Cap in hand: Six players set to make their international bows
Sometimes, opportunity knocks when misfortune strikes. Diego Costa limping off with yet more hamstring pangs in the closing stages of Chelsea’s weekend win at Hull City slammed the door on his availability for Spain’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Ukraine this week. But in turn it opened a window for Juan Miguel Jiménez López, otherwise known as Juanmi.
The 21-year-old is having a memorable season for Malaga, scoring seven goals in 24 La Liga appearances including a February winner at the Camp Nou as the Andalusians stunned Barcelona 1-0. Juanmi has been on the scene since 16, when he became both Malaga’s youngest player and goalscorer in a Copa del Rey defeat to Getafe in 2010. He’s developed gradually since, but this season the kid known as El `Raúl´ malagueño – Malaga’s Raul – has hit new heights. Vicente del Bosque has taken notice.
“It’s every footballer’s dream,” beamed Independiente captain Federico Mancuello upon learning of his first call-up to Argentina’s senior squad. Mancuello will be largely unknown to European audiences, having remained strictly confined to domestic Argentinian football throughout his career.
The day before the 2014 World Cup kicked off in Brazil last June, a tournament Argentina ended as runners-up, the 25-year-old volante known as Mancu was lining up against Huracan in the Primera B Nacional.
Regardless, his form in midfield over the last year or so has been consistently reliable with flashes of inspiration a regular occurrence, usually from a left foot so cute it’s a wonder Buzzfeed haven’t yet written a listicle on the 28 best examples of it wearing a fluffy hat.
Mancuello will likely spend most of the trip as backup, but that’s of no concern to him. “You have to enjoy it,” he said. “I’m going to be in the presence of the greatest and I want to learn from them.”
It’s amazing what a move to the Premier League will do for your career. The visibility brought about by signing for clicksters’ choice Arsenal has worked wonders for former Villarreal centre-back Gabriel Paulista, helping propel a player South American football expert Tim Vickery claimed almost no-one in Brazil had even heard of on a recent BBC World Football Phone-In all the way into Brazil’s national squad.
But to suggest Paulista is riding off the back of his newfound Arsenal fame would be both reductive and unfair. The 24-year-old performed with distinction at El Madrigal and has settled in well at the Emirates; his reading of the game and positioning already making him a credible alternative to Per Mertesacker, whose first-team spot is now under threat. The chance to play at his home stadium against Chile no doubt sweetened his international prospects on this occasion, but either way his time has come.
The player whose international allegiance hokey-cokey nearly caused a diplomatic incident finally opted for France over Algeria earlier this month, causing grave disappointment in some quarters and a sense of delight – and, no doubt, one-upmanship – in others.
It seemed Fekir had decided to play for Algeria when called up by Christian Gourcuff for a game against Qatar, after Le Parisien and others reported the 21-year-old Lyon youngster had accepted Les Fennecs’ offer. But a day later, France came calling. Confusion reigned before, finally, Fekir opted for Les Bleus.
“Everyone has the right to accept or reject the national team,” raged a furious editorial on the prominent Algerian football website DZfoot, “but no-one has the right to behave how the young Lyonnais has. Never has a player so openly disrespected two nations.”
If the editorial’s tone was one of anger, it was as much a testament to Fekir’s talent as anything else. The Lyon wonderkid is an exemplary prospect, an enterprising forward blessed with technique and grace, and his 11 goals and seven assists have been hugely important in Lyon’s title challenge.
There’s a political and historical context to Fekir’s French-no-Algerian-no-French flip-flopping that lent his indecision greater controversy. The two nations were at war for seven years in the 1950s, lest we forget, while a discussion aimed at curbing the number of dual-nationality players in French academies was the source of a major storm in 2011, with then-France boss Laurent Blanc accused of supporting race-based quotas. Losing one of the most talented young players in France to another nation was unthinkable.
Fekir has spoken of the ‘pride’ he feels at the prospect of pulling on the blue shirt, and his excitement to play with another supremely-gifted Lyon academy graduate of Algerian heritage: Karim Benzema.
When Patrice Evra made his France debut Kurt Zouma was only nine years old, but the two could form half of Les Bleus’ backline when they face Brazil at Stade de France this week. The Chelsea centre-back has been rewarded for a hugely promising first season in English football with a maiden call-up to the senior squad, having previously been an integral part of France’s 2013 Under-20 World Cup-winning crop of kids.
Zouma’s fearsome, powerful displays at Stamford Bridge have seen him emerge not only as a threat to Gary Cahill’s first team place, but also as a useful defensive midfield prospect. Jose Mourinho chose to play the 20-year-old there in the League Cup final win over Tottenham at Wembley, and the experiment was a resounding success: Chelsea won the cup and Zouma was widely praised.
Mourinho made a promise to Zouma while courting him at Saint-Etienne, pledging to do to young Kurt what he did to Rafael Varane at Real Madrid and turn him into a French international. Fulfilment of this promise took less than a season, and this will surely be Zouma’s first cap of many.
“In 2015, every ball he touches flies in,” Dutch boss Guus Hiddink said of the Wolfsburg striker, after calling him into his squad to face Spain and Turkey. Dost’s 2014/15 season has been a veritable tale of two halves – just three goals in all competitions before the Bundesliga’s winter break, 13 goals since it kicked off again at the end of January. Such numbers are Lionel Messi levels of awesome (Messi actually has 20 goals since the start of the year, but what can you do?). Dost averaged one goal every two games for the Netherlands at Under-21 level, but hasn’t sniffed a senior cap since. At 25, he may finally be about to get his chance.