From blue to red? How France-born Laporte could become the new Diego Costa
In 2014, Luiz Felipe Scolari was outwitted by Vicente del Bosque when the Brazil manager’s failure to recognise Diego Costa’s quality meant the striker was snapped from underneath his nose. As a result, the player took to the pitch in Brazil’s World Cup as a naturalised Spaniard, wearing a red rather than yellow shirt. Costa didn’t have his best tournament but the move would have a lasting impact, preventing him from ever playing for the Seleção again to continue Brazil's struggle for genuine quality at centre-forward.
On the one hand Felipao showed a cold and distant attitude at best, while on the other Del Bosque instantly understood the forward’s need to feel wanted
As Fran Guillen explains in The Art of War, his biography of Costa, the difference in attitude between Scolari and Del Bosque was key to the player’s decision. On the one hand 'Felipao' showed a cold and distant attitude at best, while on the other Del Bosque instantly understood the forward’s need to feel wanted, keeping close tabs on him and taking him out for lunch to find out first-hand how he felt about his international future.
Costa initially wanted to play with Brazil but, faced with the choice between becoming a key member of a group with a country that had treated him well and actively pursued him, or being made to wait on a uninterested manager who could ultimately ignore him come the World Cup anyway, the decision was easy.
The Costa story is relevant right now because signs of a repeat have emerged this week. In his own subtle way, Del Bosque has made it clear that there is now another man who he wouldn’t mind nabbing for Spain, and there are plenty of parallels to the previous occurrence: a footballer born in a foreign land who moved to the Iberian Peninsula in his youth before debuting and developing as a professional there rather than back in his birth nation.
In one corner is a national team that seems intent on ignoring him and sending out the wrong signals and, in the other, a Spain boss who has been smart enough to start appealing to his desire to be recognised, foreseeing the problems the player could solve somewhere down the road.
No call for the captain
He is the kind of player who any right-minded nation would be delighted to call upon
Born in Agen in France, Aymeric Laporte’s passport says he is a Frenchman, but since he was 15 he has lived on the southern side of the Pyrenees. A technically gifted, intelligent young central defender and a nailed-on starter for a club competing at European level, he is the kind of player who, with both proven quality in the present and potential to get even better in the future, any right-minded nation would be delighted to call upon.
Spain certainly would be. The heart of the defence is proving to be a problem position for la Roja this year, encapsulated by the surprise debut of 27-year-old journeyman Xabier Etxeita against Ukraine earlier this week. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique are still first choice but, with the former suffering fitness problems and the latter’s form prone to major dips, extra cover would be useful going into Euro 2016, particularly as the two strongest Spanish youngsters in the position, Nacho Fernandez and Marc Bartra, rarely play for their clubs.
Laporte captained France at U19 level, made his U21 debut in 2013, and is now their skipper, yet despite playing regularly in the Spanish top flight since 2012, he has never been called up to the senior France team. From time to time rumours have circulated claiming that Didier Deschamps was about to include him in his next senior squad but that has never come to pass. It's surprising, given les Bleus are only playing friendly fixtures at the moment – presumably an ideal scenario in which to blood youngsters. Yet Deschamps deems Mamadou Sakho more worthy of a call-up.
Laporte has been patient but, like anyone, his patience isn’t endless. The first twist in the tale came on October 7, when Basque radio station Radio Euskadi asked him what he thinks about playing for Spain. The defender’s response suggested more than a hint of doubt.
My choice is France and if the coach invests his confidence in me I wouldn’t think twice. I also have to say that the option hasn’t been offered to me, and the European Championship is very important for a player
“My choice is France and if the coach invests his confidence in me I wouldn’t think twice,” he said. “I also have to say that the option hasn’t been offered to me, and the European Championship is very important for a player. It isn’t the kind of event that happens every day; I’d have to think about it and see what happens.”
Laporte wants to play for France but, above all, he wants to play. His words suggest that if playing for another nation means he would experience a European Championship in the nation of his birth, he may well consider his options.
Del Bosque, the wily old fox, wasted little time in responding to that glimmer of hope. Speaking with Cadena Cope the day after Laporte’s interview, the coach explained that “we made some small contact quite a while back and the kid opted for France, but we’re going to wait, be calm, and what I can say is he’s an excellent player. I think he’s a very good player. If he wants to play for Spain, we’d be delighted.”
Quickly noting the player’s hesitance, Del Bosque gave Laporte exactly the kind of signals he would have liked to have received from his homeland. Compare that to the French response and the contrast is stark.
Speaking on Monday, France U21 boss Pierre Mankowski admitted that he often speaks with Laporte about the issue, noting: “France have many players in Laporte’s position, and if you have five or six central defenders, well, adding a seventh…” It was hardly a vote of confidence, and the suggestion that so many defenders are ahead of him in the pecking order will only have given the youngster further food for thought.
Switch on the cards?
Del Bosque’s welcoming attitude and praise, conversely, would have been exactly what Laporte wanted to hear. After playing for the French U21s earlier this week, the Athletic Club man admitted as much: “It’s great for me. He’s an icon in Spain. I’ve been with the U21s for several years without any contact from that kind of high level. It’s great news to hear that.”
It isn’t difficult to see where the story will end unless France change their attitude. The French press are at least clear on that, with Onze Mondial noting that unless Deschamps calls Laporte up for les Bleus’ next batch of friendlies in November there will be a big chance of seeing him in a red shirt next summer instead.
Footballers once felt the need to project the image of being hard men who showed no emotions, but that has changed and, with players now constantly told how great they are, it inevitably enters their psyche and encourages them to demand further recognition. Scolari failed to see that with Costa, and Deschamps may be falling into the same trap. Del Bosque is much more perceptive and adaptable, capable of moving with the times and understanding the modern footballer. That, in part, is why he has been so successful for so long, and why it would be no surprise if Laporte ultimately opts to side with him and Spain.