France finds new hero in Martin

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By Wednesday, the hype machine was in full flow, with Le Parisien asking: "Is he the new Zidane?" with L'Equipe calling him "MM" (just as Zidane was "ZZ") and RMC Radio asking the real Zidane for his opinion: "We must leave him alone with the comparisons, he's a good player and I hope he has a good future ahead of him," he said.

The Zidane comparison has not worked in the past for Johan Micoud, Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri or Yoann Gourcuff, and it's really only been made in this case because, on August 17, 1994, Zidane also scored two goals on his France debut, a 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic. Martin himself knows as much. He was embarrassed when his teammates gave him a standing ovation and chanted his name in the dressing-room after the game. That's why he later sought out France coach Laurent Blanc: "I told him that I know the hard work is still to come for me."

Martin was barely known before this season: rejected by the national academy at Clairefontaine when he was 12 for being too small (just like Kevin Gameiro, who scored the first goal for France), he was spotted by Sochaux's Paris scout Christian Puxel as a teenager. "He was just a little shrimp then," Puxel told L'Equipe, "and there wasn't much competition from other clubs for him. But I was convinced by his strengths: his game intelligence and anticipation of teammates' movements."

He joined an impressive crop at the Sochaux academy. Ryad Boudebouz, 21, Geoffrey Tulasne, 23, Cedric Bakambu, 20, and Pierrick Cros, 19, have all broken into the team in recent seasons under coach Francis Gillot. Martin was a regular for the perennial relegation candidates for 18 months, but this season exploded as the team overachieved by finishing in eighth place. Sochaux's attacking style of football, in what has become renowned as a tactically cautious division, centered around Martin, who made a league-best 17 assists for his teammates (and just one short of Ligue 1's all-time record).

Martin laughed when L'Equipe called him "Little Xavi" earlier in the season but has admitted to taking notes from Barcelona matches. "I like to always be on the move, taking one or two touches at a time," he told the paper. "I have a long way to go to reach Xavi's level, even if in training, we try and copy what they do." Martin remains a humble guy: he regularly gives youth players lifts into training and after the France game, made time to phone his friend Cros and talk through his surreal evening.

It now seems highly unlikely that Martin will stay at Sochaux, especially as Gillot disappointed his young charges by taking the Bordeaux coaching job this week. As Auxerre found out this season, any Ligue 1 team that surprises itself by qualifying for European competition often struggles the following season. And it's hard to imagine Sochaux doing any better than last year. His agent, Jean-Marie Cantona (Eric's brother) has said Martin wants to leave Sochaux, while the French press say this week's exploits have raised his fee from €7 million ($10M) to €11 million ($15.7M). Lille, Lyon and his boyhood team Paris Saint-Germain are all reported to be interested.

More significantly, though, Martin could now become a symbol of Blanc's France side. Just six weeks and two games after the racial quota scandal that threatened to end his reign, Blanc has found an antidote to "the same prototype of players, big, strong, powerful" [his words] that French academies are producing. Martin is short, fast and technical; he is also young, humble and motivated. With established players like Gourcuff underperforming (it was Gourcuff's hamstring injury that allowed Martin his chance), now is a good time to be making an impression. His emergence, just like that of Gameiro and Jeremy Menez too, has vindicated Blanc's stance.

There is a caveat, as shown the cautionary tale of the last Sochaux-produced playmaker to represent France. Camel Meriem was a bit older, 25, when he made his France debut, but he too labored under the "new Zidane" billing. By then, he was already struggling to cope with expectations at Marseille, and he moved to Monaco, before spending a season with Aris in Greece and, last year, rock-bottom Ligue 1 side Arles-Avignon. Meriem only played three times for France and his career was on the slide ever since.

On Thursday, Martin made his first start against Poland, and played a more understated role, unsurprisingly, in France's 1-0 win. If he can keep Gourcuff out of the team, it would be a major step in Blanc's efforts to Spain-ify France's style of play. Just as it has been all season for Sochaux, Martin's timing has been just perfect.