France maestro Payet gets payback with stunning winner
By Philip O'Connor
PARIS (Reuters) - Walking off the pitch in tears after scoring a stunning late winner for France against Romania in the Euro 2016 opener on Friday, it was hard to believe man-of-the-match Dimitri Payet almost did not make the squad.
The mercurial midfielder, who created the first goal before firing the clincher in the 89th minute in the hosts' 2-1 Group A victory over a stubborn Romania, was until recently a peripheral player in the mind of France coach Didier Deschamps.
"To be here tonight and score is the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices," the 29-year-old Payet said of his long road back from the international wilderness.
"To be honest, compared to some players, I honestly didn't think I would be here today at the start of the season," added the West Ham United player. "There was some pressure arriving at the stadium, but I came to enjoy myself."
That pressure was the result of a prolonged period in the international doldrums when Payet was ignored by Deschamps and often told he had slipped too far down the pecking order to be worthy of a spot in the squad.
Despite playing reasonably well and scoring his first goal for France in a 4-3 defeat by Belgium in June 2015, the 29-year-old was dropped from subsequent squads.
Undoubtedly talented, questions remained over his ability to fit into the France team and how to get the best out of him.
Not even an excellent start to the English Premier League season at his new club West Ham helped his international career.
Payet made little effort to hide his frustration at being overlooked by Deschamps, saying on one occasion: "Honestly, I am struggling to understand what he is really asking of me."
But his persistence paid off and he was finally welcomed back in to the French fold in March, just in time to force his way into the reckoning for the Euros.
A superb display on his return against the Netherlands in March, and an unstoppable free kick in the final minute of a 3-2 victory over Cameroon in a May friendly, finally convinced Deschamps and Payet was brought back into the squad.
At the Stade de France on Friday, he stepped out of the shadow of Paul Pogba and stole the show, creating a slew of chances for his side before eventually serving up the sublime cross that allowed Olivier Giroud to break the deadlock.
A Bogdan Stancu penalty put Romania level and they looked like leaving with a share of the spoils before Payet struck his stunning late winner, beautifully curling a left-foot shot into the top corner of the net to delight the home fans.
Deschamps then replaced Payet, who left the field in tears of joy having fully justified his selection and shown the sold-out crowd why he was worthy of a place in the team.
"There was a lot of stress, a lot of pressure. If someone had told me that it would have gone like that I don't think I would have believed it," he said.
"I think all that emotion came out with the goal."
Deschamps said he had no doubts over the inclusion of Payet and the impact he could have on the game.
"He's an attacking player, but is also someone who helps out the team. It's quite easy in football when you can bang it into the top corner. It solves quite a lot of problem," the 47-year-old told reporters.
For Payet and France the win has provided some much-needed breathing space for a side feeling the weight of expectation of the demanding home fans.
"We know how important the three points are and now we're able to rest up and work calmly for the second match," he said.
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; editing by Ken Ferris)