RIBEIRAO PRETO, Brazil (AP) — Mathieu Valbuena didn’t play a single minute for France at the European Championship two years ago. Now he is an integral part of the team and making a name for himself at the World Cup.
Valbuena, who scored one goal and made another in the 5-2 win against Switzerland, is the only player in the squad to have played every game since coach Didier Deschamps replaced Laurent Blanc after Euro 2012.
“It was very hard to take,” Valbuena said Monday of his experience at the last European Championship. “But that’s in the past. I’ve been pretty consistent for a while now playing in a role wide right which suits me well, where I can cut inside a lot.”
It’s been a difficult journey for the 29-year-old Valbuena, his team’s smallest player at 1.63 meters (5 foot 4 inches).
He has faced criticism throughout his career, since being released by Bordeaux in his late teens and dropping down to third-tier Libourne.
“Nothing’s ever come easy for me, nothing’s been handed to me on a plate,” said the attacking midfielder, who stands to win his 37th cap against Ecuador in Friday’s Group E game, where a draw is enough to guarantee top spot for France.
Valbuena was a peripheral figure at the last World Cup, making one substitute appearance in a team that shocked a nation by going on strike at training.
After forcing himself into Blanc’s side before Euro 2012, he was then dropped to the bench. He never complained, as if he was somehow expecting it.
“People have always questioned me. That’s been the way throughout my career, and it will continue to be,” he said. “Maybe a bit less now, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to ease up. You can’t take anything for granted in football.”
He knows better than most.
Despite a decade spent coming up through the ranks, Bordeaux released him 10 years ago.
“At one stage my size worked against me,” he said. “People are quick to point it out when you don’t play well.”
Marseille took a big risk by plucking him from Libourne in 2006.
The early years were difficult. He clashed with Franck Ribery and other senior members, and looked certain to be sold when Deschamps took charge for the 2009-10 season.
In January 2010, Deschamps bluntly told him to look for another club. But that fraught meeting proved to be the major turning point in Valbuena’s career.
Rather than phone his agent, Valbuena boldly told Deschamps – France’s captain when it won the World Cup in 1998 and at Euro 2000 – that he would prove him wrong.
He did just that, scoring crucial goals late in the season as Marseille went on to win the league title and the League Cup.
“Things were difficult, I wasn’t part of his plans at first but through hard work I broke into the team and won trophies,” Valbuena said. “Then we were reunited in the France team, which was a nice touch.”
Other players look up to Valbuena now.
“Mathieu’s really impressive. We all know how talented he is but he’s doing some amazing things,” France right back Mathieu Debuchy said. “He feels good in this team and you can tell. He’s pretty much decisive in every game.”
Valbuena’s low center of gravity helps his balance and allows his technical excellence to shine. His set-piece delivery is pin-point, and he dropped the ball exactly where Olivier Giroud asked for it when he headed home a corner to give France the lead against Switzerland.
“I know what runs the players make. Before the Switzerland game Olivier told me where to put it,” Valbuena said. “Set-pieces are really important and it’s an advantage that we have players who are good in the air. The ball is also better than in 2010 – this one is good.”