Interviews

Benjamin Mendy exclusive: "When I first met Guardiola, he walked over to shake my hand but just gave me a little kiss"

Benjamin Mendy

Benjamin Mendy talks to FourFourTwo ahead of Manchester City's clash with Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday, and reveals what makes Pep Guardiola so special

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This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine

"AAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGH!”

If the unsuspecting receptionist at the City Football Academy wasn’t quite awake, there was no question after Benjamin Mendy walked in. It’s barely been 60 seconds since Manchester City’s perma-happy left-back welcomed FourFourTwo and kicked off the photo shoot for today’s interview - which first appeared in the March 2020 mag issue, which you can order here - but luckily for us there’s no warm-up required: Mendy is soon screaming down our snapper’s camera lens and chuckling away at the results on a laptop in front of him. As he continues to switch up poses and effectively direct his own shoot, we know everything’s going to turn out fine.

Most footballers aren’t this simple to deal with – but then Benjamin Mendy isn’t most footballers. He’s earned a reputation as the Premier League’s funniest player with good reason, but there’s more to this 25-year-old than meets the eye.

Mendy has, after all, played under three of football’s most revered managers in Marcelo Bielsa, Leonardo Jardim and Pep Guardiola, spent three seasons in the football cauldron that is Marseille, helped Monaco overcome Paris Saint-Germain to win Ligue 1 and reach the last four of the Champions League, and briefly became the most expensive defender of all time when he joined Manchester City in 2017. Oh, and he’s a World Cup winner.  

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There’s much to discuss, then – and luckily for us, the Frenchman has a few fine stories to tell along the way…

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A seven-year-old boy skips after his football on a pavement, looking up only to weave between the lamp posts that get in his way. His mother tells him to be careful as they get ready to cross the road, but she doesn’t understand that he can’t be stopped – not when there’s a ball in front of him. Well, at least until he can. The boy can’t see what’s coming next. He has his head in the clouds, as she’ll later tell him. As his ball scampers away, the car clatters him from the side and knocks him to the ground. Fortunately, it’s not going fast – there’s nothing more than
a bruised ego. It won’t stop Benjamin Mendy. 

“At first my mum asked me if I was OK – then she said, ‘I told you!’” Mendy smiles to FFT now, reflecting on the incident 18 years later. “I was on my way to training. I wanted to play and said I was all right, but there was pain in my leg and back so she said we were going to the hospital. I said, ‘No mum, I don’t want to go…’ I was scared! Thankfully, there was nothing wrong and the next day I played again.”

Like most of the children his age, you couldn’t keep Mendy off the streets for long. He grew up in Palaiseau – a quaint commune to the south of Paris, almost 11 miles from its centre – but was eventually schooled in Le Havre, at the academy that has also ushered the likes of Paul Pogba, Steve Mandanda, Lassana Diarra, Dimitri Payet and namesake Ferland through its doors. Initially he was a striker, but things didn’t go to plan. At the end of his first year, aged 13, Mendy was told to up his game. It was a shock, but life as a frontman wasn’t working out. It was time for change.

“When I played as a striker, I liked to help my team by moving back to take the ball and then go forward with it,” explains Mendy. “If I saw my team in a difficult moment, I would always come deeper to help them out. So my manager, Mohamed Sall, said to me one day, ‘You’re going out to left midfield’. I said, ‘No, it’s boring, I prefer being a striker’, but I tried it and kept doing the same things. He urged me to try being a left-back. Was he serious? I said, ‘No, never!’ But he was right, and after that I didn’t move.”

Mendy was joined in Le Havre by a fellow Parisian three years his senior, though further behind in footballing terms – a stick-thin waif by the name of Riyad Mahrez. 

“The first day he came to training, he was late,” smiles Mendy, recalling Mahrez’s grand entrance. “We see this skinny guy, not strong, and think, ‘What are you doing here? Maybe you own the place?’ On his first day, the boss says, ‘You need to run, two laps around the pitch.’ Because he was late, Riyad ran them too fast while we were just stretching, and all the players were laughing at him. ‘What is this guy doing?!’ Eventually, we asked him who he was and where he was from. Then the next day at training… sick. So, so good.”

Both players made their first-team bows early in 2011/12, but it was the 17-year-old Mendy who kept his place in that Ligue 2 season while Mahrez mostly watched on. Even then, though, Mendy was still that same boy with his head in the clouds. 

“Before my debut [against Amiens], I forgot my boots,” he laughs. “Brice Samba, the backup goalkeeper [now at Nottingham Forest], offered me his. I don’t know what we would have done if our other keeper got injured, but it was OK – I got an assist! After, we joked about it: all my life he had to give me things…”

After two encouraging seasons at Le Havre, interest in his services proved plentiful – not least from Sunderland, then of the Premier League. They wanted him badly in 2013, but heart and head eventually convinced him to join Marseille for around £3.5 million. 

“At Le Havre, there was a big divide: some people liked PSG and others liked Marseille,” he recalls. “When we watched Le Classique together, you’d have two sides of the room. But one day, I went to the Stade Velodrome. I saw the feelings, the vibes, the atmosphere and said to myself, ‘This is where I want to play’. I signed a year later.

“It’s true that I met Sunderland and we had talks, but in my head I really wanted to do something good in France before I travelled abroad. I didn’t want to leave French football like that, through the small door. I wanted to do something big, and when that was done I could go to England. It’s why I preferred to go to Monaco for another challenge instead of English teams after that.” 

Mendy spent three hectic seasons with his dream team, during which l’OM finished 6th, 4th and 13th, burned through five managers and sold off a number of star performers. It was rarely quiet, but it was a learning curve – not least under Bielsa, who spent just over a year in France before quitting one match into the 2015-16 campaign, having steered Marseille to 4th.

“I was young, so before my first two years I was maybe a little bit crazy,” says Mendy. “But I loved the club. It’s true that they are maybe in a bad financial situation now, but they’re doing well in the league, the ground is always full and you want to fight every day for the fans and the way they love their team. I had a lot of coaches there, some who didn’t work so well, but it was all good experience. It doesn’t matter who you are there – if you go out on the pitch and work hard, they will support you. If you’re a big name and don’t fight, it’s no good.”

Mendy performed particularly well under Bielsa, but the legendary Argentine’s tenure didn’t exactly begin conventionally. 

“Yes, he is special,” smiles Mendy. “The videos! The meetings! For me, when you go to France you need to try to speak French, but he spoke in Spanish all the time – that’s how much he was focused only on the game. He always had a guy with him to translate.

“For our first match, we had a friendly and some of the staff had been making jokes. He didn’t like them. So before that game he told them not to bother coming – we got on the coach and it was only the players, Bielsa and the doctor. We all thought, ‘This manager is crazy’. But after that it was OK – he’s a great personality, a fantastic coach, and you had to respect him for what he did.

“Once, I fell asleep in a meeting, and when I woke up I was scared. Later he said to me, ‘If you sleep, it’s good. One day you’re going to open your head and listen. You’re going to be aware of everything.’ I saw, I learned and I asked him questions – it helped me a lot.”

Bielsa’s exit, mere minutes after losing the opening game of the 2015-16 season against Caen, set the tone for a woeful season under Michel. Marseille finished up in 13th, drawing 18 matches after selling Andre-Pierre Gignac, Dimitri Payet, Andre Ayew, Giannelli Imbula, Rod Fanni and Florian Thauvin. After that, it was time for Mendy to go, too – but little did he know what an inspired decision it would be to join Monaco for the 2016-17 campaign. Les Monegasques broke PSG’s stranglehold of dominance to win Ligue 1 by eight points under Jardim, also reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League with their fearless band of emerging superstars. It was, Mendy says, something genuinely special.

“When you’re here at Man City, you look around and can’t complain about anything,” he nods, pointing outside to the sprawling Etihad Campus. “At Monaco, it was different: we had a small dressing room and portable cafe outside. But we didn’t care about any of that – the players just loved being together, joking around at dinner. There were a lot of nationalities, but the way we were living was one squad with a lot of love. It’s not like that everywhere, but at Monaco we were playing well together, so the feeling on the pitch was always really good.”

They were ultimately denied a spot in the Champions League final by wily old Juventus, but eliminating Manchester City in the last 16 – eventually progressing on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate thriller – probably did more for those players than anything else.

“Of course, I think it was part of the reason they signed me,” Mendy tells FFT. “We played them twice and lost the first leg at City 5-3. You know when you have the feeling that you can do something? For the second City goal, Danijel Subasic let the ball through his hands and, honestly, I was fuming with him. But before the second game we said to ourselves, ‘Give everything, no regrets’. We were all going to fight for everything, and with the way we started that game you could tell the feeling was there. We won 3-1, and Suba was great.”

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At the end of the campaign, Manchester City plumped for a tried-and-tested approach – if you can’t beat them, sign ’em. The Sky Blues splurged a combined £95m on Mendy and Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva in July, although the latter’s transfer was more straightforward. It took three more weeks for City to finally land Mendy, because a few Premier League rivals were complicating his move to the Etihad Stadium.

“I could have gone somewhere else, but I said, ‘No, I want to join Manchester City,’” says the left-back. “I kept asking Monaco’s vice-president [Vadim Vasilyev] what was going on, because I was really excited to go to England. I understood there were a lot of things to finalise, but I was left in the middle just waiting for it to happen. Eventually, they came to an agreement and I was so happy.” After chatting with Guardiola via WhatsApp (“I think he had someone nearby being his translator,” winks Mendy), the Frenchman got his first taste of the Catalan tactician on City’s pre-season tour of the United States – or rather, it was the other way around. 

“I was sitting on a chair, he walked over to shake my hand and then just gave me a little kiss on my head,” reveals Mendy. “That was a surprise – I wasn’t ready for it...”

After the smoochy start, their relationship has since grown ever stronger, though there has been tough love along the way. Mendy’s social media antics while injured led to Pep declaring “sometimes we want to kill him”, which the defender responded to in the only way he knows how: with an innocent tweet simply reading ‘Oops’, plus a nervous emoji. 

“He told me to calm down,” admits Mendy. “He said it’s normal to have a life on social media, but not too much. Some people are always waiting for you to make a mistake – and even if it’s not that bad, it can become a really big thing. There was a tweet where I wrote I was in Hong Kong, and then I got a call from the club asking, ‘Where are you?!’ I was in Barcelona recovering! It was a joke but people went crazy. Sometimes I didn’t think when I was tweeting, but then it goes deeper. Now I think a bit more.

“Honestly, though, Pep is just unbelievable. Tactically he’s amazing, but it’s also the way he makes you feel. He’s the manager but he can be your friend, too. Not a friend like you would go out with all the time, obviously, but you can talk openly and he’ll make you feel good. You aren’t scared to approach him like some managers – he makes you so relaxed. That’s good for a player. The way he speaks about football, you feel it; you can see how much he loves it and you want to fight for him. After he’s done, you’re ready. 

“What you do well he isn’t going to tell you necessarily, but the small things you aren’t doing well? He’ll definitely let you know – ‘you are going to train, train, train’. And not just 11 players: everyone in the squad knows what they need to do, including the young guys – it’s one identity. Keep the ball, a lot of passes, but everything with intensity. And that’s so important: if you do everything with intensity, you’re going to get good results.” 

In reality, Mendy is more mature than he is given credit for. In an engaging hour with FFT, the Frenchman speaks in excellent detail about a range of topics – and never better than when discussing the injury hell which has blighted his time in Manchester to date. The 25-year-old has suffered two long-term problems since signing, and was a mere five games into his maiden City season when he hurt an anterior cruciate ligament at home to Crystal Palace in September 2017. It led to seven months on the sidelines. 

“The first time it was, ‘When can I be back for the World Cup?’” explains Mendy. “I was sad obviously, but injuries can happen. I just wanted to be good for the World Cup. I did everything to be back for it, and luckily got in the squad even though people told me it wasn’t possible. I didn’t play much in Russia, but I was also coming back from a big injury. I wouldn’t have been 100 per cent. The first injury was long, lying on the bed every day moving my leg. Sometimes you would think, ‘This is far too long’ but then you realise you have to fight. You’ve got to remember that football isn’t just about the good things and players get injuries – sometimes ones that can end their career. You need to accept that and then work on it.”

But in November 2018 it happened again – and this time, things were more complicated. 

“It was against Manchester United. A ball came over, I made a movement and heard a little tear. I thought it was OK – it was only the ninth minute and I finished the whole game. Then I was on a plane to France with Riyad Mahrez, moving my knee… and could feel lots of swelling. I knew something was wrong, but it was different from my ACL. The next day, our national team doctor scanned it and said I had a problem with my meniscus. I asked him how long; he said about four months. 

“When I heard that, I was more down than the first time – and I didn’t realise how complicated an injury like this was. The ACL was more straightforward. In the end, it was closer to five months. It maybe explains to people why I was playing, stopping, playing, stopping all the time. In the week I was having injections, they were taking out blood and it hurt sometimes. Some days I was fine, and others my knee would be too painful – it was ice, ice, ice all the time. I just didn’t understand it: I was eating good, sleeping good and doing everything right. So in April, I told the coaches that I was going to end my season, go to Barcelona and not take a holiday – to work, work, work and be ready for this season. I was there for three months.

“With a knee injury, your weight is always important. I was about 84kg, but you need to be 82kg. That’s hard when you’re injured because you can’t run, so you’ve got to be really careful: only water, no juice, definitely no chocolate. It’s tough to keep doing that every day, but you have to. I brought a chef and personal trainer from America with me, and everything was perfect. I lost about four per cent of my body fat – I weigh 82kg now and feel so good.”

There was almost an unexpected setback in January, however, after City defeated 2-1 Liverpool en route to retaining the Premier League title. Post-match, a delighted Mendy darted onto the pitch – closely followed by a vigilant steward ready to pounce, unaware of the trespasser’s identity. Naturally, the video quickly went viral.

“He just thought I was a fan, so if he had tackled me he was doing his job and I couldn’t have said anything!” says Mendy. “If he had injured me, though, I think I would have ended up in a fight with him…”

A hat-trick of league titles might be out of reach as Liverpool surge clear, but the Champions League is a very different matter. City haven’t progressed beyond the quarter-finals since 2016 and now face a corking last-16 clash against Real Madrid. With Guardiola having not lifted the famous trophy since 2011 himself, external pressure has been mounting – but Mendy isn’t fazed.

“We play in the Champions League to face sides like Real – the kings of this competition with the most trophies,” he insists. “We are confident. We knew before the draw that we would play against a big team, but we’re not thinking, ‘How are we going to beat these?’ We’re going to go there trusting the manager and playing our football – players love these games. We just want to show our best to go to the next round. 

“Some people say, ‘Manchester City need to win the Champions League – if they don’t, it’s over and they’re terrible’ but football isn’t like that. Look at last year: if you win against Spurs, everything is different. You’re one inch away from winning or going out – Raheem Sterling scores but the goal is ruled out and we’re s**t. For me, we go there with no extra pressure – people can say what they want.”

They will, of course, but Benjamin Mendy won’t care one bit. Inside, he’s still that little boy dribbling a ball around lamp posts back in Palaiseau – only now he’s not frightened of anything knocking him down. 

Portraits: Nick Eagle

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