Youssouf Fofana has gone from serving pizzas to delivering crosses in the World Cup. Dropped in 2015 at age 14 from Clairefontaine, France’s national training center, his future in soccer seemed at an end. So he went to work for a pizzeria.
“That was the best way to earn money and also to follow my dreams,” the 23-year-old midfielder said on December 8, two days before France meets England in a World Cup quarterfinal.
Fofana made his French national team debut in September and was picked by coach Didier Deschamps for the 26-man team that is defending Les Bleus’ World Cup title. He entered as a second-half sub in the group stage wins over Australia and Denmark, started in the 1-0 loss to Tunisia, and played the last 25 minutes of the round of 16 victory over Poland.
Quite the turnaround for a player who needed two years to find a professional club. He played for Drancy, an amateur side in Paris’ northeast suburbs before signing with Strasbourg’s youth academy in 2017. “I had my doubts, and you have to know how to move forward,” he said through an interpreter.
He made his Ligue 1 debut against Lyon on August 24, 2018, moved to Monaco in January 2020, and reached the Europa League with his new club in 2021-22 and the current season.
France, seeking its third World Cup title, would advance to a semifinal against Portugal or Morocco. The other side of the bracket will have the Argentina-Netherlands winner play Brazil or Croatia.
Les Blues are led by Kylian Mbappé, who leads the World Cup with five goals. England right-back Kyle Walker has faced Mbappé and Paris Saint-Germain while playing for Manchester City in the Champions League and said on December 7 “we take respect that he is a good player in good form at the minute, but I am not going to roll out a red carpet for him and tell him to go and score”.
Fofana seemed amused by that. “Hats off to him,” Fofana said. “If he can stop Kylian, good for him. But there’s 19 other teams in the French league that are waiting for the answer of how to stop Kylian, and the truth is on the pitch.”
Fofana was in a jovial mood when discussing preparations. Asked about the frame of mind in the dressing room before World Cup kickoffs, he responded: “The atmosphere is tense, tense, tense.”
“No, I’m joking,” he went on. “We can wear headphones, so if we don’t like the chosen music for the group, then we can listen to our own music.”
Class of ‘98
Defender Dayot Upamecano said he has spoken with Marcel Desailly, a defender on France’s 1998 world champion team.
“He’s given me some advice and I should continue doing what I’m doing,” Upamecano said through an interpreter. “It’s a real pleasure to be able to talk to someone like that. He was a winner. He was a warrior, a real example for the French.”
Match preview: France wary of England’s pace
France will have to be on their toes when they face England in their World Cup quarter-final clash as their opponents have players capable of hurting them on the counter-attack and at set-pieces, coach Didier Deschamps said on December 9.
The teams have not met at a major tournament since they drew in the group stage of Euro 2012 but the focus has very much been on the game between two countries that share a sporting rivalry.
Deschamps, who has won the World Cup with France as a player and coach, said he did not see many weaknesses in the England team but they did have some “slightly less strong points”.
“Pace is often one of the keys - when you are quick then the opponents have less time to get organised. But you need more than just pace to score goals,” Deschamps said ahead of December 10’s game at Al Bayt Stadium.
“You can stop a lot of things but it is very difficult to stop someone very quick, especially in transitions. England are very strong in transitions - more than half of their goals have come from quick counter-attacks. But they have other qualities too -- they have technical ability, the capacity to score goals and ability on set-pieces.”
The spotlight has been on how forward Kylian Mbappe will fare against the England defence.
“I’m sure England will have prepared to face him but Kylian is in a position to make a difference,” Deschamps said. “Even in his last match he wasn’t at his best, not in top form but still decisive (scoring twice in a 3-1 win against Poland). We have other players that can be dangerous as well.”
Skipper Hugo Lloris banking on inside knowledge
France skipper and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has spent the last decade playing in England with Tottenham Hotspur and the 35-year-old said he would be sharing what he has learned from playing in the Premier League with his teammates. “Some of us play and train with the English players on a daily basis. If we can help our teammates with knowledge from playing with the clubs, we do,” Lloris said.
“They (England) are good on set pieces, they’re tall, they have players who can take good free kicks. We have to be very strong, but our attack has what it takes and can make it difficult for them.”
France won the World Cup with a stellar run in Russia four years ago but Lloris said it was the England squad that has more tournament experience than the reigning champions. “If we compare both sides, there were more English players here who were at the World Cup in Russia than France players,” Lloris added.
“England reached the semi-finals at the last World Cup and were runners-up at the Euros, there’s been a real progression. This team is ready to compete for trophies. They were unlucky at the last Euros, they were close, but they’re here to win.
“In our side there are changes, there’s a new generation of players ready to compete playing in the best clubs in Europe. It’s a good mixture of experience and young players, we’re getting stronger step by step.”
(with inputs from AP and Reuters)