30th January 2013. The Santiago Bernabeu. El Clasico – the biggest headline-grabbing fixture on the world football calendar. Barca are already leading 0-1. Lionel Messi has just played Francesc Fabregas in behind the Real Madrid defence. Fabregas is 1-on-1 with Diego Lopez. The Catalan shapes to shoot… Does he score to make it 0-2? Long story short, no.
Raphaël Varane slides in to make a brilliant heart-stopping last-ditch tackle to knick the ball away from Fabregas. 25 minutes later, Varane scores an equaliser (a bullet header) for Los Blancos.. This young Frenchman has just announced himself to the football world on 1 of the grandest of stages.
After 2 years at his local team AS Hellemmes, a 9-year-old Raphaël Varane joined the youth academy of nearby professional Football Club RC Lens. Lille were also interested in signing him. During his youth team days at Lens, Varane impressed enough to train at the Centre de Préformation de Football in Lievin – an exclusive facility for the most promising youngsters from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
Returning to full-time football at Lens after 2 years of dividing his time between the Lens academy and the aforementioned regional academy, Varane shot up the former’s youth ranks.
Progression to the first team:
Varane was a key part of Lens’ U16 side that won the Championnat National des 16 ans in 2008/09. Varane was subsequently promoted, 2 years above his age group, to the Lens U19s. After a season at U19 level, Varane, then aged 17, signed his first professional contract.
After just 3 months with the Lens Reserves, Varane was called up to train with the Lens senior team and, due to an injury to 1st teamer Alaeddine Yahia, proceeded to make his full debut in a 2-0 victory against Montpellier on 6th November 2010.
Taking his 1st team opportunity with both hands , Varane hasn’t looked back since. A point to note is the fact that Varane did not lose his 1st team spot despite the sacking of the coach that Varane debuted under – Jean-Guy Wallemme.
Wallemme’s successor, László Bölöni not only kept Varane in his 1st team squad, but proceeded to further his 1st team education. Too often has it happened that an emerging young talent is pushed back down the ranks when a new 1st team head coach is appointed. It speaks volumes that Varane was kept on when Bölöni was tasked with staving off relegation to Ligue 2.
In that 2010/11 campaign, Varane produced composed performances whenever he featured for relegation-threatened Lens. He also showed versatility, playing as a defensive midfielder when required. Add his young age to the equation, it’s of no surprise that Varane quickly caught the eye of European footballing giants, whose scouts are always scouring the globe for the “next big thing”. Among others, Varane was linked with a move to the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.
Despite him signing a contract extension with Lens valid till the summer of 2015, relegation meant that Lens were in a losing fight to keep their young star.
The Grandest of all stages – Santiago Bernabeu:
With the intervention of Zinedine Zidane, Raphael Varane signed for Real Madrid for approximately €10 million, snubbing Manchester United in the process.
“He is a very promising player and was an obvious target for a club such as Real Madrid seeking talent. He is a player I like very much and in many ways resembles Laurent Blanc. I haven’t seen many players like that.”
– Zinedine Zidane on the Madrid’s signing of Raphaël Varane.
Firstly, Varane was immediately placed in Real Madrid’s 1st team, instead of adapting to Spanish football through some time in Madrid’s Castilla side. Jose Mourinho – 1 of the most demanding coaches in World Football – placing his trust in a largely unproven youngster who was signed from a recently relegated team simply speaks volumes of not only Varane’s potential but also his performance level then.
Over the course of his first season (2011/12) at Real Madrid, Varane made 15 starts and 3 substitute appearances, committing just 10 fouls and receiving no bookings. While the appearance stats might not seem impressive, once we consider that he turned 19 towards the end of that season, it does make for pretty impressive reading. Scoring the first of his 2 goals in that season against Rayo Vallecano, Varane became the youngest player (aged 18 years and 152 days), up till the time of writing, to score a goal in a competitive match for Real Madrid.
After a 3-0 home win over Ajax in the UEFA Champions League Group Stage, Sergio Ramos was quoted as saying on the Madrid’s official website,“Varane is very young and he played at a high level. He proved he has a place on the team. He is a great footballer despite his young age and may go very far.”
Even Jose Mourinho has praised the young defender, saying that the fans will fall in love with Varane, also singling the 18 year old out due to his ‘humility and work ethic’ not to mention the potential he has to become a ‘great player.’
This 2012/13 season, Varane has come into his own. Like he had done at Lens, Varane has very much taken his opportunity to prove himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, effectively cementing his place for both the near and distant future. From the start of the season till today, Madrid have faced an inury crisis at fullback and have often not had all their 1st choice pairing, Sergio Ramos & Pepe, available for selection due to injuries and/or suspensions.
Ricardo Carvalho has been more-or-less excluded from Mourinho’s plans, with the latter urging the veteran to leave the club for regular playing time. Raul Albiol, the only other experienced option, has made less appearances than Varane. In fact, Varane has played in every single one of Los Blancos’ matches in the UEFA Champions League Group Stage.
Quite clearly, Varane has been a constant in Madrid’s defence this term.
With athleticism, strength, aerial ability and a good amount of pace, Raphaël Varane has all the physical tools required to make it as 1 of the world’s best central defenders. Equipped with self-confidence, a good passing ability and, most importantly, a precocious game-reading ability, Varane definitely fits the mould of a “modern day central defender”.
Varane has also shown his “big game” credentials, most prominently in the recent Clasico, a 1-1 home draw in the Copa del Rey. Varane put in a man-of-the-match display – calm defending, producing the aforementioned world class tackle on Fabregas and also scoring a crucial equaliser. While we shouldn’t discount the performances of his team-mates in that fixture, one could say that Varane single-handedly saved Madrid and kept their Copa del Rey hopes alive.
“It’s not time for that or for any other comparisons. Varane is very good, he’s magnificent and he’s got it all,”
“He’s a player with good ball control, good positioning and he’s very fast. He’s also strong in the air in both boxes.
“But he must be left to grow, so he can be taken care of, creating the ideal environment for him to develop and show what he’s got.
– Real Madrid legend Fernando Hierro on Raphaël Varane
As his current momentum has shown, we are, in all likelihood, currently watching a true star in the making. Varane is a future world leader in his position.
Thus far, with the coolness and composure with which Raphaël Varane has handled and adapted to anything and everything both on and of the pitch, one could, in a way, say that he is a “Zidane of Defence”.
Written by Mark Ooi
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkOoiZW
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