France’s defender Benjamin Pavard reacts as he gives a press conference at the press centre in Istra, west of Moscow on July 8, 2018, ahead of their Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match against Belgium. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE
It has been a remarkable rise — two years after supporting France at Euro 2016 from a fan zone, Benjamin Pavard is preparing to represent his country in a World Cup semi-final.
Pavard has already lit up the tournament with his wonder strike against Argentina. But the 22-year-old has never forgotten his roots in the little town of Jeumont, on the border with Belgium in northern France.
Coincidentally Belgium now stand between Pavard and Les Bleus, and a place in the World Cup final.
“To show that you can be born here, live and grow up in Jeumont and go on to succeed at the highest level of international football is a wonderful lesson for the children of Jeumont and it gives them hope for the future,” says local mayor Benjamin Saint-Huille.
He has ensured that banners in support of their hero have been displayed around the little town of 10,000 inhabitants, an hour’s drive south of Lille,
The 22-year-old right-back grew up in Jeumont, but he is not the first football star from the town — Jean-Pierre Papin, the prolific former France and Marseille striker also hails from there.
Pavard started playing aged six, and his talent was immediately obvious.
“At that age he was already doing 50 keepy-ups, right foot, left foot, head. He could do everything, it was impressive,” recalls Sullivan Skiba, who coached Pavard in his early days.
It did not take the Pavard long to be spotted by Lille, and he joined the academy of the region’s leading club.
A reserved personality, he turned out in central defence and sometimes in midfield. Little by little, he began to assert himself.
“When he had to work, he was very serious. But outside, he was a bit of a joker, and he would turn his 1980s music up full blast. He was a rule-breaker,” Corentin Halucha, who was at the Lille academy at the same time as Pavard, tells AFP.
– ‘A golden kid’ –
Then Pavard got lucky when first-team coach Rene Girard, impressed by his versatility, handed him his professional debut in 2015.
“What really astounded me was his maturity. We saw that he was capable of playing anywhere across the defence with the same success, so we did not hesitate,” said Girard.
However, when Girard left, Pavard found himself out of favour, and the young defender decided to join VfB Stuttgart, the German giants who had just been relegated from the top tier of the Bundesliga. It was an inspired move.
Pavard helped Stuttgart win promotion in his first season and won his first cap for France in late 2017.
Reports say his performances at the World Cup have attracted the interest of Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.
“Football is also about opportunities. The train came along, he got on and now he is travelling in first class,” says Halucha, who watched France games at Euro 2016 with Pavard at the UEFA fan zone in Lille.
But Pavard has not let that fame, acquired in such a short space of time, get to his head.
“He has always thanked me and he sends me a message when anything happens in his career,” says Girard. “He is very grateful and that is not the case for everyone. He is a golden kid.”
Skiba says that Pavard “does not forget where he came from”, and will happily sign autographs and play with the youngsters whenever he returns to Jeumont.
“He is a real ‘Ch’ti'”, he adds, using the term for a native of France’s far north.
So much so, in fact, that his France teammates call him “Jeff Tuche”, after the character with the curly hair and moustache from the farcical French comedy films “Les Tuche”, about a working-class family who win the lottery.
Pavard may not appreciate the resemblance — it is easy to see why — but for his teammates it is all in good humour.
“He played for Lille like me, so that has brought us together,” said defender Adil Rami.
“I like players like him, with their nice, sweet side, but then they get stuck in and give their body over to science.”