In the days leading up to France¹s 2010 World Cup squad announcement last May, the French press played a guessing game called "Who's the new Chimbonda?" The game involved plucking names out of thin air predicting who would be eccentric French coach Raymond Domenech's surprise call-up.
In 2006, that player was Pascal Chimbonda, a fullback who had a decent season at Premier League club Wigan Athletic, played two minutes in a pre-World Cup friendly against Denmark, and was never called up again. Uncapped players such as David N'Gog, Steed Malbranque and Sylvain Distin were suggested -- and overlooked -- but when the long-list was announced, still Domenech managed to surprise everyone: he included Yann M'Vila, a 19-year-old midfielder from Rennes who had just completed his first season as a professional.
"I saw that he already had the mentality of a top player," said Domenech in an exclusive interview with SI.com at the Leaders in Football conference this week. "I looked at him on the pitch and I thought I was seeing a 26-year-old, not a teenager. His choices, his positioning and his distribution belonged to someone much older, more experienced."
M'Vila did not make the final cut of 23 for the World Cup -- Domench said the youngster was number 24 on his list -- but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After new coach Laurent Blanc banned every player involved in South Africa from his opening squad, he handed M'Vila his first cap as a holding midfielder. He was France's best player in its 2-1 defeat to Norway.
In fact, M'Vila kept his place and was the only player to start Blanc's first three matches in charge (and also started against Romania Saturday in Les Bleus' 2-0 win). After Norway came a home defeat to Belarus, which was soon forgotten when M'Vila was outstanding in an impressive 2-0 win in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "After the Bosnia game, the coach said 'Well done' to me and that meant a lot," he told Le Parisien. "He impresses me a great deal and I feel totally involved in this project: to me, there is nothing more important than Les Bleus."
If this sounds mature for a 20-year-old, it's because M'Vila has had to grow up fast. He is married with two children and recently told RMC radio: "Fatherhood has made me more responsible and given my life stability." Growing up in a downtrodden district of Amiens, in northern France, M¹Vila felt sure he would fail to hold down a regular job, and somehow end up in jail. Football was his salvation: he spent two years with Amiens but did not sign an academy contract as the club refused to sign his brother Yohan. At 16, he moved to Rennes where he played under academy director Patrick Rampillon, who nurtured the early careers of former graduates Sylvain Wiltord, Mikael Silvestre, Ousmane Dabo, and current Lyon trio Anthony Reveillere, Yoann Gourcuff and Jimmy Briand.
Guy Lacombe, the Rennes coach at the time, was not impressed with M'Vila¹s attitude and kept him in the reserves, despite the player asking to be loaned out to another club. That changed when Frederic Antonetti replaced Lacombe as coach 15 months ago: M¹Vila went straight into the side, and two months after his debut, Antonetti tipped him for a World Cup place.
Rampillon has been rewarded by winning the French league's award for the best academy for the last five years, but the shadow of scandal is never too far away: rival clubs claim that Rennes, owned by François Pinault, one of France¹s richest men, pay young players and their agents more money than anyone else.
The current generation, led by M'Vila but also containing first-team players Romain Danze, Sylvain Marveaux, Fabien Lemoine and Yacine Brahimi (who could be the best of the lot), has helped Rennes top the Ligue 1 table for the first time in 40 years. The team does not rely on explosive power or physical strength but plays fluid and attractive football.
The next challenge for Rennes will be to keep M'Vila, who has already spoken of his desire to play for a big club abroad. "He has it all and can go the top, top, top," said Domenech.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.