Sunday, August 14 2022
Wesley Fofana lost the best part of a season last year - he's determined to make this campaign count - DAVID ROSE
Wesley Fofana lost the best part of a season last year – he’s determined to make this campaign count – DAVID ROSE

Wesley Fofana has a lot on his mind. A new season is looming large for Leicester City, his name is at the centre of a swirl of speculation around interest from Chelsea, and there is the small matter of a winter World Cup hoving into view.

It is some in-tray. Yet in many ways Fofana has been preparing for these kinds of moments all his life. The French defender is widely hailed as a generational talent, long coveted by Europe’s top clubs since he first started impressing at Saint Etienne’s academy as a teenager, so nothing is likely to faze him.

He is human, though. The 21-year-old is still awaiting his first senior cap for France, and Didier Deschamps is hardly short of options in his position. Fofana even laughs as we reel off some of the names in contention to make the squad for Qatar as we sit down to talk at Leicester’s sparkling new training centre – Jules Kounde, Dayot Upamecano, Presnel Kimpembe, Ibrahima Konate, Rafael Varane, William Saliba, Kurt Zouma. It is, as Fofana admits, a “crazy” embarrassment of riches.

Even so, the chance to break into the set-up on the biggest stage the game has to offer is, understandably, occupying his thoughts.

“I’d be lying if I said the World Cup wasn’t on my mind, because it’s a big objective for me,” he says. “I’m French and of course I want to represent my national team. I realise the coach has his own ideas and a team already in place but I really want to be there. Every player has to work hard – if they are a little lazy for their club, they will be left out.”

There is, of course, a question about which club Fofana will be representing by the time Qatar rolls around. Chelsea have made little secret of their admiration in him, and their new owners are determined to crank up their transfer business in what remains of the transfer window. Such interest may be hard to resist; equally, it would not be surprising to see Fofana stay and hone his talents in the east midlands for another year.

There is certainly no sense that he is unhappy at the club – he has recently stopped taking English lessons and is feeling absolutely at home with his team-mates, even travelling to away games when he was injured last season to support them. And Leicester are more than happy with him: his manager, Brendan Rodgers, has said he can be one of the world’s best defenders. It would be no surprise if he ultimately became the world’s most expensive defender; just maybe not this summer.

I remind him of Rodgers’ comments and ask how he feels being described in such terms. “When he [Rodgers] said that it obviously adds extra pressure but it has to be the aim for any player,” he insists. “I want to not only win trophies but try to be the best defender in my position in the world.”

Fofana aims high with his role models. He is a fan of Virgil van Dijk and Kalidou Koulibaly, but as a child he watched “loads of videos of Maldini. He always had time [mimics smoking a cigar]. Sergio Ramos as well, I liked his character and bite and how he wanted to hurt the opposition.”

Fofana was a big fan of Italy and AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini when growing up - GETTY IMAGESFofana was a big fan of Italy and AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini when growing up - GETTY IMAGES
Fofana was a big fan of Italy and AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini when growing up – GETTY IMAGES

Fofana is on a mission to make up for lost time after missing most of last season with the first serious injury of his career.

In Leicester’s final pre-season friendly, against Villarreal, Fofana was tackled from behind by forward Fer Nino, sustaining a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle. Rodgers described the challenge as “horrendous”.

Staff around the tunnel area that night can still recall Fofana screaming in agony as he was stretchered off.

It was a moment which arguably wrecked Leicester’s season before it even started, leaving them with little time to find a proper replacement with funds limited.

A year later, Fofana reflects on the incident with maturity. “After going through such a terrible injury you can almost turn it into a motivational thing,” he says.

“I can look back at it on video now with no problems. You can turn negatives into positives and that’s what I’ve done. Out of bad comes good and I’ve come through it. It makes you stronger.

“I had a text message the day after [from Nino], but there has been no contact since. There are no hard feelings.

“We play a contact sport and everyone is going 100 per cent and these things happen. If we come up against each other again it will be a battle and no holding back, but with hopefully no bones broken!”

Fofana did eventually return in March, signing a new five-year contract that same month, in the Europa Conference Round of 16 second leg against Rennes, and it was an evening he will never forget.

Leicester’s resilient performance was epitomised by the outstanding Fofana, who also scored the winning goal from a corner [his first for the club].

Fofana ran over to celebrate with Rodgers in what was the image of a difficult season.

“It was one of the greatest matches of my life. There was also relief and frustration, because I was supposed to play in the first leg the week before but got Covid,” he says.

“It was even more special being in France. All my family travelled six hours up to Rennes and to score such an important goal made it even more memorable.

“I ran to the management and staff to celebrate because they never let me go for a minute during the seven months [injured]. They were with me every step of the way.”

Fofana rises above everyone else to score a memorable goal against Rennes - REUTERSFofana rises above everyone else to score a memorable goal against Rennes - REUTERS
Fofana rises above everyone else to score a memorable goal against Rennes – REUTERS

Fofana did play a further 11 games in the season, instantly adding security to Leicester’s defence alongside Jonny Evans.

“I feel absolutely brand new with no pain at all. Sometimes you can still pick up little injuries after a long time out but I’m doing everything to avoid that,” he says.

“It was a big injury to get over but I think I came back pretty quickly. The games I played at the end of last season have set me up for this season, which will be a long and challenging one.”

Family is a huge part of Fofana’s life, and this summer he married his long-time girlfriend Cyrine in Monaco.

He was back in France last month for the Grand Prix in Le Castellet – Formula One, along with rugby union and basketball, is a passion. The track is 44 miles away from where he grew up in the tiny village of Vitrolles, though the race was an experience tinged with disappointment.

“Lewis [Hamilton] was so close, I thought he was going to do it [Hamilton finished second behind Max Verstappen]. “I love Formula 1 and he’s one of my favourite sportsmen.

“He has the personality, it’s not just the driving. He says things from the heart that other people don’t dare to say. He is always true to himself and I really admire him.”

Fofana is now preparing for the new season and shakes his head when he reflects on how much he has crammed into the past three years.

He only made his first-team debut in Saint-Etienne in May 2019 and still has an affinity with the club, admitting their relegation from Ligue 1 last season “hurt me deep in my heart.”

He says: I consider myself very fortunate. I’ve played more games here in England than I ever did for St-Etienne. Now I’ve made this journey I want to enjoy every minute. Many others have not been so lucky to be in my position.

“Leicester is a family and I have felt that from the first day. I have always felt like a native of Leicester.

“It’s a big club and an institution but everyone has time for each other and understands. We are all brothers, sisters and cousins.”

Jamie Vardy keeps him on his toes. “he’s an incredible player but this guy is also crazy! For the team he lifts everyone. When he is not here you really notice. When moments are hard, he has the experience and personality to push everyone.

“On my first day he pulled me over and said ‘you are my little Wes’. Every day there are jokes in French or English. He’s a very good guy and my bro.”

Now onto this weekend and the visit of Brentford on Sunday.

“It’s a big season for me and for Leicester,” he says. “here are already some great strikers in the Premier League and even more for this season after the transfer window. That excites me and I’m ready for them. I’m prepared.”

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