When Rafa Benitez announced his Inter Milan team before the European champions' Group A Matchday Three fixture at home to Tottenham Hotspur on Oct. 20, the traveling fans could have been forgiven for some optimism. Instead of the Samuel Eto'o-Wesley Sneijder-Goran Pandev attacking trio playing behind Diego Milito that had won the Italians the trophy last season, Benitez picked Coutinho, an 18-year-old Brazilian, to play on the left, Jonathan Biabiany on the right, with Sneijder in the middle and Eto'o upfront.
After 10 minutes of the game, Inter were 3-0 up and the visitors a player down after goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes had been sent off. Coutinho was the architect of the first goal, Biabiany induced the foul from Gomes for the second, scored from the penalty-spot by Eto'o, whose one-two set up Dejan Stankovic for the third.
But while Coutinho is already a full Brazil international, Eto'o a three-time African Player of the Year and a triple Champions League winner, and Sneijder one of the favorites to win FIFA's Ballon D'Or prize in January for the world's best player, the surprise star of the night was Biabiany, a 22-year-old French winger whose impact has hardly registered in his homeland.
Biabiany is a rarity in the French game: he did not come through any academy system, and had no formal coaching in his early years. Instead, he was playing in the youth teams at Blanc-Mesnil, a northern suburb of Paris whose teams play in the amateur leagues. Biabiany was 15 when his Blanc-Mesnil side took on Red Star Paris, went 4-0 down but won the match 6-4, with Biabiany scoring four. Inter had a scout at the game -- he was killing time while on another scouting mission -- and he was impressed. "Two days later, I got a letter from them and two weeks after that, I had a trial there," Biabiany told
"Because he is so small [Biabiany is 5-foot-9], he was rejected by the standard training academies and that just shows that French clubs are too influenced by physique," bemoaned France Under-21 coach Erick Mombaerts, who gave him his international debut last year. "He has a huge amount of talent and can do amazing things in small spaces as his feet move so well. He has had to eat mad cow to get where he is now, so he deserves a lot of credit," added the coach, invoking a popular French expression that basically means Biabiany did things the hard way. Most French players graduate through a club's academy and then rise through the hierarchy of Ligue 1 clubs before earning a move abroad.
As often happens to talented youngsters in Italy, Inter loaned out the Frenchman to a succession of clubs: first, when he was 19, Chievo, where a groin injury ruined his chances of any playing-time; then, also in Serie B, he spent 18 months at Modena, the first six mainly as a substitute, and for the next season as a regular with eight goals in 34 starts.
Last season he made the step up to Serie A where, under the watchful eye of coach Francesco Guidolin, he scored six goals in 25 starts from the right-wing in a three-man attack. "The coach had confidence in young players and made me feel very comfortable," said Biabiany, who wore the No. 20 jersey made famous by former heroes Enrico Chiesa and Marco di Vaio. Biabiany scored both goals in a 2-2 away draw at Genoa and a dramatic late winner against Juventus in Round 37, helping Parma finish in a respectable eighth place.
By then, Inter had given Parma 50 percent of Biabiany's transfer rights -- and Luis Jimenez on loan -- in return for signing midfielder Macdonald Mariga on loan in the January transfer window. By the summer, though, the newly-crowned European champions decided to buy both players outright from Parma for a combined €9.5 million ($13.5 million). Parma president Tommaso Ghirahdi and coach Pasquale Marino wanted Biabiany to stay, but they could not turn down that sum. "The club were happy to get the money they wanted in the end," said Parma-based reporter Matteo Genovesi.
Benitez has wasted no time in throwing Biabiany into action this season: he made his first Serie A start for Inter in Round 2 against Udinese and has started the last five games for the team. "This season I'm playing on the wing and I have to defend more, but for me it's great to help my teammates," he said. "The more I play, the more confidence I have and the stronger I feel." Eto'o has also taken him under his wing, recognizing something of himself when he first arrived at Real Madrid, a Francophone in a foreign land, aged 17.
Benitez wants to utilize Biabiany's pace -- he can run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds -- and has told the winger to start sprinting as soon as Wesley Sneijder gets the ball. It was Sneijder whose pass split the Tottenham defense and allowed Biabiany to break clear before Gomes took him down. "That sprint has now become almost automatic for me," said Biabiany.
France coach Laurent Blanc has also taken note, and his assistant Jean-Louis Gasset was at the San Siro to scout Biabiany in that game. French scouts have already missed his talent once, and they can ill afford to make the same mistake again. Inter's scouting system, meanwhile, deserves huge credit for finding this rough diamond -- not that Tottenham defenders, up against Biabiany in the European return game at White Hart Lane on Tuesday, will be so pleased about it.