Shortly before the hour mark of Rennes’ Coupe de la Ligue match with Arles-Avignon last week, coach Frédéric Antonetti turned to the bench and signalled for Yann M’Vila to get ready to come on. As the 22-year-old removed his track suit and went through a few stretches on the touchline in preparation to replace Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik, there was some applause in the stands at the Stade de la Route de Lorient, but also the unmistakable sound of whistles.
M’Vila could hardly expect a warm reception after being brought back in from the cold. For the last couple of weeks, he and his teammate Chris Mavinga had been forced to train with the reserves. They’d brought shame on Rennes. For a time it was uncertain whether they’d be allowed to play for the club again this season. Antonetti spoke of a “betrayal of trust” and added: “I don’t know when they will return, but it couldn’t be before May 31.”
M’Vila and Mavinga were among a party of five France Under-21 players who were reported to have taken a taxi from their training camp in Le Harve the night after a 1-0 win against Norway in the first leg of their European Championship play-off on October 12 to a nightclub 200 km away on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. They only got back from their curfew-breaking outing in the early hours of the morning, sparking outrage once the story broke in the media.
Though given a good talking to by coach Erik Mombaerts, the players involved apparently weren’t punished. Days later, however, the France Under-21s lost their second leg with Norway 5-3 in Marienlyst and failed to qualify for Euro 2013. Mombaerts left his post by mutual consent, the French Football Federation launched an investigation and Rennes revealed their intention to take strong disciplinary action against M’Vila and Mavinga.
“Stade Rennais can no longer tolerate the irresponsible behaviour of some players,” a statement read. “It is a strong decision shared by all club officers beyond the sporting consequences. It is a moral issue.”
M’Vila, in particular, has exasperated Rennes as much as he has delighted them with a talent that, when all else is put aside, is worthy of the attention it has commanded. Unfortunately controversy has courted him as much as Europe’s biggest clubs and it’s thought that Arsenal’s reported interest this summer ended because of it.
A long line of off-the-field incidents has led possible suitors to question whether he’s more trouble than he’s worth. In 2011, two prostitutes, later jailed, were reportedly invited back from a nightclub to a Montpellier hotel following France’s friendly with Chile where they robbed M’Vila and a friend of watches, one said to be worth €13,000, as well as laptops and mobile phones. An investigation was also launched into a bout of road rage involving M’Vila. Then in 2012, he was arrested and spent a night in a police cell after allegedly slapping a 17-year-old in the face, believed to be his sister’s boyfriend.
M’Vila grew up in the banlieue, first in Amiens then in Mantes-la-Jolie. They were tough suburbs. Reflecting on his childhood in SoFoot, M’Vila said: “There were hardly any kids [in my neighbourhood] who weren’t going around stealing things. Without football, I don’t see why I would have done any better than the others. I stole scooters, and wandered the streets after midnight even though I had school the next day.”
It was hard knocks. “Some teachers were afraid to come to school,” he told L’Equipe. Leaving the banlieue and your past behind is easier said than done. “It’s true that with fame you get new friends, new cousins… You need to be really careful,” M’Vila admitted. “Sometimes I’ve been a little too naive… Sometimes I’m just a kid who is living his life.”
Indeed, as his former teammate Jires Kembo mused, perhaps “too much has come too soon” for M’Vila. At 22 he already has 22 caps for France. It”s occasionally forgotten he’s still so young and, relatively speaking, at the beginning of his career.
M’Vila claimed back in the summer that he has tried to change things, not least separating his real friends from the fakes one. “I go out less. I try to eat better. I’ll also hire a cook,” he promised. Gone, it seemed, are the days M’Vila alluded to in a conversation with SoFoot when he candidly said he wasn’t about to start eating healthily just because he’d turned pro. “I continue to eat what I like, kebabs and everything. I just don’t put sauce on it.”
Should M’Vila begin to afford his profession the seriousness it requires on and off the pitch again then there’s no reason why he can’t recapture his form and reclaim a place in the France squad. M’Vila went through a slump last season. Considering everything going on around him and how, for the previous two campaigns he’d exceeded all expectations, it wasn’t a surprise. He began to overelaborate. “I’m so concerned about trying to play a killer pass I have been forgetting about my defensive work,” he revealed.
He was jeered during last season’s shock semi-final defeat to Quevilly in the Coupe de France and, while according to Antonetti “[the fans] gave up in the second half” because “he touches the ball so often the crowd couldn’t keep up,” there was a heated exchange between the player and frustrated supporters the next day. To get them back on side, M’Vila arguably needs to go back to basics and do the simple things well again like he used to do to such good effect when he set the tempo and acted as Rennes’ metronome.
Of course, not everyone agrees with his speedy return to the first team. After initially coming down hard on M’Vila, Rennes have been accused of going soft. But a small squad, limited even further by injuries, simply cannot afford to deprive itself of a player of his quality in the long run. “[M'Vila and Mavinga] haven’t killed anyone,” reasoned club administrator Jacques Delanoé.
In the meantime, Antonetti has been seeking to motivate M’Vila by reminding him of where he could be. During one training session at the beginning of September, the Rennes coach apparently asked his midfielder if he hadn’t wondered to himself why he was still here while Alex Song had signed for Barcelona. M’Vila is said to have lowered his head. It could have been him either at the Camp Nou or as Song’s replacement at the Emirates.
His immense talent does not have to go to waste. M’Vila’s saving grace, according to Rennes general manager, Pierre Dréossi, is that he really loves football. “This is the positive note and the hope that I have in his resurrection. It’s not too late,” he concluded. “But it is time.”