Payet turns sharp corner from nowhere to the top
By Patrick Vignal
PARIS (Reuters) - Plenty of reasons have been propounded for Dimitri Payet's meteoric rise from international underachiever to France's outstanding player at Euro 2016 -- but the best words to explain it probably came from Didier Deschamps.
"Football becomes simple when you can fire the ball into the top corner," the France coach said, referring to his attacking midfielder's newly-discovered habit of scoring sensational goals.
What Deschamps meant is that Payet, whose unique vision and skills are nothing new, now also has discovered the confidence needed to turn a match around.
The 29-year-old has illustrated just that with two splendid goals in France's victories over Romania and Albania before narrowly missing what could have been the goal of the tournament, if not the year, with a magnificent volley that rattled the crossbar against Switzerland.
Payet's international career had never really taken off and he had not played for France for nearly a year when Deschamps, having watched his convincing Premier League performances with West Ham United, recalled him for friendlies against the Netherlands and Russia in March.
His return was a success as he was instrumental in two comfortable victories, scoring from a free kick against Russia. Another dazzling free kick strike to snatch victory in a Euro 2016 warm-up against Cameroon convinced Deschamps that Payet had at last shaken off his tag as a gifted but erratic player.
"I have come a long way," Payet said after the France coach picked him in his squad for this tournament. "I certainly couldn't imagine this would happen to me when the season started."
TEARS OF JOY
The rest of the story is still being written and featured an emotional moment when Payet left the pitch with tears of joy running from his eyes after his stunning winner against Romania.
It probably made Payet recall the day he cried after leaving another pitch 12 years earlier. The teenager had just won a domestic competition on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, where he was born.
He had returned to Reunion after hearing he would never become a professional player and being kicked out the Le Havre academy that has produced a string of brilliant players over the years, including Payet's international team mate Paul Pogba.
That Reunion trophy, the only one he has lifted in his career to this day, helped Payet return to France at another academy, in Nantes, where his professional career started.
So attached to Reunion is Payet that the name of his island features on the number plates of the flashy, yellow sports car he drives to go to training for West Ham.
Before joining the London side, Payet had played two seasons for Olympique Marseille, including a fine second one under the guidance of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa.
"I think a lot of it came from Bielsa," Payet told French television channel M6. "He talked to me, protected me and trusted me. That helped me find the confidence I then brought with me to West Ham."
Deschamps is now careful to apply the methods used by Bielsa and West Ham coach Slaven Bilic to polish the rough diamond they saw in Payet.
"I'll put him on ice to protect him", Deschamps said after Payet's heroics against Romania. "I don't want anything serious to happen to him".
Those words of love from a man who was saying only a few months ago that he had never been entirely convinced by Payet's international performances show just how precious to France the shy player from Reunion has now become.
(Editing by Ian Chadband)