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Raphaël Varane: The road ahead

The defenders have the most thankless job in football. If your team loses, you face the flak for your shoddy defensive skills, and all the self-professed experts start wondering aloud why you didn’t choose a less athletic game instead, say chess, to make a living. And if by chance your team does manage to clinch a victory, it’s often only due to the spectacular goals by Mr X and Mr Y in the forward line. Even the ball boys seem to be making more headlines than defenders these days, thanks to the likes of Eden Hazard. But in spite of all this spite against the good old defenders, there rises a Goliath from the abyss now and then, and the French defender, Raphaël Varane seems to be one of them.

There is nothing much about Raphaël Varane that catches the eye. He doesn’t have the looks of the Beckhams and the Cristianos, and neither does he have the temper of the Balotellis. You could just pass him over as any other lanky 19 year old walking the face of the earth. But watch him play and you will realize that he is anything but ordinary.

While there are other young defenders like Rafael da Silva and Jordi Alba, who have been grabbing many a headlines in recent times for their prowess in the right back and left back position respectively, Raphaël Varane seems to be the centre back to look forward to in the years to come. He has proved his mettle even in the sweeper position made famous by the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Laurent Blanc in the days of yore, so much so that José Mourinho, his current coach at Real Madrid, recently compared him to Blanc and even went on to predict that a few years down the line, Varane would prove to be better than the great Frenchman himself. If you know anything about Mourinho, you will admit that his words do carry some weight.

So why all this brouhaha surrounding Varane? He is just a youngster who played his first match for his national team in the World Cup qualifier against Georgia last Friday. And anyone who has followed football closely will have come across zillions of youngsters who created a lot of buzz in their initial days before vanishing into obscurity. Well, to answer that, you need to take a glimpse at Varane’s achievements at club level so far.

Varane, being born in Lille, France, started playing with his local club AS Hellemmes at the turn of the millennium when he was all but seven, and it wasn’t long before the French club Lens stole him away. He rapidly rose the ranks at Lens, making the cut into their under-16 team before making a transition to the under-19 team, the reserve team and finally the senior team. He made his debut in Ligue 1 for Lens in a splendid 2-0 win over Montpellier in the latter half of 2010. Although the 2010-11 season was anything but good for Lens, Varane stood out with his superior defensive skills and it wasn’t long before he caught the eye of the people at Real Madrid.

Varane made the switch to Real Madrid in the summer of 2011 for a €10 million transfer fee and it is his exploits at Real that have brought him to the notice of the football community. If you judge success solely by the number of appearances, then Varane isn’t your guy. He appeared in just 9 league matches for Real in the 2011-12 season and has appeared in just 11 out of the 28 league matches Real has played so far this season. But the culprit here is more his age and the cut-throat competition at Real than his footballing skills. In fact, Varane became the youngest foreign player ever to score a goal for Real Madrid at 18 years and 152 days, and that too in just his second match for Real, a great accomplishment for a defender in a team filled with some of the greatest forwards of this generation. He also had a decent run at the Champion’s League last season, and has continued the good work this season as well, having appeared in 7 out of the 8 matches Real has played so far. Considering that Real Madrid defeated the reigning English Premier League champions Manchester City and the legendary Manchester United on their way to the quarter-finals, the Real Madrid defenders definitely have done a good job.

But more than anything else, Varane has successfully passed the one test that determines true greatness in Spain, and that is the El Clásico. He not only won the Man of the Match in his El Clásico debut in January this year for his outstanding defending, but also became the second-youngest foreign player to score for Real in an El Clásico match. In the following month, he scored yet again against Barca, making him the hero of the Real fans.

So now the question is, can he replicate the form he has displayed at club level while playing for his country? He had done sufficiently well for the French under-18 and under-21 team before being called up for the senior team. Even in his senior debut, he played well for a major part of the 90 minutes last Friday and seemed to gel well with his defensive partner, Mamadou Sakho. The only downer in the 3-1 win for France was that they couldn’t win with a clean sheet, as the Georgians got one through past the keeper thanks to the blunder on the part of Mamadou and a deflection off Varane. If he wants to prove Mourinho true, he has to avoid these kind of blunders in the future, especially when coming Tuesday, France will face Spain, who will go all out to win that match and regain the top spot in Group I.

Nevertheless, these days when Neymar is all across the tabloids, being lauded as the next Pelé, Varane seems to be the sole savior for the poor breed of defenders on this planet. But will he also turn out to be one of those footballers who play amazingly for their club, but consistently falter when wearing their national colors? Well, only time will tell. But for now, let’s cheer for the fact that the Les Bleus finally have someone seemingly able to carry forward the legacy of the fantastic French defenders of the past. Vive la France, Vive la Varane!

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