Joie De Vivre: Ferland Mendy's Improbable Journey from Wheelchair to Real Madrid

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 19, 2019

French defender Ferland Mendy (L) and Real Madrid's president Florentino Perez pose during the official presentation of the footballer as new player of the Spanish club at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on June 19, 2019. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)        (Photo credit should read OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)

France were seeing out a 1-0 victory over Uruguay in a friendly match at Stade de France in November when the ball came to Ferland Mendy on the hosts' left flank.

The Lyon left-back was making his international debut and, up to that point, he had not put a foot wrong. Displaying huge composure on the ball, he had spent the game gaily skipping down the left wing, regularly coming inside onto his right foot and looking to link up with France's forwards. He already appeared every inch the international footballer.

Hemmed against the left-hand touchline by Uruguay midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, Mendy used a Cruyff turn to flick the ball back toward his own byline. He put a little bit too much on it, but as Giorgian De Arrascaeta slid in to dispossess him, Mendy extracted himself from the situation with an extravagant roulette turn before toeing a pass inside to Adil Rami.

Encouraged by the newcomer's insouciance, and seemingly unperturbed by the presence of a Uruguayan attacker lurking behind him, Rami elected to back-heel the ball to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who was forced to scurry across his six-yard box in order to clear the danger. The fans inside the ground loved it. Didier Deschamps did not.

After the game, the France coach criticised his two defenders for taking unnecessary risks with the game still in the balance (partly absolving Mendy of blame on account of his youth). But the debutant was unrepentant.

"People have already told me that, even at Le Havre in Ligue 2," Mendy told L'Equipe the following month. "I'd dribble in defence and people told me that I'd pay for it. Up to now I've not been made to pay for it, so I'll continue. If one day it doesn't work, I'll pay the consequences."

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After what he went through during his formative years as a footballer, Mendy's care-free approach can perhaps be forgiven.

At the age of 14, when he was a member of the youth setup at Paris Saint-Germain, he developed a form of arthritis in one of his hips. Doctors told him that his dreams of becoming a top-level footballer were over, and he was even warned that he might never walk again.

After several long months of rehabilitation, Mendy set about disproving those gloomy prognoses, first dropping into amateur football, then breaking into the professional game with Le Havre and eventually earning himself a move to French heavyweights Lyon. Earlier this month, he joined Real Madrid for an initial fee of €48 million (£42.7 million) that could rise to €53 million (£47.2 million).

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 13: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona controls the ball against Ferland Mendy of Olympique Lyonnais during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between FC Barcelona and Olympique Lyonnais at Nou Camp on March 13, 2019
Eric Alonso/MB Media/Getty Images

The 24-year-old has overtaken his namesake Benjamin Mendy in the France pecking order and has been described by one agent as "the Kylian Mbappe of left-backs." Although the stakes are only going to get higher over the months and years ahead, he is determined never to lose the sense of perspective that the traumas of his adolescence gave him.

"I've always been happy and laid-back," he told L'Equipe. "But with everything that happened, I understood that you have to make the most of your life. [You have to do] the things you like to do."

The youngest of a brood of three brothers and four sisters, Mendy grew up in the small town of Ecquevilly, 35 kilometres northwest of Paris.

He entered PSG's youth system at the age of nine and was coached by Yves Gergaud, who remembers a young boy full of "joie de vivre." Mendy initially played as a forward and would often line up on the left wing, with James Lea Siliki—the now-Rennes midfielder—behind him at left-back.

"The first thing I noticed was his technique and his relationship with the ball, particularly when it came to his dribbling," Gergaud told Bleacher Report. "He beat players with ease because of his technique and his speed. He was very, very quick."

In addition to Mendy and Lea Siliki, Gergaud could also call upon future PSG centre-back Presnel Kimpembe, future Lyon striker Moussa Dembele and future Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman. It was a generation packed with talent. But when he turned 14, Mendy's path suddenly veered away from the grass pitches of PSG's Camp des Loges training centre and toward the medical consultancy rooms.

He spent three months with his leg in plaster in the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in central Paris before undergoing a period of rehabilitation lasting up to six months at the Paediatrics and Re-education Hospital in Bullion, southwest of Paris.

"At Bullion, I was able to take my plaster off. But I didn't walk for a long time," he told Le Parisien in February. "I was in a wheelchair for a while. Then on a trolley. And bit by bit, step by step, they taught me how to walk again."

After learning how to walk again, Mendy had to teach himself how to play football again: how to run, how to control the ball, how to play passes. It would take a full two years for the pain in his hip to fully recede.

He returned to PSG, training with the B and C teams at under-17 level, but it became clear the club did not know what to do with him. At the age of 17, he decided to leave and ended up joining local amateur side FC Mantois 78. Looking back, Gergaud feels PSG "could have shown a bit more faith in him."

Mendy spent a season playing for the under-19s at FC Mantois, and it was there that he convinced both himself and those around him that he still had what it took to play professionally.

"He was sure of himself, his abilities and his level," FC Mantois general manager Robert Mendy (no relation) told Le Parisien. "Some might have seen it as arrogance, but he was determined to get what he wanted."

Johann Louvel, who was then in charge of the youth academy at Le Havre, was alerted to Mendy's ability by contacts at FC Mantois. Convinced of the teenager's potential after watching him take part in a trial in the spring of 2013, Louvel brought him to Le Havre. After coming so close to having his dream taken away from him, Mendy's thankfulness was plain to see.

"Everyone carries their own story with them," Louvel told Bleacher Report. "When he was 15, 16, he was told that football was over for him, so getting a second chance at Le Havre was a miracle. It was an extraordinary opportunity for him, and he arrived full of freshness."

Mendy spent his first season on France's Normandy coast playing in Louvel's reserve team. As they always have done, his physical explosiveness and attacking instincts marked him out, but his coaches had to work to furnish him with the defensive discipline required in professional football.

"He was very effective when he went forward and he had a natural tendency to attack, but there was lots of defensive work to do with him: technical defensive work and also tactical work," said Louvel. "We also had to focus him, because he'd pop up all over the pitch. He progressed as time went on, but he always kept those primary qualities of going forward and playing with spontaneity."

Benjamin Mendy also came through the youth system at Le Havre, leaving for Marseille in July 2013 shortly after his young namesake arrived. Louvel could not fail to notice the similarities between the pair, both as buccaneering left-backs and sources of changing-room mischief. "They're two bons vivants who play with a smile, who are happy and who love football," he said.

After being eased into the Le Havre first team during the 2015-16 campaign, Mendy took the French second tier by storm the following season, supplying five assists, scoring two goals and being named in the Ligue 2 Team of the Season. A year later, following a €5 million switch to Lyon, he was named in the Ligue 1 Team of the Season.

Benjamin Mendy had been voted the league's best left-back the previous season (after winning the title with Monaco), and his destiny would entwine with Ferland Mendy's again in November 2018, when a knee injury to the Manchester City man opened the door for the younger Mendy to win his first international call-up.

Ferland Mendy (centre, holding trophy) and Presnel Kimpembe (far right)
Ferland Mendy (centre, holding trophy) and Presnel Kimpembe (far right)Yves Gargaud (pictured standing in red jacket, centre)

Uncapped at youth level, he had never been to the national training centre at Clairefontaine before, but that part of the world was nonetheless familiar to him: The hospital in Bullion where he had spent his long months of convalescence as a teenager is a 15-minute drive away. As the 14-year-old Mendy lay in his hospital bed, he could scarcely have dreamed that nine years later, on the other side of the Forest of Rambouillet, he would be reporting for duty as an international footballer.

"You're happy for a player to succeed when they've followed a classic path, so for him, you feel even more happiness," said Gergaud. "He had ambitions, but to find himself at Lyon in Ligue 1 and now at Real, I think very few people could have imagined that."

France's defender Ferland Mendy plays the ball as he takes part in a training session at the National stadium in Andorra La Vella, on June 10, 2019 on the eve of the UEFA Euro 2020 qualification football match between Andorra and France. (Photo by FRANCK
FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Mendy will have to oust the wily Marcelo if he is to become a first-team regular under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, and he will face strong competition for a starting place with France when Lucas Hernandez returns from injury later this year. But he is unlikely to let such challenges take the smile off his face. He has already overcome much bigger obstacles than that.