Since bursting onto the Premier League scene at West Ham last season, a lot has been made of Dimitri Payet’s time in France with Nantes, Lille, Saint-Etienne and Marseille, but that’s not where it all started for the 29-year-old.
Originally from Réunion, an island to the east of Madagascar and one of France’s overseas regions, Payet’s football career began at Saint-Philippe, his local club, before moving on at 11 to Saint-Pierroise.
Then came the opportunity to go to Le Havre’s youth academy in France at the age of 12, one the player had to convince his parents to accept.
Speaking to L’Equipe in a documentary about his roots, Payet said: “Honestly, at first, I was happy because I was going to a youth academy on the mainland, and all I wanted to do was get there. It’s only after two to three months that I started getting homesick and missed my family, the food and the island.”
Spending four years in Normandy, the West Ham man used to fly back and forth whenever possible, but in the end it simply didn’t work out, and he returned for good.
He continued: “I remember I was very happy to come back. My experience at Le Havre had gone downhill, and I really didn’t want to stay there. They didn’t want me anyways, so it was a mutual thing, but I was just pleased to rediscover my ‘normal’ life again.”
Asked if, at that stage, he wanted to stop football altogether, he said: “No, but I was a bit bitter, it was a failure for me, and it was hard for me to admit that.”
A move to FC Excelsior, one of the bigger teams on the island, followed, where he stayed for a year and a half until FC Nantes, who have a close link with the Réunion team, sent Laurent Guyot, their youth academy director, to oversee a training camp for young players.
Dragged ‘against his wishes’ to Excelsior’s game against SS Jeanne D’Arc on the 17th of July 2004 by the club’s director, Guyot quickly noticed the 17-year-old attacking midfielder on the pitch and asked to meet him.
The West Ham forward recalls that evening, and is still a bit confused as to why he was spotted in the first place.
He said: “The game wasn’t exactly a good one for me. I’m not sure what he saw that caught his eye, but everyone has their job, and there are people who are capable of seeing things where others don’t.”
Then came decision time, and it was a particularly tough one to make, especially after his failed attempts to break through on the mainland a couple of years earlier.
Payet explained: “I didn’t particularly want to go back, and my first answer was plain and simple: ’no, I don’t want to relive what I went through at Le Havre’.
“But after a long chat with my father and my uncle, they convinced me to try again, saying I had nothing to lose. In the end, they were right.”
Had he been left to his own devices, the player would have happily stayed at Excelsior, where he was thriving, and might never have made it to France for a second attempt at becoming a professional footballer.
Now a star for both West Ham and France, the player even has a stand at his local stadium with his name on it, such is the excitement and pride on his home island at having a local boy achieve so much in professional football.
And to think all of this might have never happened had Laurent Guyot decided he really didn’t want to go watch Excelsior on that fateful Saturday evening.
What a waste that would have been.