“I am still not really believing that I am in a World Cup Final, the biggest thing that can happen to a player. Now we have to win it, whatever it takes”. Lucas Hernandez’s words after playing a starring role in securing France’s place at the World Cup Final highlighted his broad and contrasting range of emotions: The sheer disbelief, that barely a year ago, he was not a first-choice defender for club or country – after the 11 games since his senior international debut in March – Hernandez is now a game away from lifting France’s second-ever World Cup trophy. The latter part of his statement alludes to the 22-year-olds’ unrelenting winning-at-all-costs mentality, ingrained in him by his club manager, Diego Simeone, who has witnessed the physical and emotional progression of a player who has endured a frenzied career to date.
As such a momentous occasion dawns for the Marseille-born defender, most who have followed the career path of the Atletico Madrid star will not have to trace far back to recall an individual largely unfavoured and criticised on a widespread scale for culpable, off-the-field incidents.
The son of former Marseille and Atletico Madrid defender Jean-Francois Hernandez, Lucas, became a regular in France’s national youth teams early in his career. However, he was to suddenly and controversially claim Spanish national team allegiance for the country he had lived in since he was aged 4: “I can only say I speak better Spanish than French”, he told Spanish television after he had completed necessary paperwork to request Spanish citizenship to play for La Roja, shortly before he was set to be named by the then-Spain manager Julen Lopetegui ahead of scheduled friendlies against Argentina and Germany in March.
Then came the surprising news of a last-minute switch to instead join up with Didier Deschamps’ Les Bleus squad, with the player swiftly following this announcement by making his senior international debut as a late substitute in France’s 3-2 friendly defeat by Columbia.
Hernandez has since impressed playing on the left side of defence in all of France’s 10 games following his debut in March, establishing himself as the country’s primary left-back ahead of the likes of Barcelona’s Lucas Digne or Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy. “To begin with, I thought I’d be on the bench. But in the end, I’ve been lucky to play, and I still can’t get over it. The hard work is playing off. I’m not someone who talks a lot, but I do work my socks off”. Indeed, the entire French backline has appeared reinvigorated – also featuring the addition of Benjamin Pavard – impressing in this tournament for the obdurate and organised efficiency that has enabled Deschamps’ side to achieve four clean sheets hitherto in the tournament.
Hernandez’s indefatigable combination of pace and combativity have been a shining light in France’s run to Sunday’s Final. That he has been able to contribute so reliably- but with such zest – both defensively and offensively, has revealed him as one of the starring left-backs of Russia 2018.
The 22-year-old’s development had endured a major hurdle last year, following his arrest in February 2017 to answer domestic abuse charges in an incident that resulted in significant negative media exposure, his girlfriend hospitalised and the couple travelling to Las Vegas to get married the following summer – despite a restraining order supposedly keeping them separated.
Hernandez’s rise to international stardom has been largely influenced by his consistent domestic form in La Liga, playing the enterprising and unrelenting left-back role at the Wanda Metropolitano that so embodies his schooling under Diego Simeone. His relationship with his Argentine manager is an enduring one that has instilled in the young Frenchman that clear, tireless work-rate and has recently influenced the versatile defender to sign a new long-term contract at the club until 2024.
Hernandez initially joined Atleti’s youth setup in 2007, aged 11, and later, while still a youth player in 2013, was first called up by Simeone for a La Liga match against Villarreal. Despite being an unused substitute in this fixture, Hernandez continued his development for the reserves in the Segunda División B; and in December 2014, made his first-team debut as an 18-year-old, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-0 away success over CE L’Hospitalet in the Copa Del Rey.
Hernandez was to become an important squad member of Simeone’s dogged and unyielding Atletico side in the following campaigns, but it was last season that he was to win the primary left-back spot in the team – following an injury to Filipe Luis – making 26 appearances last year for his club.
The sudden breakthrough of Hernandez could finally have ended France’s interminable search for a reliable performer for the left flank. Tomorrow evening could well be career-defining, but Hernandez will be aware that is the long-term application and dedication that has opened the door to his burgeoning rise in the last year, and that an absence of off-the-field dramas will be critical to preserving his place as France’s left-back for future tournaments.