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Finished at 16. Finished, after travelling 6,000 miles to a land of strangers. Finished, after your father had watched you leave, his hopes of being a professional lived through you. Finished. That was Dimitri Payet. That’s what the coaches at Le Havre said about the little playmaker from Réunion. Too small, they sneered, for a professional career. Too brittle, they said – a second division player at best.
He knew it’d been coming; aware he hadn’t behaved as well as he could’ve. He knew that the new faces, new town, new country were too much. He’d acted the way all boys do; insouciance and aggression a mask for the insecurity and fears gnawing at his insides. “I don’t blame Le Havre,” he’d say years later. “Back then I wasn’t an easy person to handle. I was always one of the first to mess around. But I was quite traumatised by the experience and the decision not to keep me. I thought the dream was over.”
So did everyone. Arriving home, his family told him not to fret. He tried, but he failed. It’s the only thing he thought about as he joined Excelsior, the biggest team on the island. The only thing his opponents reminded him of as they send him to the dirt. In Réunion, though, there is an old Creole saying, “The wheel is spinning.”
That’s why Payet became the youngest player in the island league. That’s why he scored 12 goals in 18 games. That’s why it took just 12 months for him to be noticed, Nantes scout Laurent Guyot happening upon him by chance whilst visiting Réunion for a seminar.
An offer was made immediately. This time, however, Payet refused to be burnt. He told his father Alain that he wasn’t interested; that he’d rather stay at home, enjoy his football, be free. He wasn’t like Florent Sinama Pongolle or Guillaume Hoarau, the other prodigies from the island. Whatever they had, he didn’t have it.
“I didn’t even want to hear about me ever going back to France,” he admitted to reporters year later. “I was traumatised by the experience and the decision by Le Havre not to keep me. I felt I hadn’t been seen in my best light. So when a second chance came along, I argued about it with my dad and my uncle. They convinced me I should go and try my luck again … but I didn’t want to go.”
Payet might have been hoping for a more anonymous experience this time around, a chance to cultivate his talents in the quieter environs of the Loire. But this was Nantes, the club of Didier Deschamps and Christian Karembeu. His hopes were shattered, then, when he found that a condition of his scholarship would be a role in the TV show L’academie du Foot.
Vincent’s Manniez’s documentary, aired on the eve of the 2006 World Cup, followed the fates of four young footballers – Francisco Donzelot, Vincent Briant, Fréjus Tchetgna and Payet as they got to grips with youth football. The latter was shy and withdrawn, his speech so mumbled that producers thought there were problems with their microphones. But even they recognised his talent straight away. “You really had to be blind not to see that he had a gift,” Manniez recalled for Le Parisien in 2017.
Nantes were on to it too, even if they bristled at Payet’s demeanour. Reserve team coach Stephane Moreau observed: “Dimitri was a player with indisputable talent despite his natural nonchalance. He could make teammates play and destroy opponents.” Manager Serge Le Dizet, facing an injury crisis on the morning of a game against Bordeaux, turned to the prodigy making waves in the reserve ranks. He made his professional debut that evening, snatching ten minutes before scoring his first goal the next week.
Payet’s talent might have been riveting, but his conduct still raised questions. Teammate Fabien Barthez took umbrage at his “pretentiousness”, telling reporters publicly after one game that “he has had a mess, he doesn’t know where he lives anymore”. Days later, Payet responded by humiliating the former World Cup winner at a training session, a gesture that Barthez met with violence.
The histrionics couldn’t prevent Nantes from going down, though. Nobody expected Payet to stick around, and nobody was surprised when he was linked with a move to Saint-Étienne. “Back then, Payet was already a player that I liked a lot,” revealed Damien Comolli. “I remember, from when I was still at Spurs, I came home from a game, watched the French equivalent of Match of the Day and remember being blown away.”
Days later, the president of Saint-Étienne gave Comolli a call. They were about to sign Payet for £4m. Would Tottenham be interested in signing him in two years’ time, for £10m? Comolli, Spurs’ sporting director, agreed immediately. Alas for Tottenham fans, he was sacked from the job shortly after, returning to take another sporting director’s job at – you guessed it – Saint-Étienne.
The thrill of working with Payet would be short-lived. Once again, the winger’s temperament got the better of him; he would sulk through games, refusing to track back and falling out with teammates. On one occasion, in a match against Toulouse, his teammate Youhan Benalouane had enough, publicly calling him out. The pair squared up, with Blaise Matuidi coming to Benalouane’s aid. Incensed, Payet headbutted him.
An immediate ban, and another self-imposed lashing of criticism. “I got frustrated with Dimitri,” Comolli would later admit to The Mirror, after watching aghast as Saint-Étienne nearly suffered relegation. “It was unthinkable because he had such a good team, not just Dimitri but Blaise Matuidi as well.”
Still, Payet had shown enough flashes to convince another manager to take a punt. This time it was Rudi García, the Lille coach, who needed to find a replacement for the outgoing Eden Hazard. “I’m asking him to do different things than Saint-Étienne,” García told reporters upon Payet’s signature. “It’s logical that it takes time. The competition should push him to excel. Dimitri must display confidence, he must let go.”
Payet took the words to heart, going on to create more chances per game than the Belgian that year. García was clear about the reasons why: “The difference is that he is now full of confidence.”
That was part of it. But the real reason was that Payet had been trusted with the mantle for responsibility. For the first time in his career, he had been presented with a mission: carry the team. He relished the weight on his shoulders, thriving on the setting of a target and the raising of ambition.
When Hazard departed for Chelsea, he quickly became the main man. Nobody got more assists in Ligue 1 that year. Every time he assumed possession he was dangerous. Every touch an opportunity for a blistering shot, a clinical through ball, a caterwauling sprint. Inevitably, he was voted into the Team of the Year, 12 goals and 12 assists making him one of Europe’s most talented prospects.
Yet Payet knew he was entering a crucial stage. He could stay at Lille, the big fish in a comfortably small pond, or he could take a chance, with an international tournament around the corner. “The prospect of the 2014 World Cup was a key element in my thinking, but not the only one,” Payet would confess about his choice to join Marseille in the summer of 2013. “I wanted to stay in France, but with OM it’s also about playing in the Champions League, the chance to evolve in a quality group of players and to achieve high goals in the league. The challenge is raised, it’s exciting. Marseille’s history speaks for itself; it is full of titles and emotions. The club is a monument in French sport.”
Rarely has a union between club and player felt so apt. Writer José Carlin describes Marseille as a place “at home with every passion and every excess”, whilst Henry Swinburne was more direct, writing in his 1783 diary that “no place abounds more with dissolute persons of both sexes than Marseille, and in the abundance of prostitutes that appear on the streets, it is almost on a par with London”.
Faces of all colours teem across its vast metropolis, its concrete towers a home for Magrebs, Italians and Catalans alike. It is a city exploding with possibilities, malignant and benign. It is, like Payet himself, beautifully exhilarating.
Marseille’s new number 17 settled immediately, scoring a brace on his debut against Guingamp, but it was in his second season where he went stratospheric. No player made more successful through balls in Europe, with the exception of Lionel Messi. Payet swashbuckled his way to 17 assists in 36 games, and he was in no doubt about the reason for the uptick in his performances: “I clicked with him,” Payet admitted about to L’Équipe about his relationship with new coach Marcelo Bielsa. “He made me more mature and consistent. He put order into my game. I still have his advice in my head.”
Jan van Winckel, Bielsa’s assistant coach on the Riviera, was more precise when he suggested, “Marcelo was the first to realise that Dimitri is a playmaker, not a winger. Dimitri is probably the best player in the world, together with Andrés Iniesta, with his back to goal. He is so technically gifted and agile that it is almost impossible to get the ball from him.”
Bielsa was “the trigger”, Payet agreed in a 2017 interview with SoFoot. “That’s where I really accomplished myself. I started to reach a high level with Bielsa. And in addition, I did it in Marseille, at a city and a club where it is never easy to succeed. With him, I really had the feeling that he believed in me. When he arrived, he showed me a video of one of my matches. I don’t remember which one, but I remember what he said to me afterwards: ‘I want this Dimitri.
But on the one hand, I don’t want it in two or three weeks, I don’t want it in two months, I want it all the time.’ His ability to analyse everything, that explains the year I spent with him.” It was a new beginning for Payet.
Bielsa knew how to get the best out of Payet. He knew instinctively that what he needed was a mission. Payet is a man who needs a wrong to right; a naysayer to contradict, a point to prove. The fact that he had been omitted from the 2014 World Cup squad only aided that effort. Bielsa laid down the gauntlet, and his player simply obliterated it.
Payet’s spell on the south coast would end abruptly, however. With the club plagued by financial problems – a situation compounded by the team’s failure to reach the Champions League – a firesale ensued. Gianelli Imbula departed for Porto, with top-scorer André-Pierre Gignac decamping to Tigres. West Ham offered Marseille and Payet more money than either could turn down, and he joined the Londoners in June 2015 after once again topping the charts for assists.
At first glance, it was a strange move. Payet was 28, ready to make the step up to elite competition. Arsenal were credited with an interest, just one of several Champions League clubs rumoured to be sniffing around. In East London, however, Payet saw the conditions he needed to thrive: an ambitious project and a manager who made no bones about the desire to put him front and centre.
The results were devastating. Over a scandalous 18-month period, Payet set fire to the Premier League, with the crowning glory arriving with Didier Deschamps’ announcement of his inclusion in France’s Euro 2016 squad. He continued his great form on the international stage, arguably the best player in the tournament as France lost out to Portugal in the final.
Throughout, his teammates cajoled him; who would he be playing for in the Champions League next year? Real Madrid made their interest known, but West Ham knew the value of their investment. They simply could not let Payet leave – not the man who, at the club’s annual awards dinner, had to leave the event with a suitcase just to carry the number of trophies he’d won.
As the new season dawned, West Ham fans could have no reason for concern. Payet turned up for training, did his job without fuss. As it drew on, however, his intensity seemed to slacken. Quotes appeared from an interview he had given with a French TV station reminiscing about life in Marseille. There were suggestions about familial strife; a wife failing to settle in a gargantuan city, children unhappy with unfamiliar languages and schools.
By winter, relations with the club cooled. Payet refused to train, telling coach Slaven Bilić that he wished to leave the club immediately. Payet refused to hide behind an injury; he simply downed tools. “I know how to be a dickhead,” he told SoFoot in 2017. “It’s one of my specialties. It’s a little game. When I want to piss everyone off, I do it. My managers understood that; when I sulk, they talk to me. It’s a way for me to be heard. Those who know me play along, and in the end it goes well.”
After initially refusing to sell, West Ham buckled. Payet rejoined Marseille in January 2017, joining the likes of Morgan Sanson and Patrice Evra as part of McCourt’s ‘Champions OM’ project. “I wanted to come back here. I wanted to be part of this new project. I listened to the new management and they convinced me they were serious. And it’s happening at a moment where I missed Ligue 1 and France.”
Hammers fans were infuriated by the move; those who had emblazoned their jerseys with his name received hurried refunds, whilst a mural of Payet had to be placed under guard in case of vandalism. Supporters who, just six months before, had crowed about his abilities were now calling him ‘Le Snake’.
Yet was it really so hard to understand the motivations for the move? Payet was returning to a city and country that he loved. He was returning, too, to a team that had big ambition. He’d even taken a pay-cut, sacrificing £25,000 a week to make the move happen. “Marseille are a bigger club than West Ham,” French football writer Mohamed Ali said. “They’re a club that participated in the Champions League. They produced some of the greatest players in history, fantastic infrastructure and amazing support. Just because they were on hard times does not mean they should be taken out of the equation.”
Once more, Payet had been offered the starring role in a thrilling production. Once more, he had accepted the challenge. He made his second Marseille debut in the Coupe de France against Lyon, greeted warily by fans who were unsure of his motivations. What would stop him throwing a similar strop? How much could he actually offer, aged 29? Couldn’t the £25m have been spent better elsewhere?
At first, the questions seemed justified. Marseille’s new signing was peripheral as the season concluded. The following year, however, supporters were greeted to arguably the finest season in his career – and one of the best in Ligue 1 history – the Frenchman notching 18 assists as Les Phocéens roared to the Europa League final against Atlético Madrid.
In the opening minutes, he’d released Valère Germain with an arcing through-ball. It could have been a more awkward night for the Spaniards had Payet, the captain, not been forced to withdraw after just 30 minutes. The tears in his eyes confirmed the worst: he was ruled out of selection for the 2018 World Cup.
Didier Deschamps had held off on announcing his squad, which had been due to be released the same day. The news of Payet’s injury made national headlines in France, with President François Hollande lamenting his country’s rotten luck in an interview with RMC Sport.
Perhaps that was why Payet fell so sharply during the 2018/19 campaign. Disconsolate and lacking motivation, he fell out with coach Rudi García, the man who had made him captain after Steve Mandanda’s departure to Crystal Palace.
“I don’t forget the European Cup year,” Payet told reporters at a press conference a few years later. “But it was difficult afterwards and our relationship deteriorated. What I won’t forget either is that there were some quite spicy moments, communication had broken down, headaches. I have my own character too.” And that’s Payet all over; he’s a remarkable charachter, as interesting and unpredictable as he is wildly gifted.
This year has seen Payet return to his best, a return facilitated by the arrival of new manager André Villas-Boas. “I spoke with him a lot since his arrival,” Payet told Eurosport. “We have always had a relationship with many exchanges. I gave him my opinion and he gave me his to move forward individually and collectively. He loves the ball and I too love the beautiful game. I was hooked on his style.”
Villas-Boas, in return, has been equally effusive about the man who remains a key part of his team, stating bluntly, “Barcelona are Messi dependent. Juventus are Ronaldo dependent. If we’re Payet dependent, we’re Payet dependent.”
Teammate Darío Benedetto is just as forthright, suggesting, “We pass to him because we know he is capable of anything. He will do everything to win, either by scoring himself or by making a decisive pass. He makes the whole team play. He is a complete player, he never lets go. Without him, it is not the same match.”
“I never wanted to hear about fatigue, leaving or old age,” Payet told journalists recently. “As long as all is well in my head, the legs follow. And today, I am a very happy person on and off the field. I will do everything to keep it going next year.”
French football remains behind him. A recent poll from RMC Sport revealed that 80 percent of supporters want him back in the national team. Whether or not he returns, what is guaranteed, however, is that Payet remains box office. A man who makes skills, scandal and showbiz happen. How privileged they are on the Riviera to get to watch him every week. And how privileged we all are that he decided to take that second chance all those years ago. Finished? Not by a long shot.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45