On the eve of an under-21 friendly against Spain in March 2011 Raphaël Varane was the kind of player who could talk about “Emile Durkheim and the social bond” or John Keynes’s macroeconomic theories and bring a touch of humour into the conversation by telling his interlocutor “Keynes is more fun”.
He was not even 18 at the time. Fifteen months later, and after only 23 games in Ligue 1 with Lens, the club he joined at nine, he was signing a six-year Real Madrid contract for for a €10m fee while taking his A-levels and majoring in economic sciences. “A real bargain for that price,” said the then Lens coach, Laszlo Boloni. “He is a gem, he is learning fast because he listens, he can already read the game very well and he is such a gifted, fast and intelligent defender. Exactly the same as Cristiano Ronaldo was in an attacking version when he started with me at Sporting.”
It was Zinédine Zidane, then counselor to Real’s chairman, Florentino Pérez, whose phone call to Varane clinched the deal. “I was at my mother’s home in Hellemmes,” near Lille, Varane remembers. “It was 7.30pm and my phone rang. I was tired, I did not feel like answering and I was not really listening when I suddenly recognised his voice: ‘It’s not a joke, it’s really me,’ said Zidane. I told him politely I was busy revising for my exams and asked him to call back later. But when I hung up, I was thinking ‘shit’ and went to see my older brother who thought I was crazy. I said yes to Real the day before taking my philosophy final exam.” He would explain later: “Don’t call me an intellectual. After all, there are a lot more people taking their A-levels each summer than signing for Real Madrid. I was just a good and serious student.”
His first coach at Hellemmes, Christophe Debuyser, says: “At the age of seven or eight, he was already working harder than anyone and most importantly, he never cheated. His familial environment offered him a good structure and proper stability. Thanks to this, he has never fallen into excess.”
His father, Gaston, who came from Martinique in the 1970s, worked as an auxiliary nurse in a nearby hospital, his mother, Annie, was an English teacher, his older brother a law student and one of his two sisters is a pharmacist. Not the typical background for the average young professional player. One more thing: he met his future wife, Camille, in high school and they married in Le Touquet in June 2015 in a private ceremony, with no fancy stars around or an expensive party. “She brings me the perfect balance,” he says. “We grew up together, we are very close and complement each other quite well, and we try to keep the same values and simplicity we have been taught.”
When Didier Deschamps announced his squad for his first game as France manager in August 2012 against Uruguay, Varane was part of it, with the World Cup winner soberly suggesting that “talent has no age”. But it was not until the following spring that Varane made his international debut at 19 against Georgia, a 3-1 win, before becoming the youngest player since 1910 to captain his country against Armenia in October 2014 when he was 21.
“There are players who never mature at 30 and some who do at 20,” said Deschamps. Varane has won three Champions League finals, in 2014, 2017 and 2018 – he missed the 2016 final through injury and the last Euros as well – and has worked successively with José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benítez and Zidane. Not a bad cast to help you improve every day, although it was his early mistake against Germany and a lost aerial duel with the defender Mats Hummels which ruined France’s chances in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup.
“I put that behind me now,” he says. “Anyway, it is part of everyday life for a defender: you win some duels, you lose some. My timing is better today and I have learned how to use my body more cleverly.” Guy Stéphan, France’s assistant manager, has said that “Raphaël belongs to a generation, like Paul Pogba, who are not afraid to fail. They keep on trying, look forward and never lose their composure.”
Spain will play in Russia with a Barcelona-Real Madrid mix of Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos in central defence and France will enter the tournament with the other half and a less experienced partnership of Varane and Samuel Umtiti. The World Cup-winning full-back Bixente Lizarazu, a media pundit, believes Varane can improve and could benefit from finding an edge. “He is quick, talented but I would like him to become a leader and the boss of this defence. Maybe he is too nice.” To which Varane replies: “I am a shy, quiet and cool guy in life. And I am no different on the pitch. I just play to my strengths and my ability.”