No sooner had Adrian Mutu arrived in Corsica this summer than he developed a Napoleon complex. On signing for Ajaccio, he showed considerable bravado by accepting a wager that hadn’t even been made and took on someone much bigger, better and richer than himself.
That someone was his old mucker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had just performed a few kick-ups in front of the Eiffel Tower after completing his transfer from AC Milan to Paris Saint-Germain.
“I know Zlatan well [from our time at Juventus].” Mutu told RMC. “He is a good friend. We will again be rivals, but from a distance. I take the challenge to see who scores more. Even if he is in a better team, it is not a problem for me. I’d bet on it.”
What was Mutu thinking? It’s a refrain that perhaps best describes his playing career. Mutu has scored just twice in Ligue 1 this season. Zlatan, on the other hand, has already got 12 and leads the goalscoring charts. It’s the most prolific start to a campaign in France since Stéphane Guivarc’h went haring out of the traps for Rennes in 1996-97.
It’s been said before that Ibrahimovic is a giant. Standing on his shoulders, however, is Toulouse’s young whippersnapper Wissam Ben Yedder. “You’re going to catch Ibra!” his teammate Moussa Sissoko shouted after he scored his first ever top flight brace in an impressive 3-0 win against Lyon on Sunday. Those goals were Ben Yedder’s eighth and ninth of the season. No Frenchman has scored more in France this term.
After watching yet another decisive display from his side’s promising 22-year-old forward, Toulouse’s experienced captain, the former Roma and Juventus defender Jonathan Zebina said: “Every year, players explode [on to the scene]. It’s his turn. What he is managing to do is fantastic.”
Ben Yedder has astonished everyone, including himself. “I would never have imagined it,” he insisted. “A few months back, I was on the bench. Nine goals in Ligue 1 before the [winter] break is really surprising.”
His rise has been rapid and, as Hugo Delom wrote in L’Équipe, “a duel [with Ibrahimovic] was totally unthinkable a year ago when the Sarcelles native was closer to a loan to [a club] in the National [France's third division] than the top of Ligue 1′s goalscoring charts.”
And that’s no exaggeration, because Ben Yedder didn’t exactly come to football via the conventional route. His development was a little unorthodox. Unlike a lot of French talent, he didn’t go through Clairefontaine. He instead made a name for himself playing Futsal and even represented his country at five-a-side.
When Toulouse picked up Ben Yedder from amateur side Alfortville, pipping Lille to his signature in 2010, there was scepticism about whether he could adapt his skills to the regular game at Ligue 1 level. To some, he was a novelty player, a gadget footballer, a circus act even. He’d never make it. Not with his lack of size and stature.
But why not? Hadn’t Futsal formed the basis of much of Brazil’s success? Hadn’t many of their greatest players learned their game and honed their technique via the sport? It’s particularly apt then, if more than a little over the top, that those seeking to compare Ben Yedder to another player have looked not to France but to Brazil instead.
“I often say to him, and it makes him laugh,” Zebina revealed, “that he resembles Romario, with his big shorts and his movement. He doesn’t get through many kilometres but he’s always where he should be and he has no fear.”
Precocious. Opportunistic. Always with a trick up his sleeve and an element of surprise. There’s a lot of that to Ben Yedder’s play. For instance, four of his nine goals have been headers, a remarkable number considering he is only 5ft5in. “My game is about getting myself in the right places at the right moment and after that being daring,” Ben Yedder explained.
Look for example at the position he takes up for his goal against Valenciennes in early October. A short corner is played to the far post but the cross is drifting away from goal. Aymen Abdennour nods it back in towards the six-yard box where Ben Yeddar is lurking. He has made enough space for himself so that he doesn’t even have to jump to glance a looping header over an onrushing defender and beyond the goalkeeper into the corner.
Cheeky it most certainly was, but Ben Yedder is more than just an Artful Dodger. He’s a finisher too. In addition to Romario, Zebina claims there’s a bit of his old Roma teammate Vincenzo Montella in Ben Yedder. “He’s a born goalscorer.”
“Ben Yedder is very dangerous in the box,” adds Paris Saint-Germain coach Carlo Ancelotti. “He is intelligent, quick. He knows how to keep a cool head in front of goalkeepers to score goals.”
Which is just as well. While coach Alain Casanova’s Toulouse have become a lot easier to love this season by playing much less defensively than in recent years, they still have a penchant for a long ball and a counter. They can play it up to Ben Yedder, as they did against Brest, and know that he can do the rest, cutting in from the right before hammering a left-footed shot against the bar and seeing it bounce satisfyingly over the line.
The ruthlessness he showed on another superb breakaway at home to Saint Étienne in mid-August also made many people, not least the visiting coach that day, Christophe Galtier stand up and take notice. “[Ben Yedder] is one of the revelations of this season,” Galtier insisted. “He scores. He is full of audacity and cheek. He is skilful and clever.”
With a goal-to-game ratio of 0.69, he has a better strike rate this term than Franck Ribéry, Bafétimbi Gomis, Olivier Giroud, Karim Benzema and Jérémy Ménez. In other words, all the players picked by Didier Deschamps to lead France’s forward line. It’s a shame then that, at least for now and the near future, Ben Yedder won’t be available for selection until December 13, 2013.
Why? Because he was a member of the Infamous Five, who, on the night of October 13, caught a taxi from Le Harve where they had been on international duty with France’s Under-21s to a Paris nightclub, staying for a couple of hours before hailing another to take them the 200km or so back again.
The night before Les Bleuets had won the first leg of their European Championship qualifying play-off with Norway 1-0. After missing out on the last four editions of the tournament, it finally looked like they’d be back for the next one in Israel at the end of this season. But it wasn’t to be, as France’s Under-21s lost the second leg 5-3 in Marienlyst four days later on October 16.
It was a scandal and the Infamous Five were blamed. They had supposedly compromised the Under-21s’ chances of qualification and all received lengthy bans from representing France at any level, no more so than the alleged ringleader, Rennes midfielder Yann M’Vila who was handed a suspension by the French Football Association until June 30, 2014.
Ben Yedder has since announced his intention to appeal the decision. He has shown contrition. On Tuesday, he gave a long interview to L’Équipe in which he said he felt “ashamed” of himself and revealed how he felt he’d “betrayed” those who had placed their faith in him. He accepted the criticism from Guy Roux—who called them “swines”—and acknowledged that he had to take responsibility for his mistake. Notably, he didn’t just apologize to his coaches but to the French people too.
“Every time there’s a tournament or a qualifying campaign involving the French team, they see something happen,” Ben Yedder admitted. “There was [the strike at Knysna] in South Africa. After that, there was our night out. We have hurt them. They are fed up and they’re right. French football doesn’t deserve it.”
Of course a cynic might argue that Ben Yedder only said as much to encourage the leniency of the French Football Federation. But he seemed genuine. Ben Yedder could after all play for Tunisia. He met their coach Sami Trabelsi last month and is proud of his North African heritage.
But abandoning the French set up isn’t what he has in mind. He’s “had a taste” of wearing the French shirt at Under-21 level and would like to “give myself the chance of one day integrating into the [full] French team.” Whether he can or not will in the short term of course depend on the outcome of his appeal. He can’t allow it get to him. Ben Yedder’s goals on Sunday were his first since that notorious night-out.
Hopefully he can put it all behind him and show the consistency of performance that he’ll need over the long-term if he really is to enter Deschamps’ plans and continue attracting the scouts of big clubs like Valencia to his matches at the Stadium de Toulouse.
Staying within touching distance of Ibrahimovic in the goalscoring charts from now until the end of the season would be a start. The prospect of Ben Yedder or anyone else for that matter overhauling him, though, is unrealistic. No one is more aware of that than him.
“When I was younger, I used to watch Ibra on the TV. I find it very bizarre to be close to him,” Ben Yedder said. I will never compare but, at the same time, finding myself behind him, makes me smile.”