While the sun gently warms the Norwegian spring morning, I have found my note pad, ready to write the feature article I have promised our fan club members at Chescandinavia (the Scandinavian Valencia supporters club). During the last week the have voted over who was the club’s best player this rather disappointing season where the club at times felt as having deeply disconnected with it’s fans, only to bounce back and create a tighter bond than ever. While I pour a cup of coffee, my thoughts are still on last night’s general assembly at Mestalla where the popular and notoriously extroverted president Amadeo Salvo once again bound the spectators under his spell. But my task was to write about his opposite, the infamously introverted number 22, the club’s silent leader.
As I take the first sip I realize that even after 5 years, I don’t really know who this person is. I count myself as an above average follower of the Valencia day to day, but still, this timid Frenchman turned Valenciano is an incognito. A mystery. This morning I will start a journey from that day the “redhead” (as the French call him) played his first professional match at the age of 18. Who is really Jèrémy Mathieu?
How people turn out is often defined by where they are from. Born in the tiny village of 7500 inhabitants, Luxeuil-les-Bains, near the German border, he spent his school days playing sports. The village is the site of a military base where his father worked with the flight simulators. His first memory of football is when his father brought him a yellow ball at the age of three. He still has the picture. With his height, now 192 centimetres, he was a popular team mate both in football and in basketball. For him school was just a place he had to be to play sports, because school in itself was as he put it himself; “not something for me”. He dropped out at a young age to devote all his time and passion to football, despite the fact that his mother is a pedagogue.
After the school team, he started playing for Saint-Suver as a left winger with a rock hard shot. His hero growing up was an English winger who played his trade for Mathieu’s favourite team growing up; Marseille. Interestingly, Chris Waddle was also a left winger who had grown up in a small place; the 8000 inhabitant large Felling in Tyne-and-Wear.
Believing you get nowhere with hard work and faith in yourself, he was rewarded at the tender age of 18 with his professional début for the region’s giants Sochaux. In a near complete game from the youngster, he proved enough to establish himself as a starter. Over the next three seasons he played 86 games and got 9 goals. Having one year left on his contract after a terrible season for the team, he was ready for something new. The answer was Toulouse, where he would spend four years, roaming the left side during 112 matches. His performances caught the eye of bigger clubs, and especially Roma tried, in vain, to convince Toulouse to sell. After some controversy, Mathieu ended his contract at the club, before joining Valencia in June 2009.
Having a strong sense of justice and also demanding hard work of himself and his team mates, he had earned himself the kind of flattering nickname “Robocop”. In fact, despite his timidness, he has not hesitated to speak his mind whenever he feels it necessary. For example when fellow Frenchman Adil Rami was not displaying focus up to Mathieu’s standards, he let his team mate know, first in private and then also through the press; “There are players with their mind set on leaving for other places. But in the meantime they play here.” He also took on José Mourinho after the manager’s arrogant celebrations after a 3-2 goal in favour of his Madrid side. “He [Mourinho] has no respect. No respect for Valencia”.
You could also take his nickname as a reference to his habit to isolate himself from the team. Mathieu is the kind of guy who needs to feel safe before he opens up. Having spent years adapting to life at Toulouse, which last I checked was a French club, no wonder he struggled in Valencia. After three years he still spoke next to no Spanish and when giving a rare interview to the club’s online magazine, it was in French. Instead of mingling with his team mates he would rather pass the siesta and evenings at home with his wife and their two kids Kyllyan and Quentin. Then it all changed one morning at Paterna.
Imagine the faces of the other players when the Frenchman climbed out of his sports car wearing shorts and sporting a brand new huge tattoo of a giant bat and the number 22 on it. That is as close to a blood oath as you get these days. After that Mathieu has gone totally Valenciano, participating in the preparations for the Fallas festival with his neighbourhood and sporting his two sons with traditional clothing. When he wore the captain’s arm band for the first time, it was one of the triggers for the change in Mathieu. He revealed in an interview after that game that it had been the greatest honour in his career so far. With his will to sacrifice himself for the team and always give it his best, he is a leader through action. No wonder his favourite movie is “Braveheart”
Success and injuries
The solution came through the famous surgeon Dr. Cougat in Barcelona who had helped former Valencia winger Vicente Rodriguez get rid of his similar issues, also after years of torment. Mathieu got better, but quickly noticed that the demands of his accustomed left back position was taking a toll on the tendon. The solution came by coincidence. During a particularly bad injury period for the club, Mathieu had to step in as central defender. To many’s surprise, my own included, he excelled. His speed and strength added sorely needed quality to a shaky back four, enabling him to right the errors made both by himself and the other defenders. Under Ernesto Valverde he continued to feature in that position while the team started an impressive second half of the season.
Mathieu first entered the world stage during his successful partnership on the club’s left side with Jordi Alba, now at Barcelona. The two former wingers turned left back alternated on the two positions creating havoc for the opposition’s defence, strongly contributing to the goal scoring successes of Roberto Soldado. All was not flowers and sunshine though, because Mathieu got injured. A lot. A troublesome Achilles tendon kept him from playing during large periods of time. Mathieu had lost all faith in the club’s then medical team and was on the verge of leaving the club because of it.
During last summer, several clubs came knocking at Valencia’s door; Barcelona, Bayern, Italian clubs. Mathieu was convinced to stay by the new president Amadeo Salvo, who presented an exciting project. It was when Miroslav Djukic came in that it all changed again. The Serb saw Mathieu as a left back and wanted him to play there. Mathieu refused. He had found a place where the pain level was reduced, and he played well. Why change it? He told the press as much: “I have told Djukic that I want to play central defender. I feel settled there and play well. I prefer to continue there”. After a while, Mathieu won Djukic over and often turned in performances that were the only positives in a generally lacklustre first half of the season. Mathieu had a goal, and a dream; to represent France at the World Cup stage.
Enter Juan Antonio Pizzi. With the new Argentinian manager, Mathieu has been regarded as the corner stone of the defence and has turned in a host of “man of the match” performances. Already in February he again started to attract interest from teams such as Tottenham, Napoli and Roma, while Barcelona and Bayern returned to the fray. He also caught the eye of his country men. Though undoubtedly turning in top class performances for a number of years, he has only been given two caps for his country. In March, France Football ran an article arguing for the inclusion of Mathieu:
“He is that breed of hard working footballers. Those who work in the shadows without making waves. Some say that his anonymity is more due to his career choice (Valencia) than his actual performance. More than a responsible player, he is a guy who is able to completely adhere to a project. He has got a strong mindset.” Honourable mention from the French magazine (for Mathieu, not for Valencia obviously), although revealing that we are not the only ones who do not know Mathieu. France Football hadn’t even noticed that him playing as a central defender was more something that had happened consistently over two years, rather than an experiment from what seems to be the one Valencia game they had seen in their eagerness to talk down Patrice Evra as the national team’s left back rather than actually make a case for Mathieu’s inclusion.
Although it has been a season of good memories overall for Mathieu, there is one thing he will remember the rest of his life, according to himself. And it is not that Deschamps did not pick him for Brazil. Further enhancing the impression of someone who has turned truly Valencian, he stated: “I will remember that night for the rest of my life. The disappointment will follow me, always.” Talking, of course, about the Sevilla match and the last gasp goal that robbed away a magnificent comeback and a final in Turin. I think he should be equally disappointed not to be picked by Deschamps, who should know where Valencia is, having spent a full season at the club. Despite that, he never found the way to Mestalla to spy on one of the best defenders in La Liga.
For Valencia’s fans though, this is the season where Mathieu has gone from a decent player to a fan favourite. The season where he finally found his place at the club and in the city.Publicly dismissing interest from clubs such as Bayern and Barcelona when his own club didn’t even qualify for Europa League only increases the admiration of course. Juan Antonio Pizzi is of the same opinion and has stated that Mathieu is the most important player to keep. With a new and exciting project under the ownership of Peter Lim, that is an important vote of confidence. Though, the summer is long and the interest strong, but with a little luck, the silent leader will once again give it his all to raise Valencia towards further glory.
Sources: El Mundo, El Pais, Superdeporte, Las Provincias, Levente-EMV, Cadena SER, Plaza Deportiva, Sport, RedioEsport, France Football, AS