No player embodies the adventurous and stout-hearted nature of Franck Haise’s Lens side more than the mercurial Seko Fofana. In a neutrals’ favourite of a team filled to the brim with cult heroes, the 26-year-old’s consistently brilliant performances put him a cut above, and have seen him outclass every other midfielder in Ligue 1 this year.
The Ivorian international joined from Udinese in the summer of 2020, turning down high-profile offers from England and Italy in favour of the newly-promoted Sang et Or. Having seen his debut delayed until November by injury, Fofana more than made up for lost time and by the turn of the year was a pivotal piece of Lens’ unexpected push for Europe. Their swashbuckling, all-action approach to games was epitomised by the midfielder’s tireless work on and off the ball, breezing past opposition lines to make up the vital cog in their lightning-quick transitions.
Although the team would falter agonisingly short of the finish line, the foundations for a European challenger were clear for all to see. Lens picked up momentum again at the start of the new season, with Fofana once again shining, notably winning September’s player of the month award.
He even has five goals so far this season, one of which coming in a masterpiece of a performance against PSG. Aside from beating Keylor Navas from distance, Fofana laid bare the frailties of the Parisian midfield with his range of passing and ability to comfortably beat his man on the break. Standout games against Marseille at the Vélodrome and in a tumultuous Derby du Nord against reigning champions Lille have further cemented his status as this year’s in-form player.
Under his captaincy, Lens are mounting a more than credible challenge for a place in European competition next season. Franck Haise’s team have continued to grow from strength to strength, and despite the stiff competition, a repeat of last May’s heartbreak will surely be avoided. In any case, one way or another, we’ll inevitably be seeing Fofana on bigger stages in 2022.
As he became the first non-Paris Saint-Germain player to top our yearly rankings, Fofana spoke exclusively to Get French Football News about his outstanding calendar year.
GFFN: First of all Seko, congratulations on being named number one in our ranking of Ligue 1 players over the course of 2021. You are the very first player from outside of PSG to win. How does it feel to be considered among the very best in a league that features the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi?
It’s an absolute pleasure for me. They are incredible players, we could see that when we played against them. Mbappé can make a big difference in just 10 minutes, and it’s not just that. I am very proud, it is also thanks to the rest of the team. Today it is me, but it could have been another member of our team. I am delighted. And it gives me a lot of motivation to work even harder to be at the top of your list again next year.
You seem to be a bit shocked!
Yes, I get to see that my work is being recognised, which is just such a pleasure. It is a pleasure to even be considered.
How would you judge your year from a personal standpoint?
I think I got better throughout the year. Initially I was a little injured, then I was able to adapt to the team, who were already doing a great job, so I am proud, I am happy. I have been able to play matches consistently without injuries. I think I have missed just 13 minutes this season. It is a source of pride to be on the pitch and performing well.
What part has your manager Franck Haise had to play in your progression as a player?
I would say that the period when I was not fit [when he first joined the club] actually gave me a big opportunity to analyse, to try to see how I was going to make an impact, to get my bearings. When I arrived, I was able to bring a bit more power to progress the ball in order to counter-attack teams, and to defend well. With the coach, we do this kind of work daily, to try to figure out how space can be created for me, or how I can create space myself and hurt the opponents. I’m not the only one in the team. We’re all enjoying ourselves a lot, as a squad.
Your decision to join Lens amid interest from other clubs was questioned at the time. In the end, it was the right choice, no?
I make my own decisions, I’m not going to be influenced by people who want to see me in another club, for example. I take my decisions on my own. As I have said, a lot of factors were at play, a desire to return to France, and there was Covid, I wanted to be closer to my friends and family. The club’s project was another reason. Honestly, the Italian season hadn’t even finished yet and I already saw myself here. The Sporting Director convinced me, and I said OK straight away.
My decision was Lens, I knew that I wasn’t making an error and that I was going to come here and make a difference. I showed that all the people who didn’t believe in my decision were wrong. That’s what is good: when you come here, people are curious to see what you are going to do, they want to see if you mess up a bit, to be able to say: “Oh look, it’s the choices he made…”
The easiest choice for me was probably to go to Atalanta, who wanted me. It was the tougher decision to come here, to bring the club back up to the top, to try to bring it back to its true level. I am delighted, but we’re seeing today that it’s not easy either, that there are a lot of sacrifices, there are a lot of good teams. Nowadays, opposition teams know us better. Each weekend there is a new challenge, and I’m very happy about it. And if you think that I made the right decision and are happy to see how Lens is performing, that makes me happy too.
Many of our readers will be familiar with you from your time at Manchester City. How formative was this experience for the rest of your career? Were there any players in particular that inspired you?
I think I was lucky to be able to play at Manchester City, because it allowed me to see the top level to understand what it means to be a champion. There are players who think that they sometimes do things that put them at the top, but in actual fact this is wrong. Going there, I saw the mentality of a lot of players, David Silva, Yaya Touré, Samir Nasri, Vincent Kompany. I can give you a lot of examples.
That allowed me to gain more experience and to speak with them, to be able to get their opinions on certain match situations, to see them train, see them in games. Nowadays, all of that is helping me enormously, I’m able to reflect now and realise just how valuable that was. I think it has given me the skill of rising to the occasion when required.
This season, you impressed with performances at the Vélodrome and against PSG a few weeks ago. Do you relish the prospect of playing in these kinds of big games?
It’s true that there is expectation when it comes to those sorts of matches, there is a lot of tension, you get a lot of messages, and lots of pressure too. Personally, I don’t really feel the pressure, so I try to take a mature approach, to try to do well. I don’t know, what’s going through my head is that the opposition are a big team, they are coming and thinking that it will be easy, but in fact it won’t be.
So then we try to beat them. But those matches are difficult, because we’re playing against teams that are really going to try and impose their style of play and open up, so they’re matches which are full of intensity, enjoyable, with quite a show. In contrast, there are teams that we play who really sit back, who wait, wait for us to make a mistake, to then play. That is part of their strategy, that’s how it is. But on the big occasions, I try to be myself. I’m not scared of them.
So has it become more complicated in Ligue 1 this season, because teams have had more exposure to Franck Haise’s famous 3-4-3/3-4-1-2?
Yes, absolutely. It is difficult. Teams are really trying to counter us and prevent us from playing our game. But we are lucky to have a coach who is creative who tries to find solutions against those teams. It is hard, but that is part of the game.
Talk to us about your chemistry with Cheick Doucouré – how important has that been in the club’s results this year? Because it’s clear, especially in transition, that the understanding between the two of you is vital.
Cheick is someone who I knew a little bit before coming to Lens, I had watched him. Even when I was not yet fit, I analysed him, I analysed all the players, to know how we were going to be able to complement each other. He’s kind of my partner here, that is why we are able to perform well together, whether it is on or off the pitch, we are together all of the time, talking, having fun.
From a sporting or personal perspective, if you could borrow one of his qualities, what would it be?
From both, everything [laughs]. I would take it all, as I said he is a complete player. He knows how to shoot from long-range, he knows how to make the final pass, he knows how to break the lines, he knows how to dribble. He doesn’t feel pressure zonally when maybe you should clear the ball or dribble. He’s strong defensively, and for me he has all the qualities to be at the highest level – I would even say that he is more complete than me sometimes. It’s a pleasure to play alongside him.
If you had to choose a player in Ligue 1 to watch for 2022 who could top the GFFN 100 next year, who would you pick?
At Lens, I would say Cheick Doucouré. If not at Lens… I can’t say Mbappé, too easy.
Yeah, that’s not allowed!
I would say [Kamaldeen] Sulemana, from Rennes. I think I would go for him. And if I had to pick a player right now, I would honestly say Téji Savanier. The man is like red wine. But it’s honestly hard to say, because we have a league of talents with players doing great things in all the clubs. There’s quality, and there’s talent.
And finally, what do you want to achieve personally in 2022?
To be honest, I take a more collective approach. Because as a collective, if we do well, the personal achievements will come. I am more focused on our team. My aim is for the club to finish as high as possible.
A little Conference League, Europa League, maybe more?
It’s hard to say, because it’s so tight at the moment. There are very good teams, we were 2nd for a little while, now we are 5th or 6th. The league has tightened a lot, we have lost matches we probably shouldn’t have lost, but that is part of football. We need to reflect, get inspired, and underline everything we have gone through to move forward in the best way possible. To be completely honest, my goal is for the team to finish as high as possible.