Aurelien Tchouameni might do most of his work in the shadows, but the France midfielder lit up the World Cup with his brilliant opening goal in Saturday’s quarter-final win over England.
The 22-year-old later gave away the first penalty of the game at Al Bayt Stadium which Harry Kane scored to equalise for England, yet France eventually ran out 2-1 winners and Tchouameni’s role for the holders has been vital given the problems they faced coming into the tournament.
The outlook for coach Didier Deschamps and his side appeared grim when they were struck by an avalanche of injuries, not least with their starting midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante both being ruled out.
Deschamps had to completely reconfigure his team, including abandoning his experiment with a back three, but his decision to build a three-man midfield around Tchouameni with Adrien Rabiot and Antoine Griezmann either side of the Real Madrid man has paid off.
Now when his teammates push forward to join the attack, “he is there to cover us, fill in, plug gaps and win the ball back,” said Rabiot, who has also impressed on France’s run to the semi-finals in Qatar, where they will face Morocco on Wednesday.
Yet Tchouameni has hardly come from nowhere to start for his country at this World Cup.
The recurring fitness worries of Pogba and Kante — two stars of France’s triumphant campaign four years ago — allowed the powerful and athletic midfielder to make his debut in a qualifier against Bosnia and Herzegovina in September last year.
Since then he has played in all bar one of his country’s matches while also seeing his club career take off.
– ‘Monumental’ –
Tchouameni’s outstanding performances for Monaco saw him win the Ligue 1 young player of the year prize in 2021 and then earn a move to Madrid in the last close season for a fee of 100 million euros ($105m) including bonuses.
Kylian Mbappe, who had himself turned down a move to the Spanish capital, had asked Tchouameni if he might like to sign for Paris Saint-Germain instead.
But joining the European champions and now standing on the brink of a World Cup final were, it seems, all part of the plan for the midfielder with Cameroonian roots, even if things have maybe happened a little faster than he might have anticipated.
“I have objectives, dreams, the desire to play for the best clubs, to win titles, to impact my sport and my position. I want to be remembered for positive things. I want to leave my mark,” he told L’Equipe last year.
“I don’t want to end my career as an ordinary player and be forgotten about.”
The son of a pharmacist, Tchouameni was born in the Normandy city of Rouen but brought up near Bordeaux, and it was there that his career began.
He was handed his professional debut by Gustavo Poyet at Bordeaux in 2018, just a few weeks after watching as a supporter when France won the World Cup in Russia.
Tchouameni came through the ranks in south-west France alongside Jules Kounde, also in the side in Qatar.
Yet he made fewer than 40 top-team appearances before joining Monaco in January 2020 for a reported 20 million euros.
There he developed an outstanding partnership with Youssouf Fofana, another member of the current France squad who knows just how important Tchouameni is to the cause.
“Football is supposed to be a spectacle, so when a player’s game is not about that, some think they are just there to make up the numbers. But in fact he does a monumental job in the shadows,” said Fofana, who has appeared four times so far in Qatar, starting once.
“He does so much running and allows the other two midfielders to get forward without worrying.”
Tchouameni will again have a huge role to play against Morocco as France look to secure a place in Sunday’s final and retain their title.