France’s next star? Camavinga set for Les Bleus debut at 17

PARIS (AP) — Judo’s loss is French soccer’s gain.

Eduardo Camavinga is now the country’s biggest talent since Kylian Mbappé’s sensational emergence at Monaco in 2016.

Mbappé helped France win the 2018 World Cup, recently played in the Champions League final with Paris Saint-Germain and is world renowned at the age of 21.

Many think 17-year-old Camavinga could have a similar future.

“Kylian’s placed the bar very high,” Camavinga said. “But it’s a source of inspiration for all young players.”

The first step for the Rennes midfielder is to make his France debut, which could come against Sweden in the Nations League on Saturday.

“Yes, it would be a dream. A childhood dream, even though I’m still a kid,” a smiling Camavinga said at France’s Clairefontaine training camp. “Representing your country is huge. My parents had their hearts set on it, and so did I.”

He was called up because Manchester United star Paul Pogba withdrew after testing positive to the coronavirus. Camavinga’s idol growing up just happened to be Pogba, and he is using the United midfielder’s room at Clairefontaine.

His path could have taken a completely different direction, however.

“In the beginning I didn’t want to play football, I wanted to take up judo,” Camavinga said. “Because my brother did judo and I wanted to do the same as him.”

But he soon took up soccer at school, and his rapid rise has been such that coach Didier Deschamps even thinks Camavinga might feature at next year’s European Championship.

“When the coach believes in you it’s reassuring,” Camavinga said. “I’m not feeling stressed or under pressure.”

Like Mbappé did as a teen, Camavinga burst onto the scene.

An astonishing performance against PSG last year — aged just 16 — saw him set up a goal with a superbly weighted long pass and make several electric bursts through the middle. A PSG side packed with internationals was powerless to stop him.

Camavinga pledges not to get carried away.

“No, because I know where I’ve come from and if I mess up my parents will let me know about it,” he said. “They’re with me every day, since I still live at home.”

He was born in Angola, moved to France when he was 2 years old and obtained nationality last year. He was spotted by Rennes at the age of 9 and given his debut at 16 by coach Julien Stéphan — the son of France’s assistant coach Guy Stéphan.

Rennes has the second-best scouting network in France and fifth-best in Europe, according to a study in 2019. The study, based on minutes played in Europe’s five major leagues by academy-raised players, listed the best as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lyon, Man United and Rennes.

Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé came through the Brittany club before joining Borussia Dortmund. Barcelona then bought him for €105 million ($126 million) plus a reported €40 million ($48 million) in bonuses, making him the world’s sixth-most expensive player along with Pogba.

Camavinga could soon be worth more. The teenager combines a strong physique with devastating acceleration on the ball that allows him to carve through midfield. He has the ability to drag the ball back and pirouette in one swift motion, reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane’s virtuoso technique against Brazil at the 2006 World Cup. And he can dribble with either foot, although he shoots better with his left.

He is versatile as well as he can play a holding role, but dovetails well at wide midfield or as a play maker.

“Even though you always have to be cautious talking about a 17-year-old player, I don’t see any weak points,” Guy Stéphan said.

Veteran striker Olivier Giroud, who has 39 goals in 97 games for France, is nearly twice Camavinga’s age but has been impressed with the teenager.

“Eduardo’s astounded us with his maturity,” Giroud said. “It’s the start of a long adventure.”

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