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The player who wanted to be a fireman, was a pizza vendor and became a World Cup footballer

When he was a child in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, where he was born into a family with Malian roots, Youssouf Fofana wanted to be a fireman. “I like running and helping people,” he used to say. Then he discovered football, so that left only the running part. At 12, when he was selected for Clairefontaine, he was the pride of the neighbourhood. Just two years later, however, his world collapsed after he was no longer retained at the prestigious academy. He hadn’t made enough progress to be kept. “It’s a hammer blow when you go back to amateur football and go back to normal life. I started asking myself, ‘Why bother?’ Some people are cut out for it, some people aren’t. Maybe it’s not for me.” That’s how he ended up working in a pizzeria and playing for an amateur team in Drancy at the same time.

But Youssouf’s long and winding road didn’t end there. From Drancy he went to Strasbourg in 2017, aged 18. In three years’ time, he would make the move to Monaco. His time in Strasbourg opened the doors to the national youth teams, however, and he went on to play for the U19, U20 and U21 teams. This year, in September, when he was called up to Deschamps’ senior national team for the first time, 10 years after he first stepped through the gate at Clairefontaine, he felt his luck had turned: “I was back at the big gate after leaving through the small door. That makes me feel good. A footballer’s life hangs by a thread, I didn’t think it would be possible for me to end up here”, the Monaco midfielder was to say.

Alongside Aurelien Tchouameni, Youssouf Fofana formed one of the best midfield partnerships in Ligue 1. Since Tchouameni’s departure to Real Madrid, the 23-year-old has had to get used to a new type of partner, Mohamed Camara. The duo of Fofana and Camara were extremely impressive in their first game together at the Parc des Princes, as AS Monaco became the first team to earn a point against PSG this season (1-1). Reims was to follow later, but the Monegasques are the only side to leave the Parc des Princes unbeaten. With a dream first half of the season, Youssouf also won over Deschamps, who included him in the 26-man squad for the World Cup in Qatar.

In Qatar, he was used in almost every game for the Welsh rooster, coming off the bench in two group matches and starting the third against Tunisia. Deschamps continued to bank on him in the knockout stages, a sign that he sees him as a player of the future for Les Bleus.

Youssouf describes it himself. “I’m the player you never expect to see, but who is always there. I’m a bit like a virus you can’t get rid of!” the midfielder described himself, laughing. “This journey has forced me to work and look ahead. Being in the France team at 23 may seem normal to some, but for me it’s been a very long journey. I never lost hope. A few months ago, I didn’t even hope to be here at the World Cup, but here I am.”

“When I was a kid, I used to love being at the origin of offensive actions. Defensively, I didn’t do much! As I got older, I realised that you can feel a form of satisfaction if you do the defensive work,” added Fofana, who revealed that his first football memory is of “Zinedine Zidane’s Galacticos team”. His speciality on the pitch? “The one-two. It’s beautiful, elegant, simple and effective!”

It’s not known how long he will stay at AS Monaco, but Youssouf Fofana has already fulfilled his childhood dream. He runs and makes people happy. At least people in France…

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