For a team favored to win the whole thing, France hasn’t quite looked the part in their first two matches of Euro 2016. As of now, their attack has a blunt tip in Olivier “One in Three” Giroud. It’s unclear if defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté is actually good or just good within that bee-swarm system that won Leicester the Premier League. Paul Pogba hasn’t been able to do Paul Pogba stuff because his teammates are clogging up his space in the center of the pitch with lazy, unimaginative runs. Plus, his le coq gaulois fade isn’t as tight as it was a week ago.
Despite winning both of their matches and securing a place in the knockout stages with 90 group-stage minutes to spare, France has been decidedly meh. That is, with one glistening exception: Dimitri Payet, a 29-year-old with just over 20 international appearances to his name.
In their opener against tournament unfavorites Romania, France sputtered for close to 90 minutes and looked all but destined for a disappointing 1–1 draw. Then Payet, like some sort of faux-hawked deus ex machina, opened his body across his marker to steady himself with his first touch, and with his second restored the faith of millions in this France side — and probably in God, too.
Not much more than 10 years prior, Payet had been an amateur, working part time folding fisherman sweaters in a Nantes clothing store. Now, he was reduced to tears. It was beautiful, and it made us feel all of the things.
After the match, France manager Didier Deschamps heaped praise on the West Ham attacker, saying that “every time he touched the ball he showed his quality.”
Payet, who was better than Premier League Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez in the Prem this season (you know it, listen to your heart), possesses all three qualities that separate the average attacking players from the ones with soft drink and shoe deals: He can create a chance out of thin air, he can score from almost anywhere, and he can thread a needle with a through pass.
But he also has this unplaceable fourth thing. He creates chances (14 through two games!) and scores goals, but he does it all so easily — it doesn’t matter what the score is, or if he’s in the Stade Velodrome or on a schoolyard pitch. For instance, with the score still at zeroes in an increasingly desperate match against Albania earlier today, Payet stood with his back to the goal and juggled the ball into a 20-yard, backheel pass that nearly came off.
Two questions immediately leaped to mind: How did you think to try that? And, How did he do that? The answer to both is that time seems to slow down when Payet touches the ball. He can bring the ball down within an inch of space, and it affords him more time than your run-of-the-mill attacking midfielder. He’s quick, but never in a hurry.
France left it late, as has been their way in this tournament, but Antoine Griezmann finally let the tension out of the match with a well-placed header to the far post to break the deadlock in the 90th minute. Five minutes later, Payet gathered up a loose ball just outside of the box, stole himself just enough space by cutting across a trailing defender, and whipped a right-footed shot into the far corner to put the game out of reach.
Only this time there were no tears. No flashbacks, no memories, none of that. This time, Payet said fuck being humble and ran to the corner flag, slapped his chest, roared “C’est moi!” and finished it off by two-footing the corner flag.
He’s good, he knows he is, and now everyone else does, too.