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Exclusive | Mathieu Peybernes: “Playing in England for many French footballers, like for me, is a dream.”

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Get French Football News, 29-year-old French central defender Mathieu Peybernes, currently contracted to Almeria but on loan at Spanish 2nd division side CD Lugo, discussed his lengthy career to date including experiences at FC Lorient, SC Bastia and Sochaux.

N.B. This interview was conducted on April 24th.

How are things going in Lugo?

Well like for everyone else things have been a little complicated. We’ve been in quarantine for a number of weeks now so we’re trying to stay at home and to go out as little as possible. I have two kids so sometimes it can be a little difficult to keep them occupied but for the most part things are going well.

I have to keep in good shape even if it’s just training at home and not the regular physical training. But we don’t have too much of a choice and it’s for the well-being of everyone.

In Lugo can you go out for a run or exercise outside?

No not yet. The rules of quarantine in Spain are pretty strict, even more so than in France. For example, you can’t go outside even to go for a jog or for anything like that. However, from the 27th of April you will be able to go outside if you have kids that are younger than 12 years old. So yeah, it’s been difficult to not go out and walk or bike with the kids. We can’t do much!

And as a professional footballer in Spain – I’m not sure if you’ve been following the situation in England – but in England for example there has been a lot of pressure on the footballers to reduce their salaries. Is it similar in Spain?

Yeah, we agreed to alter our contracts. The club pays us only 30% of our salary but this enables a fair bit of the other employees of the club and their salaries to be saved and kept in place. So, for us, “The Footballers,” we can at least make an effort to receive a little less money so that those that work for the club that make less, that are in a more difficult position, can benefit from these changes.

We were the ones who asked for this change because we know that for the club it’s difficult too. In Spain, because of all this, there’s also a lot of pressure from La Liga to restart the season.

Of course, your career began in Toulouse where you were born. I wanted to know what the Toulousain football scene there was like in the 2000s? Is it similar now?

Well there’s a big difference in the fact that football is even more covered and broadcasted now than it was back then. Nowadays the clubs are looking for younger players earlier and earlier. When I was coming up there were very few players who signed professional contracts at 18, 19 years old. That was much rarer.

Now we see 15, 16 years old signing big contracts and sponsorship deals. In this sense football has evolved a lot. You also see the inclusion of young players – like Mbappé when he was coming up – and how that has changed recruitment. Scouts and technical directors are looking for these youngsters as early as possible because it’s become like a competitive business. It’s definitely changed a lot. 

And if I’m not wrong you joined Sochaux at 14 years old. At such a young age you move away from your house, your loved ones, comfort, all of that. How does a young player like those we see today experience this sort of change?

Well I think everyone lives it in different ways. For me, from 12, I had already been in a training structure that took place during the week, so I was only at home for the weekends. That was from 12 to 14. Then, like you said, at 14, I moved nearly 1000km from home. Between Toulouse and Sochaux there were a lot of big differences like the climate and the mentality.

To be honest it was pretty difficult to adapt at the beginning. The first six, eight months were not easy. I rarely saw my family because back then we didn’t have all the ways to connect virtually like FaceTime, so I didn’t call them much. So, of course at this age, it’s not easy to be so far from your family. There are some players that have a really hard time, who after one year have to go back home, so yes, it’s definitely a difficult sacrifice. 

Of course, with the climate of the South I can imagine it’s hard to adapt!

Exactly. When I was at Toulouse, for example, if there was just a little bit of snow I wouldn’t go to school. And then in Sochaux there was 20, 30 centimetres of snow and it was very cold too! But you adapt over time.

To be recruited by Sochaux at such a young age is quite impressive. How did you react to being recruited by one of the best academies in France?

Well immediately Sochaux was attractive to me partially because of this reputation that the club has with its academy. There have always been very talented players that come from Sochaux’s academy and even if the club is currently in Ligue 2 it’s still one of the biggest creators and providers of players that go to the most important clubs. There’s definitely a label that goes with Sochaux and its academy.

All this appealed to me because the goal was to grow and learn and it’s a unique, historic club that at the time was playing in the UEFA Cup with players like Pierre-Alain Frau and (Francileudo Silva) Dos Santos. What was also notably important in the decision was the schooling. It’s an academy that’s well-structured for football, but the focus on school was also very important for me.

When I talked with the director of the academy and all the others involved in the centre it was all positive. They were warm, decent people and that was important too. 

I imagine, too, that being recruited by Sochaux was a sort of validation for the level of talent you had already at 14.

Absolutely. At the time, being noticed by Sochaux was huge. It was really the club in France that you wanted to be discovered by. It was the “fashionable” club so to speak. It was definitely gratifying, the fact that I was performing well enough to be recruited by Sochaux. 

When you were there did you feel a sort of pressure to continue this tradition of success?

Well at the academy centre there is a big, old castle and in the salon of the castle you can see all the trophies won by the players that came through the academy and that have played for the various levels of the French national team and have played for the biggest clubs.

Right away, then, there’s a bit of pressure put in place, but you know that these are really the best of the best from the academy. There’s a lot of players that are well-known that have come through Sochaux. And you feel that there’s a certain demanding nature that I perhaps didn’t sense at other clubs that I had visited at the time. 

And with all these players that have come through Sochaux, as you mentioned, you’ve got names like (Ivan) Perišić, (Marvin) Martin, (Ryad) Boudebouz, and (Yacine) Brahimi.

Was there, at that time, a teammate that really made a mark on you or impressed you?

I had the chance to play with Ryad (Boudebouz) a lot as we were from the same generation and age group so he, technically, was something else. He was always outclassing and improving, he was always the phenomenon of our generation. He was memorable. Another impressive player was Ivan Perišić.

He arrived directly from Croatia, a bit late, but we immediately saw that he was a player who could be put anywhere – central defender, midfielder, attacker, really any position – he was always comfortable. He was always impressive, and now he’s played in the biggest clubs. He’s a player that everyone knows and for me he’s got all the qualities of a modern footballer. 

Well you’ve of course played in the centre of defence for most of your career. However, your first appearance in Ligue 1 was as a right midfielder. Do you attribute some of your success to this sort of tactical flexibility?

(Laughs) Yeah, it’s true that I played as a right midfielder for my first match at Rennes with Francis Gillot. But I’ve had most of my success as a central defender. I think this role fits in more with my qualities but the last few years I’ve also played as a defensive midfielder or even as a full-back.

I’ve never had an issue with these sorts of changes I think thanks to the training and forming I had at Sochaux. Nowadays I have the “luxury” and the luck to play in a number of systems, so I don’t have any issue with playing in a back three, to play left or right-back, and that’s thanks to the training and schooling of Sochaux.

And were you shocked when Gillot (the manager) told you that you’d be playing right midfielder that day?

(Laughs) A little, yeah. I was a little surprised. It was my first appearance in Ligue 1 after a few times on the bench without entering the match. This time, the coach wanted to hold the scoreline, so he wanted to substitute in a right midfielder more so to defend.

But yes, I was a little surprised when he told me I would be a right midfielder. (Laughs) I did what was asked of me. I must have played five, ten minutes but I felt like I had played an hour and a half! It was my first good memory in Ligue 1. 

Well speaking of tactical flexibility, in modern football it’s something that’s popular. In your opinion, are there any risks in going too far? Maybe to not specialise in any specific role?

I think so. It’s actually a problem I had once in my career. I knew that I wanted to be a central defender, but I was often used as a right-back because I was quick and solid defensively. I think you can get to a point where you need to focus and fix yourself on a position so that you can always play a similar role to gain experience and to master this position faster.

I would say that you never completely master a role, but the more you play in a position, the more you have automatic reflexes and become comfortable doing certain things. Nowadays it’s good to have a certain level of versatility and adaptability but there comes a time where you need to settle into a specific position.

So, did you always want to play in the centre of defence?

Well like everyone, not really, no. I wanted to be more of an attacker but from 13 I realised that I like playing in defence, I like the duels, I like physicality, I like winning the ball back. I really get a lot of pleasure from defending. Like an attacker enjoys scoring goals, I enjoy winning a duel.  

And back in the 2000’s when you were growing as a central defender there were quite a few choices if you wanted to watch the art of defence. Did you follow a specific player back then?

Like a lot of French people there isn’t a specific defender that sticks with me, but for example there’s Carles Puyol whose mentality I admired. He was a player who was maybe a little less technically gifted than his teammates but his grinta, his energy, his leadership, and his charisma were impressive.

There was also Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly. For me it was a pleasure to watch them play because I think that the role of central defender requires a partner that you communicate with very well. If you have two defenders with enormous quality but who don’t get along well together, it just doesn’t work. You have to find a balance. So, I’ve always been a fan of the Laurent Blanc-Marcel Desailly pairing.

When you were with Sochaux you were a leader too, be it when still in the academy or with the first-team when you were older. What was it like for you to wear the captain’s armband of the club? 

Well it wasn’t like a completion of something, but it was still very significant. I wore the armband at the Vélodrome against Olympique de Marseille, so it was also a big match. It was a big source of pride, not just for me but also for my family that I was grateful for. It came from the sacrifices that we were able to make. We often talk about the players, but the family of the players make enormous sacrifices too!

They lose a big part of our youth and the family moments that they would have had. So, it was a big pride for me and my family and a big gratification for all the work and my application and dedication. I’m someone that – off the pitch – I put in a lot of work. It’s important if you want to play football at the highest level. Wearing the armband was an important moment in my career that I’m proud of. 

It’s clear that you had some good years in Sochaux. But in 2014, after the relegation of the club in 2014, you came to an agreement to terminate your contract. Then you rediscover a good climate! This time in Bastia.. How did it feel?

You’re right. I spent a long time at Sochaux – about nine years. It was the first time that I was going to a different club, on an island, with different conditions. It was my first time outside of Sochaux! It was all new for me, like I was starting all over again. But honestly, things went really well. I received a really warm welcome.

Bastia is not just a historic, but also a distinctive club in France. I mean, it’s a club on an island with very passionate supporters. The two years I spent there went by very fast. I only have good memories from my time with the club. 

And with the club’s league finishes (10th and 12th) as well as playing in the final of the Coupe de la Ligue, do you think these two years were the best sporting period of your career thus far?

I think so, yes. I had two successive seasons where I played more than 35 matches. And for the final, we were able to bring all the supporters from this small island to the Stade de France. For a city like Bastia that was pretty exceptional. Also, the style of play of the team matched well with my qualities as a footballer. We had a good group that knew what to do with the ball. 

And then in the January transfer window of 2017 you were sold to Lorient. At the time Bastia was near the bottom of the table. In the dressing room, between the players, could you feel the oncoming crisis a bit? 

I think there was a little bit of “pressure” to leave. The club had accepted an offer from Lorient, and I was a little surprised. I thought that they counted on me and that I was an important player who they didn’t want to let go. Unfortunately, it came to pass because the club, at the time, and its directors were in financial difficulty and we’ve seen since then, sadly, how that ended up. At the club you could feel that things were starting to get a little complicated financially and would worsen even further if we were to be relegated.

Have you continued to follow the club and its efforts to recover?

Yes of course! I’m still in contact with the directors of the club and with some of the players. I still feel very attached to Bastia because of the two and a half years I spent there. Like I said I only have good memories from my time there even if things ended a little poorly. I have a lot of love and respect for the club, the people, and the directors, most notably for what they’re trying to do to get the club back to the highest level.

Did you enjoy playing in front of this sort of passionate fanbase?

When you’re a Bastia player you know it’s not the biggest stadium in the world nor the stadium with the biggest attendance. However, it’s a stadium where there’s heart, an ambiance, something that you don’t see at all the other clubs. The people there are truly passionate. You can tell that they can hardly wait every 15 days for the next Sporting match. When you live there and when you’re walking in town you see how unique it is. The people of Bastia are really behind the players and that makes for a special atmosphere every home match.

And then at Lorient you joined a club that was already having a hard time competitively as shown by its position in Ligue 1.

What sort of mentality or what sort of feeling does a player have when you get to a club that’s at risk to find itself in a relegation battle come April and May?

When I arrived, Lorient were 20th but it’s a club that’s really well-structured. Compared to Bastia, for example, Lorient has a training centre that’s really nice. The President, Loïc Féry, has done a good job. The facilities are great, the club has a nice stadium, and it’s a club that’s got heart.

However, when talking about mentality at the time, I think Lorient might have had a little less character. It’s definitely difficult to arrive at a club that’s last in the league. But it was a team with some enormous quality even if they went down. I think that maybe with a bit more confidence and more character we might have been able to stay up in Ligue 1.

And in France, between Corsica and Brittany, you’ve lived in some regions that are very proud, very unique. Do you enjoy living in this sort of culture?

Yeah, I really do. When it comes to the quality of life things weren’t really comparable. There’s of course a lot of tourists on vacation at Bastia but the way of living is nice. You kind of feel like you’re always on vacation (laughs) with all the sun and the kindness of all the people there.

Another thing that’s really important for a player is the happiness of his family. If his family isn’t living well then it can affect the player, a little like what happened in Turkey. Everything needs to be together so that a footballer can succeed. But it’s true, I’ve lived in some beautiful regions in France. 

Right. And you mentioned Turkey, where you were loaned the summer after (Göztepe). What did you think of the culture surrounding football over there?

In Turkey they’re truly fanatics. You can tell that they live for football. You can’t walk in town because so many people stop you! They’re respectful of course but they really love football. Some of them maybe do not have a lot of money to go eat because they prefer to buy a seat for all the matches. They live, sleep, eat the game. They’re very loyal to their club and their team.

I saw even on the messages you sent out on Twitter the number of supporters that were responding. It was incredible! And you were there for just about four months with your family?

Yes, I’m very family oriented so I always want to have my family and my kids with me. It wasn’t always easy for them to be there because of the cultural differences like the language and the importance of religion. My son had some difficulty at school because there were no French schools where we were living. It was fairly difficult and also the club had some difficulty in paying its players. In the end I preferred to cut the loan short.

So then in January you go to Eupen in Belgium where you meet up with Claude Makélélé who was also your manager in Bastia. How did all this moving around affect you?

It was difficult. For my partner and my kids, it wasn’t easy. It definitely was a lot of moving and I had never changed clubs this much. I had gone from spending nine years at Sochaux to changing clubs twice in six months. It was a little bizarre for me professionally, too.

And what was it like to play under Claude Makélélé at Eupen?

Well I had the chance to play against him when he was winding down his career in Paris. Then just a few years later he was my manager at Bastia! He called me when he heard things weren’t going all that well in Turkey and I responded immediately because it’s Makélélé, a legend. It was always a pleasure to be coached by him because of the experience he had accumulated during his career and all the trophies he had won. It was an honour for me to be coached by Claude Makélélé.

And then more recently you moved to Spain first with a loan to Gijón. How’s it going in Galicia now with Lugo (who currently sit 20th)?

Things are going well. On a personal level the season has been interesting. I’ve had the honour to be designated player of the month three times by the supporters which has been rewarding. On a more collective level it’s been a bit more mixed. There are times where we go on a good run of form and times when we go on poorer runs. I would like the results to be better especially with our good team. But it’s true that at least personally the season has been decent so far and things are going fairly well.

And at this point you’ve adapted well to the style of play in Spain?

It’s definitely a different style from what I experienced in France and in Turkey. We focus more on the ball, things are a bit more tactical, and maybe a bit faster too.

As you said you enjoy the style of play in Spain – spending more time on the ball as a defender – do you want to stay there so you can keep playing like this?

It depends. There are a lot of clubs abroad that have this style of play too. When you see Guardiola at Manchester City or Leeds with Bielsa these are clubs that want a style that focuses on possession and playing with the ball. There are many clubs in other leagues that like this sort of football too. It would be nice to continue to play with teams that emphasise this style of play.

You’re loaned by Almería who are currently third in the Spanish 2nd division. Of course, we’ll see how things play out for the rest of the season but if the club is promoted do you think you’ll be playing in Almería next season?

Well things became a little complicated with one of the new owners of the club. I had signed before the new owner came in. He “moved on” all the players who had been brought in under the previous management, so a lot depends on what he wants to do.

I’m in contact with my agent and with the club to try to figure out how things are going and where I’ll be playing in the future. Obviously, I hope that the club is promoted because they’ve earned it given the context of the season. But I’m not too sure what’ll happen in the immediate future given the situation. 

And for what’s to come, do you hope to play in France again someday?

Honestly, for the moment, no. I’m not longing to return to France. Throughout my career I’ve been able to discover different countries, different cultures, and I think it’s beneficial for a footballer to see what it’s like in other parts of the world. Different ways of working, different ways of life. But, if there’s a good opportunity in France I would of course rethink but at least for now I don’t have a goal to return to France.

Got it. So, is the goal instead to stay in Spain or maybe, as you mentioned, go to England? Does playing in England interest you with all the teams that are playing more possession-based football?

Of course. The French have always had a notable connection with England. Playing there for many French footballers, like for me, is a dream. Along with La Liga, the Premier League is one of the best competitions in the world and as a competitive professional you always want to test yourself in the best competitions. If the opportunity to go play in England presents itself then I would be interested.

I imagine with all the changes and loans you and your family have experienced over the last few years that you’d like to settle somewhere more than you have recently.

Exactly. What I’ll be looking for more than before is stability. A club with a project, with some stability, where I can play for at least three or four years would be great. 

With all the changes, too, I bet that your kids can maybe speak some additional languages and have learned some things they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Yes, all these cultural differences have definitely been enriching for the kids. Now my oldest son can speak Spanish perfectly and he understands English really well too. For him, even if sometimes it can be difficult, I think that his future has benefitted from all this. My second son is still very young, but he understands and speaks Spanish, so for them this has allowed them to experience different cultures and this can give them ideas for the future as well!

G.M.

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