought a player who demonstrated his maturity and defensive ability across 36 Premier League starts for Brendan Rodgers. It might not be a tyrannical physical presence, but its spring allowed it to flourish in the air and is fast enough to deal with more slippery opponents. His abilities on the ball are guaranteed and his reading of the game is beyond his years. There is intensity in his game.

Fofana controlling the ball against Arsenal (Photo: Plump Images/Leicester City via Getty Images)

“Sometimes you still forget how young he is,” said teammate Jonny Evans during the club’s first season. “He has a sportsmanship and real maturity in him.

“From early on with us, you could tell that he would be a top-class player. He has all the qualities: he is comfortable on the ball, aggressive in his defense one on one. He is confident and looks confident in himself. He will not be someone to hide. He will face every challenge. He’s really enjoying it, and you can see that by the aggressiveness he shows on the pitch.”

Rodgers described him as “street sage” and had no worries about his ability to adapt to the pace and degree of fitness of the game in England. He quickly settled off the field as well, initially mixing with the French-speaking Leicester side. The visits of his cousin, who lives in London, helped him adjust. Having Kolo Toure, the former Arsenal and Ivory Coast midfielder, among Rodgers’ coaching staff was a similar source of reassurance.

Prior to this intervention from Nino, he was designated for inclusion in Didier Deschamps’ squad in France. The seven-month hiatus was early and set him back, but he is still hoping to press ahead with the big competition – including Saliba – to move to the World Cup first team in two and a half months. That might sound a bit ambitious, but the national setup noted that he smoothed his way back admirably over the final two months of last season, scored on his return in the Europa League defeat to Rennes, and had hit rhythm with his usual playing time. .

He excelled at the Under-21 team in a match against Serbia in the summer and would later be called up to the first-round setup as a replacement for the injured Raphael Varane if his wedding had not conflicted with France’s Nations League game against Austria in Vienna.

Instead, Deschamps took him to one side at the team’s training base at Clairefontaine, reassuring the defender he was still on his mind. Fofana will believe that if he impresses him at his new club, his place in Qatar is not yet out of the question.

And Leicester will, justifiably, be pissed off at the timing of his departure, not to mention being given a new, long-term contract during his rehabilitation from injury. They have benefited from his presence in just 12 games in all competitions after putting pen to paper on this extension. For Chelsea, it will be a relief simply to have a player with real, solid quality as well as other obvious potential.

His little legs would be welcome in the back line. One would think he would live in the Champions League as smoothly as he did in the Premier League. There should be no repeat of this mad rush to a roommate from his teenage days.

(Top image: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

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