Valbuena dreaming of Ribery-like breakthrough
Four years ago, that description matched Franck Ribery prior to the World Cup in Germany. This time, Mathieu Valbuena is the player being thrust into the limelight at next month's finals in South Africa.
Then plying his trade at Marseille, Ribery had only three substitute appearances in warm-up games on his CV when he was announced in France's 2006 World Cup squad.
Once he set foot on the pitches of Germany, the skillful Ribery established himself as an automatic starter and helped France go all the way to the final with a string of inspired performances.
Now 27 and at Bayern Munich, he has matured into one of France's most popular players and is regarded as one of few reasons why the former world and European champions might shine in South Africa.
"He's an inspiration for me," Valbuena, one of two uncapped outfield players in coach Raymond Domenech's provisional 24-man squad, said of Ribery.
"Franckie was at Marseillle in 2006 and was called up for the World Cup. His run is one you can only want to follow, even if I don't like comparisons too much," the 25-year-old winger told reporters at France's training camp in the Alpine resort of Tignes.
Like Ribery in 2006, Valbuena is delighted to be with the France team and determined to show Domenech he made the right choice.
Few had predicted he would be World Cup-bound at the halfway stage of the Ligue 1 season after he had started just four Ligue 1 matches under the guidance of new Marseille coach Didier Deschamps.
It was all very painful for Valbuena, who had become a regular starter under the previous Marseille coach, Eric Gerets, making his breakthrough with a sensational goal that secured a 1-0 Champions League win over Liverpool at Anfield in 2007.
So frustrated was the player, who was born near Bordeaux and played for their youth team, that he asked to leave Marseille during the winter break and started talks with Monaco.
They failed, however, and Valbuena stayed, turning things around in spectacular fashion to play a prominent role in Marseille's run to their first Ligue 1 title in 18 years.
"Football is so fragile and my situation was so complicated that I even considered leaving Marseille but then there was that exceptional season and now this France call-up, which is the icing on the cake," he said.
Just being with France is not good enough for Valbuena, who said he had been warmly welcomed by the more experienced players in the squad.
"I'm very humble but very determined," he said. "I'm here to show what I can do, to work and improve. I'm ambitious."
France have been drawn with hosts South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico in Group A, opening their campaign against the South American side on June 11 in Cape Town.