Heart Of Football

An outsider proves his immense value as Bleus-chip stock

From the first night, a mostly frightened night under the heaviest armed security the world has yet seen for a football tournament, Euro 2016 found a romantic hero.

How marvellous was Dimitri Payet in the Stade de France? How mercurial were his touches, how majestic his goal, and how very appealing were his joy and his tears?

In short, Payet, an islander who has felt an outsider on the French mainland for most of his adult life, has become the human face of an event that is fighting from the start for its sense of purpose in these troubled terrorist times.

Already the commentators are saying that Payet's 90th-minute goal, swung in by his left foot from outside the penalty box against Romania, will not be beaten as the goal of this tournament.

Well, we will see. There were 50 more games to go before either the tournament or the claims to the best this, the best that are deemed over.

Payet, an islander who has felt an outsider on the French mainland for most of his adult life, has become the human face of an event that is fighting from the start for its sense of purpose in these troubled terrorist times.

But, yes, it was an exceptional piece of work by the West Ham playmaker. He was surrounded by three yellow-shirted Romanians when N'Golo Kante, another Frenchman who was overlooked until Leicester City hired him a year ago, gave him a short and simple pass.

With one touch of his right foot, and a rapid, instinctive switching of the ball on his other foot, he suddenly became violent. At least the force with which he swung that left foot at the ball, lifting himself off the turf with the energy of it, sent it swirling into the far top corner of the net.

From the moment the ball left his boot, he knew it had the beating of the goalkeeper. And the moment he wheeled away to celebrate, he disappeared on the grass, a whole posse of French team-mates smothering their match-winner.

Maybe that was why he cried.

Violence, they say, begets violence. The force (and beauty) of his shot, the physical force of the whole French pack piling on top of him. The sheer emotional relief of scoring the goal that gave Les Bleus victory, and put them one foot already into the knockout phase of the tournament.

Actually, those were tears of joy, and of pent-up emotional turmoil. The boy inside the 29-year-old man that is Payet washed away the doubts, once and for all, that he was capable of being a true blue, and a decisive player for his country.

Doubts? Oh yes. We discussed last March the struggles that Payet, a boy from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion near Madagascar in Africa, encountered when he was first shipped to mainland France.

The island is what is known as an overseas "departement" of France. It was once a slave island, it has its own Creole version of the French language, and when Dimitri was a child he dreamed not of a French idol, but of the Brazilian Ronaldinho.

Old Smiley, Ronaldinho could elevate football, even Barcelona's football, to something combining art and movement and fantasy.

Payet liked that. But the first club that took him over 9,000km to play in their academy were Le Havre. And like most academies, they had certain rules and strictures, not all of which the 12-year-old Payet, all alone without his family, fitted in with.

He wasn't a rebel, just not a slave to conformity.

Anyway, Le Havre sent him back to the island at 16. Dream over.

He was settled back in Saint-Pierre on Reunion which, with its tropical climate and its mix of European, African, Indian and Chinese culture, is not unlike the old Singapore.

It took Dimitri's father Alain and his uncle Jean-Marc to convince him that when a second offer arrived, to join Nantes back on the mainland, he should take it.

The rest, by several contours, is history.

Payet's inborn talent was obvious. His adaptability had to be worked on, and every two years he would move along - to St Etienne, to Lille, down south to Marseille, and finally, last summer, to the East End of London.

Many men tried to get the best out of Payet. Two in particular succeeded. One was Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentinian who briefly took over Marseille and who reckoned that if Payet would only lend himself to team discipline, he could be the fulcrum of team creativity.

Then, when Slaven Bilic arrived at West Ham, he saw plenty of value in Payet at S$21 million to build a team around, even in the intensity of Premier League play.

In between all that, Payet had suffered another bout of heartbreak when he was left out of the 2014 World Cup. It took a spectacular season, and a consistent one in the EPL, to convince Didier Deschamps that in the right field, with plenty of muscle and energy around him in the shapes of Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, then his little islander Payet could shine.

If you watched the Euro opener on Saturday morning, I'm sure it didn't take 89 minutes and that goal to get you excited.

The subtle shifts of momentum, the artful back-heel, the delicacy of Payet's touch, the freedom of his expression shone through a match that was often at stalemate. Romania were far from easy meat for the French, and very far from being outclassed.

Romania did not have a Payet, but they "pressed" the French high up the pitch, and Romanians have a Latin touch of their own, laced into what obviously was a structured game plan.

Had either side taken their chances, this could have been a curtain raiser far more memorable than the often cautious first games we get in major tournaments. But just when it seemed we had to accept 1-1, Payet settled the opening game.

"It's quite easy in football when you can bang it in the top corner," concluded the French coach Didier Deschamps. "It solves quite a lot of problems!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'An outsider proves his immense value as Bleus-chip stock'. Print Edition | Subscribe