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FEATURE | Why it is now or never for Dimitri Payet to join Europe’s elite

France’s journey to EURO 2016 was fraught with disciplinary problems, scandals and injuries that crippled any sense of momentum or major progress under the tutelage of Deschamps.

Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena’s now infamous sex tape scandal ensured the media’s spotlight was focused sharply on events off the field, while chronic defensive injuries meant problems on it made for a difficult build-up to such a marvellous sporting event on home soil.

And allied to these chaotic and tiresome problems for Deschamps and his team was the terrorist attack that forever marred France’s 2-0 victory over Germany at the Stade De France last November, ensuring Les Bleus did not endure the best preparation for such an important tournament.

A team bereft of consistency and true confidence in their own ability, stuttering towards the summer amidst a frenetic and media saturated backdrop. It was not confidence inspiring nor sportingly ideal.

But, emerging from the chaos and trauma of that fateful night in Paris, was a steely sense of pride from a nation on the cusp of hosting one of football’s finest showpieces.

Through all the media scandals and injury crises, a nation was brought closer and a sense of togetherness was ignited where previously only trepidation grew; a nation expecting such incredible things from a young national side dripping in potential, garnished by old heads with one last international tournament clearly in their gaze to guide them.

It was the spark that Les Bleus, a team never short in quality but often lacking in unity, desperately needed. A true bond with the nation was established and this clear wave of affection and momentum eventually carried Les Bleus, along with the goals of Antoine Griezmann, all the way to the Euro 2016 final where they narrowly lost to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

Defeat brought disappointment, but also optimism that Deschamps’s team had finally stumbled upon a foundation, and an attitude that could serve them for the future and allow their precocious young talents to bloom into the players expected of them.

But away from the newest generation of stars, it was ironically old hands that equally impressed for Les Bleus. Experienced heads like Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna epitomized the pride and professionalism that rained down from the stands, guiding their young counterparts through turbulent times.

While their prime has been and gone, they nonetheless provided the essential link between a nation’s pride and the virility of youth and knitted the two together.

This summer was a test of endurance, patience, pride and belief for France and for Les Bleus, and nowhere is this better illustrated by arguably France’s standout performer. As a man and a player, Dimitri Payet is no stranger to adversity, and while events off the field became the showpiece in the build-up to Euro 2016, the French maverick has battled through testing times all too often in his career to let that affect his performances on it.

So it came as no surprise that after all the turbulence and media attention haunting the national side this summer, it was the man who fought the hardest to even be included in Euro 2016 that became the spark that ignited their success.

Payet enjoyed a magnificent tournament for France, scoring 3 goals including a superlative late winner in the opening game against Romania. While he was eventually overshadowed by the scoring exploits of teammate Antoine Griezmann, Payet’s success this summer was a reflection of a magnificent debut season in the Premier League.

The Frenchman had finally come of age, and after a career of inconsistency and question marks over the latent ability that he always possessed, the maverick playmaker arrived at the tournament having finally sustained his game at the highest level, achieving a fraction of the potential he always exuded.

His relationship with Les Bleus has always been an on and off affair, often performing with enough aplomb to represent his country, before inconsistency robbed him of any sort of international momentum to find himself cast in the doldrums once again behind more consistent performers such as Mathieu Valbuena.

However, with his teammate excluded from this summer’s showpiece along with Karim Benzema for their alleged part in the notorious sex tape scandal that rocked the nation, Payet seized his chance and made sure he did not miss out again.

Enjoying a marvellous maiden campaign in England, he performed with all the vigour and magic his youth had promised, and the virtuoso attacker brought fans up and down the country off their seats as he entranced a nation.

He was quickly rewarded by a new five-year deal in February, to fend off the inevitable interest from around Europe, with West Ham fully aware that this summer offered the Frenchman an ideal platform to increase his appeal even further.

And the fact that he was able to fend off competition for a place in Deschamps’s XI from another late bloomer Hatem Ben Arfa, enjoying his own personal renaissance that eventually earned him a coveted move to PSG, serves to highlight Payet’s belated coming of age even further.

But after the events of Euro 2016 came to a close, the inevitable rumours resurfaced, and once again question marks hang around the Frenchman. And with West Ham failing to reach the Europa League group stages for a second successive season after losing 2-1 on aggregate to Romanian champions Astra Giurgiu in the qualifying round, it seems the Hammers face an even more difficult task to keep hold of their talisman for the coming season.

While their new Olympic Stadium offers real prestige to the London club, and Manager Slaven Bilić has boosted his side already with the signings of André Ayew from rivals Swansea, as well as Gökhan Töre from Beşiktaş and highly rated winger Sofiane Feghouli from Valencia, the club has also been hit by a small injury crises for the new season.

New signing Ayew was injured 35 minutes into his debut and is sidelined for 4 months with a thigh injury, while perennial absentee Andy Carroll is also injured again somewhat unsurprisingly, he will miss 6 weeks after finally forcing his way back into the West Ham starting XI last season. Manuel Lanzini, West Ham’s other creative hub is also out and Payet himself is yet to regain fitness and is injured going into the new season after his antics in France.

While the Hammers enjoyed a sense of genuine optimism heading into the new season, their failure to land European football again will serve as a stark reminder of the hardships of attempting to reinvigorate and grow their brand; teething problems and setbacks are common and the problem it brings is that while the club can afford to be relatively patient, players cannot.

So the question one must ask is, will Dimitri Payet bide his time and honour his improved contract, or will he decide now is the perfect time to seek pastures new, while his value has never been higher?

West Ham fans will feel mightily aggrieved if their midfield maverick is tempted away from the new Olympic Stadium, and their catalyst from last season is prized away. But with the Hammers stuttering already this season at exactly the wrong time, the Frenchman may feel his one season in London was all he needed to convince one of Europe’s finest clubs to come calling.

And should such a move come to pass, one could be forgiven for siding with West Ham fans who will feel aggrieved that such a likeable character and player would use such a fine club as a mere stepping stone. But in the harsh reality of top level football Payet must be seen as a realist when examined in the cold light of day, the same as any player.

This is a man who has spent his entire career attempting to convince those with doubt of his supreme ability, and although he will look back upon his time with West Ham as the spark he required to finally reach that cornerstone and come of age as a player and a man, few would realistically begrudge him of the chance to represent one of Europe’s biggest cubs, should the opportunity arise.

The remaining few days of the transfer window promise to be delicate for both Payet and West Ham and will serve as some of the most important in his career so far. With his value as high as it has ever been or likely to be after his international exploits for Les Bleus, and with the Hammers not able to offer European Football, it could be now or never for the Frenchman if he is to ever grace the starting XI of one of Europe’s top sides.

In the prime of his life, the best form of his life and finally first choice for his country, Payet is enjoying unprecedented momentum and will not want to waste it in a West Ham side unable to repeat the feats of last season, lost in the depths of mid-table obscurity.

And while he remains the most attractive he has ever been to potential suitors, few would disagree that the time has never been more perfect for the maverick to take the next step in his career.

So where does that Leave Payet, and West Ham in particular? Having just committed to a new long term deal, West Ham will feel their investment is protected, and they would be in no rush to sell a player so vital to their prospects this season so late in the transfer window, in what proves to be one of the most important campaigns in their history as they settle into the unfamiliar surroundings of their new stadium.

They need it to be a good season, in both a commercial and sporting sense and Payet is undoubtedly crucial to that – as a focal point to the team on and off the field.

Any suitors will have to pay an extortionate fee to prize him away, and when one considers the newly found riches of the Premier League with the new TV rights deal, there are realistically only a few clubs who could financially commit to such a deal. So would Europe’s finest clubs be tempted to move for a player fast approaching his 30’s and with little resale value?

In this respect however, Payet offers little risk and promises a high return in the sporting sense of any potential deal.

The Frenchman has experienced a new culture, new language, and a new playing experience from his time in England, and was a huge success too, therefore there should be little chance of him failing to adapt once again to a new league considering his age and experience, compared to signing a younger more raw talent. He is also enjoying the best run of form of his career, and is unlikely to drop to such an extent that he becomes financially redundant.

He also has Champions League, and more importantly international experience to his name, and any suitors would be confident of receiving a player ready-made and capable of adding to any existing squad.

And should he move to one of England’s cash rich title contenders in a league he is now familiar with, the risk subsides even further to the point where one could ask why a move has not already been forthcoming. In the light of West Ham’s European failings, it is something surely about to change.

The risks would seem slim, but the costs would be high; and with compatriot Paul Pogba already making a world record switch this summer, it paves the way for another Frenchman to grace the media before the transfer window shuts. Whatever happens in the remaining days, Payet will certain to be in the headlines regardless.

After a breakthrough campaign for West Ham, and a coming of age for Les Bleus, the time has never been better for Dimitri Payet to take the next step in his career. But while it remains to be seen if such a move comes to fruition, it is surely a matter of time.

J.G.B.

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