Fekir puts focus on the future

The day after Nabil Fekir joined his France teammates and an estimated million supporters on the Champs-Élysées to show off the World Cup trophy, he was invited to attend another celebration.

This time, there were only a few hundred people present at the Stade Francisque-Jomard de Vaulx en Velin – where his father, Mohamed, is president – to catch a glimpse of the town’s most famous son as he was made an honorary citizen. “Thank you all,” whispered a nervous-looking Fekir into the microphone as he addressed the crowd. “We did something beautiful.”

As summers go, 2018 will take some beating for the player who turned 25 two days after France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia. Despite seeing his proposed £53m move from Lyon to Liverpool collapse days before their opening World Cup match with concerns reported about his fitness following a knee injury, Fekir played a total of 68 minutes in six substitute appearances for Didier Deschamps’s side, including replacing Olivier Giroud in the final.

“Winning the World Cup has definitely made it easier for him to move on from Liverpool,” says Dahbia Hattabi, a Lyon-based journalist for website Foot Mercato. “Fekir is a person who is not very expressive but I did not feel he was upset or affected by the failed transfer. When he returned to Lyon he said and repeated several times that it was totally digested. Although he was late to return after the World Cup, we have seen him being fully involved and focused solely on OL.”

A brilliant free-kick in the 2-2 draw against Caen at the weekend – his first goal of the season – underlined that Fekir’s mind was back on the job before Lyon’s trip to Manchester City where he scored in Lyon's shock win. Nonetheless, having posed for photos wearing a Liverpool shirt and even conducted a welcome interview with the club’s in-house television channel, the sudden collapse of his move must have left a bitter taste. Some reports claimed it was a result of reconstructive surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered against Portugal in September 2015 that caused Liverpool to get cold feet.

“I asked him exactly what had happened after the match against Strasbourg in August,” says Hattabi. “And he said: ‘I have heard many things, and they [Liverpool] know the real reason.’ Anyway, it’s old history.”

Back where it began in Villeurbanne – a suburb six kilometres north-east of Lyon’s centre known as the birthplace of seven-times tennis grand slam winner Henri Cochet – they are delighted their hero is still around, at least for now. “This is the first place he comes,” Vaulx-en-Velin’s vice-president Farid Berkani told Le Parisien during July’s triumphant homecoming. “He’s a model for all our young people. A big pride for us.”

Fekir’s father, a former amateur player, moved to France from Algeria in 1992 and has spent the past two decades volunteering for the club in National 3 (French football’s fifth tier), which has also produced Kurt Zouma and Rachid Ghezzal among others. His son joined as an eight-year-old before returning at 13 after being released by Lyon for being too small – not the last time he would face rejection. Fekir sports a scar down the left side of his face – the legacy of a childhood accident on a visit to his relatives in Tipaza, an hour west of Algiers – and had the knee condition Osgood–Schlatter disease during adolescence.

Lyon, perhaps realising their mistake and with Saint-Étienne sniffing around, re-signed Fekir in 2011 and handed him his first professional contract two years later. He established himself at the heart of an exciting young side that featured Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso and was called up to a France junior squad for the first time in October 2014, coming on in the disastrous Under-21 European Championship play-off defeat by Sweden.

Five months later, following much debate with his family, Fekir was named in Algeria’s squad for the friendlies against Oman and Qatar, only to withdraw 24 hours later after admitting Deschamps had “changed his mind”.

“We are still in shock,” said his grandfather in a tearful interview on Algerian television. “We did not expect Nabil to choose France at all. We really hoped to see him one day wear the national colours, but what can you do?”

Fekir made his France debut as a substitute in a friendly against Brazil but having scored his first goal in the 4-3 defeat by Belgium in June 2015, he was injured against Portugal and ended up out for nine months.

There were fears he would struggle to recapture his form but last season’s 18 league goals from his favoured No 10 position after coach Bruno Génésio handed him the captain’s armband prompted Atlético Madrid and Bayern Munich to compete with Liverpool for his signature. After late interest in the transfer window from Real Madrid and Chelsea, Lyon are expected to offer a new contract to the player they value at more than €60m. Not that Fekir will concern himself with that.

“Look, I’ve told you mate: I do not give a fuck,” he said in an interview with French magazine Onze at the start of February when discussing how much he is worth. “Honestly, whether it’s $20m or $10m … Pfff. I don’t make a fuss.”

Originally published by the Guardian

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