Dimitri Payet is set to return to the France national team in the form of his life on Friday but with the sense that his past could deny him the chance to shine at Euro 2016.
Since joining West Ham from Marseille before the start of this season, Payet has been a revelation, quickly establishing himself as the darling of the Upton Park faithful and placing Slaven Bilic’s team firmly in the hunt for an unlikely Champions League berth.
A return of eight goals and as many assists in the Premier League show clear substance behind the deft trickery and set-piece artistry that propelled the 28-year-old to an extended five-and-a-half-year contract last month.
“He’s the best player I’ve signed in 25 years,” said Hammers co-owner David Sullivan. “He’s a £30million player. He’s a supreme footballer. He makes every player in our side play better. On his day, he’s world class, he’s unstoppable.”
It is hard to argue with any of Sullivan’s superlatives, yet Payet arrived in east London for a fraction of that theoretical price tag. His talents were hardly a secret, so it is tempting to wonder how on earth West Ham pulled it off.
In 2014-15, guided by the genial Marcelo Bielsa, Payet scored seven goals and created a remarkable 17 more in 36 Ligue 1 matches for Marseille. Across Europe’s major leagues, only Kevin De Bruyne, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi could claim a better return in terms of assists.
Payet led the way on chances created, his 133 outstripping 111 from De Bruyne, the Belgium international who would become Manchester City’s record signing from Wolfsburg in August for a fee in excess of £50m.
So why was Payet not the subject of a bidding war two months earlier as he slipped into West Ham amid considerably less fanfare?
Born in Reunion, the French island off Mauritius, a disillusioned Payet returned home as a 16-year-old in 2003 having been released from the Le Havre academy that would go on to produce Paul Pogba and Riyad Mahrez.
“I didn’t want to hear any further mention of France,” he said. “I just wanted to stay on my island and play football there.”
When Payet’s father and uncle persuaded him to try again, his talent – rather than application – shone through at Nantes.
“Dimitri was a player who was very talented, despite his natural nonchalance,” said the club’s reserve team coach Stephane Moreau.
As Nantes were humiliatingly relegated in 2006-07, Payet’s breakthrough talents would provide a shaft of light. But a reputation for flair at the expense of hard work and application was already established.
He dazzled for Saint-Etienne but also made headlines for the wrong reasons – namely through an ugly on-field spat with captain Blaise Matuidi and for skipping training to try to force through a move to Paris Saint-Germain.
Payet won international honours for the first time in 2010 while at Saint-Etienne and spells with Lille and Marseille helped him edge up to a paltry return of 15 caps.
French football has been badly burned by fall-outs within the national team that scuppered their campaigns at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. In placing distance between himself and the Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena affair, along with banishing the talented but wayward Samir Nasri, coach Didier Deschamps has shown a determination that similar problems will not damage France on home soil this year.
“I’m not speaking about Dimitri [but] if I have a player who goes against the spirit and who can be a danger to the squad, I won’t take him. And that’s the case with certain players,” he said after overlooking Payet last September.
Persistent brilliance for West Ham has forced Deschamps’ hand and Payet now has the chance to prove he can be a help and not a hindrance to the bid for Euro glory.
At his best – from Saint-Etienne to Marseille and West Ham – Payet has revelled in the role of star man; a billing he cannot enjoy among a France squad packed with talent.
Grabbing a substitute cameo with gusto against Netherlands or Russia and getting along famously with the likes of Matuidi over the coming days could influence Payet’s international future far more than the seemingly inevitable Premier League heroics to come.
Deschamps knows he is a player of breathtaking ability. The next week could go a long way to tell whether he is a player he can trust.
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