How Wissam Ben Yedder Swapped the Futsal Hall for the Champions League

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 3, 2018

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 13:  Wissam Ben Yedder of Sevilla celebrates as he scores their second goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Manchester United and Sevilla FC at Old Trafford on March 13, 2018 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Bleacher Report

Wissam Ben Yedder's brilliant first goal against Manchester United in the Champions League on March 13 won him instant global renown, but Tony Esteves had seen it before.

Ben Yedder, whose brace against United shot Sevilla into the quarter-finals, has played at Old Trafford, Anfield, the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu following an unconventional footballing education on the futsal pitches of the northern Paris suburbs. Esteves was the general manager of his first futsal team, Garges Djibson.

"The first goal against Manchester United was typical of futsal," Esteves told Bleacher Report. "One touch to control, then a touch in the direction of the goal and a shot. In small spaces, he still uses the touch of a futsal player.

"When you put Romario in the penalty area, he didn't move very much, but in two or three square metres, he was a killer. We used to call Ben Yedder our Romario. He never stopped scoring. He was like a rifle: bam-bam-bam!"

Sevilla's last-16 tie with United had gone 164 minutes without a goal when Pablo Sarabia threaded a pass through the home defence to Ben Yedder, who had been on the pitch for only two minutes.

Before him stood David De Gea, the finest goalkeeper in England; above him towered Old Trafford's East Stand. Momentarily, the 5'7" striker was back on the squeaky gymnasium floor of the futsal pitch, a hard Size 4 ball at his feet, a red and white striped handball goal in his eyeline.

A touch with his left foot brought Sarabia's pass under control; a second touch, with his right foot, eased the ball away from Eric Bailly; and with his third touch, he whipped a low shot inside De Gea's left-hand post.

"I went on instinct," Ben Yedder said. "I didn't think about anything."

His second goal, four minutes later, settled the tie.

Ben Yedder (middle of the front row) with his futsal team.
Ben Yedder (middle of the front row) with his futsal team.Courtesy of Garges Djibson Futsal ASC

With eight goals in this season's competition (ahead of the first leg of Sevilla's quarter-final against Bayern Munich on Tuesday), Ben Yedder trails only Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League scoring charts. His brace at Old Trafford earned him his first France call-up at the age of 27 and, with it, his first international cap.

Eight years ago, he was playing for UJA Alfortville in France's amateur fourth tier. With each goal he scores and each milestone he passes, he embellishes the legend of a unique football journey.

There does not appear to have been a time when Ben Yedder was not playing football. A native of the same Sarcelles district as Riyad Mahrez, he was the fourth of six children born to Tunisian parents. And from a very early age, football occupied his mind from the second he opened his eyes in the morning.

"Sometimes at eight o'clock in the morning, when we didn't have school, he'd wake me up to tell me to come and play against him," Daniel Mendy, one of Ben Yedder's childhood friends, told So Foot magazine recently.

"We played in the rain, the snow. I remember one morning, I woke up early and went to one of the school pitches to practise shooting. And when I arrived, he was already there."

Ben Yedder began playing futsal at Gymnase Allende Neruda in Garges-les-Gonesse, nine miles north of central Paris, in his mid-teens. It was immediately apparent he possessed a skill set perfectly suited to the indoor game: a faultless first touch, dizzying technical dexterity, a low centre of gravity and a punishing ability to finish.

Footage of Ben Yedder's futsal days shows him shooting confidently with both feet, yet it took an injury to his right foot while at Garges Djibson to bring his left up to scratch.

After breaking his foot, he turned up for training with the lower half of his right leg in plaster. Rather than watch forlornly from the sidelines, he used the opportunity to work on his left foot. When the cast came off, he remained committed to his task. Today, he strikes the ball equally well with either foot.

Ben Yedder was just as determined to improve his understanding of the game, once asking to be taken off during a match against particularly obdurate opponents so he could spend time scrutinising their defence for weaknesses.

"He came off, he watched the game and in the second half, he said: 'I've got it. Let me go back on,'" recalls Esteves. "He went back on and scored four goals."

Miguel Morenatti/Associated Press

Ben Yedder was capped at under-21 level by the French futsal team and quickly made the step up to the senior side, but his first match at the top level almost never took place.

He was taken to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport for a flight to Chile, only for his coaches to discover his passport was a Tunisian one and not a French one. After Esteves had spoken to the local mayor, Ben Yedder flew out to South America the following day on a brand-new French passport.

A grateful French Football Federation official forgot about the time difference in his haste to thank Esteves, waking him up with a phone call at 3 a.m.

Ben Yedder would win six caps for the French futsal team, but he had also been playing 11-a-side football for US Saint-Denis, an amateur outfit based north of Paris.

In 2009, a move to Alfortville, who played in the fourth-tier Championnat de France Amateur, shunted his career onto tracks that would lead him away from the echoey sports halls of the French futsal scene and towards the pristine grass pitches of Europe's most famous football stadiums.

Michel Moulin, a former sporting advisor at Paris Saint-Germain, was working for Alfortville in 2009 and instantly fell under Ben Yedder's spell.

"I was told about a young player who was a phenomenon. We gave this little guy a trial and after 15 minutes I said, 'You've brought me Maradona,'" Moulin told RMC Sport last year.

Moulin unsuccessfully offered Ben Yedderthen playing as an attacking midfielderto Lille, before a phone call to Toulouse president Olivier Sadran paved a path for the 19-year-old to move to south-west France. He left Alfortville having scored nine goals in 23 first-team appearances.

Moulin said Alfortville "kitted out all our young players from head to toe" with the money they received.

Singularly unprepared for the rigours of professional football, Ben Yedder barely featured for Toulouse in his first two seasons at the club. But after breaking into the first XI at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, there was no looking back.

He scored 15 goals in his first full Ligue 1 campaign and continued to find the net with regularity—16 goals in 2013-14, 14 in 2014-15, 17 in 2015-16—despite Toulouse's fluctuating form (they finished one place above the relegation zone in 2015 and 2016) and Sadran's refusal to let him leave.

Ben Yedder watched Moussa Sissoko, Etienne Capoue and Serge Aurier depart Toulouse for bigger and better things before finally being granted a move to Sevilla in July 2016.

Ben Yedder's breakthrough at Toulouse earned him recognition at under-21 level for France, but as in his futsal days, his experience as an international footballer proved short-lived.

After sneaking out of a training camp in Le Havre with Antoine Griezmann, Yann M'Vila, Chris Mavinga and M'Baye Niang to go on a night out in Paris in October 2012, he was banned from representing his country until December 31, 2013.

Ben Yedder has finally been capped by France.
Ben Yedder has finally been capped by France.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

At senior level, Ben Yedder's route to the French team was barred by Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud, Alexandre Lacazette and Griezmann. However, despite repeated appeals to switch his allegiances to Tunisia, he refused to give up hope.

"It will be France and nothing else," he told L'Equipe in September 2014. "Even if I don't get called up, I'll keep working like I do today and I hope that one day my moment will come."

That moment came last month, two days after his double at Old Trafford, when he was named in Didier Deschamps' squad for France's friendlies against Colombia and Russia. He described the moment on Twitter as "a happiness for which I don't have the words" and shared a picture of himself from his Alfortville days. "Le Jamie Vardy Francais," replied one admiring Twitter user.

Ben Yedder made his senior international debut in France's 3-2 loss to Colombia at the Stade de France, coming on as a 73rd-minute substitute for Giroud.

He did not make it onto the pitch in France's 3-1 win over Russia and faces huge competition for a place in Deschamps' 23-man World Cup squad. 

Meanwhile, few have given Sevilla any chance of getting past Bayern in the Champions League, but Ben Yedder learned a long time ago not to be cowed by improbable odds.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.