Close your eyes. Think of French football players. Who do you think of? Zinedine Zidane? Thierry Henry? Which star players do you recall by instinct? Maybe Kylian Mbappe? How about Claude Makelele and N’Golo Kante? All these names are well-known superstars of world football. But behind every Mbappe there are dozens of other players with less luck and success. Kante’s sensational story is famous, which allows us to think of the option that in another scenario he would not be a star for Chelsea, but just a player wondering around in effort to enjoy his game and career.
Ange-Freddy Plumain and Kevin Tapoko’s career could have gone in many paths, maybe even in the path of some of the star players mentioned above. At the age of 23 and 24 respectively, both players found themselves playing in Israel. Moreover, they are playing for Hapoel Hadera, the club with the smallest budget in Israeli Premier League, who was just promoted to the top tier after 39 years of absence. However, they are playing a key role in Hadera’s sensational start of the season, leading the club to third place after 10 games with a better record than the current champions, Hapoel Beer Sheva.
But how did they get to Hadera anyways? Both Plumain and Tapoko played for the French national team at the U-16 and U-18. Plumain was very close to be accepted to Clairefontaine and Tapoko is a product of the world-class academy of Lyon. In a sunny afternoon, after a successful training session, I tried to understand how they view their career so far and from that moment on.
Plumain grew up in Saint Denis, the famous neighborhood at the outskirts of Paris, in which star players such as Pogba and Mbappe grew up as well. At the age of 13 he was summoned to trials in Clairefontaine and arrived to the last stage. It may feel that such a lucrative opportunity should require some special preparation but according to Plumain he just wanted to play football and Clairefontaine was a nice bonus: “I started to play football just not to be bored at home. When you are young you just start to play football because you have nothing better to do. You go to the trials because you are summoned but at least for me I didn’t make any preparation. You don’t think about it. I just went.”
Although he wasn’t accepted, the trials in Clairefontaine opened some doors and got him two new offers. One from the Rennes’ youth academy and the other from Lens. In this case as well, Plumain wasn’t very motivated but his mother forced him. Eventually he chose Lens, for reasons that might look “minor” but in the life of people coming from a difficult background may change a lot: “When you are in the neighborhood you don’t think about all of this. I just wanted to enjoy football but my mother forced me. I preferred Lens because I could stay there during weekends and my mother didn’t need to come and pick me up every Friday.”
Like Plumain, Tapoko as well trained in a lucrative academy, Lyon’s academy. With a wide range of graduates such as Freddy Kanoute, Karim Benzema and Ludovic Giuly, Lyon’s academy is well known both for its quality but also for its multiculturalism. Tapoko says that it is one of the reasons he chose to train there as a young football player: “Lyon was the best academy in my time so that’s why I chose to play there. Like Freddy said, it allows you also to discover new people, so actually it changes your mind and allows you to develop also as a person.”
At this point of their career, including a background of playing for France’s youth national teams and before they started their professional career, they both admit that they saw themselves at the biggest clubs in the world, but at a certain point they had to adjust their ambitions, like Tapoko phrases it: “Like everyone, we were sure we will play at Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester. But when you grow up you understand that the pace of a career is very very fast and you just need to adjust.”
One kind of adjustment is their arrival to Israel. As Plumain admits “There was a time when I lost my desire to play football, and if I am here it’s to have fun again and find my joy in it”. To some of the critics or suspicious opinions about the fact they play in Israel their response, according to Plumain is “obviously when you play in Israel, people will say: what the f*** are you doing there? Immediately people will tell you about the war there, ISIS and shit like this. But for me it’s nice, and the game here is much more open than in France”, which according to Tapoko as well it is something that allows Plumain to express himself much more: “6 months ago, no club would want us in France, no one would let us play. But that’s football. You need to take risks and go abroad. When you are in a place like this, which is not even Europe, you can have a restart to your career and your reputation. If you try and try but you don’t play, it’s time to leave.”
Plumain and Tapoko’s story and experience of football, and in particular of their arrival to Israel, can serve to shed some light on football players’ psychology. In many cases, we forget that football players are not robots and their ability on the pitch is never disconnected from their emotional status. In some cases their ability to adapt to different environments can be also related to their childhood.
Tapoko’s words serve as a good reminder of the connection between personality and career; “I grew up in a poor neighborhood with Arabs, Black people, and immigrants from the Balkan and Chechnya. When you grow up like this you see things differently and you judge people less. You never say “the Arabs are like this, the black people are like that”. For me it’s like coming to Israel. Other people can have their opinion but first you need to come and visit before you judge. At least we had the chance to become professional football players. Most people who played with us can’t say it. So the important thing is to enjoy football, and at the moment I am enjoying it in Hadera.”
In a way, Tapoko and Plumain’s story serves as a useful reminder to the strength of football. When thinking of French football it is easy to recall famous players who won numerous trophies. But at the end, the game is about fun. In the same manner that Plumain just wanted to enjoy football at the age of 13, it’s is his desire at the age of 23 as well. So instead of wondering what players with such talent are doing in Israel, we should think of the fact that like everyone else they want to enjoy their career and life.
Plumain describes it well when I asked him about his future plans: “Honestly, I don’t think ahead at the moment. For me the most important thing right now is to enjoy football again after I lost my appetite for it. Even to tackle the ball makes me happy today. I enjoy my life and my career and to me this is the most important thing.”