Wissam Ben Yedder's patience finally paying off with Sevilla and France
Wissam Ben Yedder is used to waiting and taking his chances when they come. Sevilla coach Vincenzo Montella didn't fancy the idea of playing the Frenchman against Manchester United: he kept him on the bench in the first leg of the round-of-16 Champions League clash in Spain and started with Luis Muriel again at Old Trafford last week.
Ben Yedder was unleashed with only 18 minutes remaining on the clock, but that was enough. The striker scored twice, very nearly got a hat trick, knocked Jose Mourinho's side out of the competition and then jokingly flirted with the national team.
"Follow back?" Ben Yedder tweeted at his national team's account, and the answer was positive. At long last, Didier Deschamps included him in the France squad for the friendlies against Colombia and Russia. Ben Yedder's dream is about to come true and, at the age of 27, he should be the first player to represent France in both football and futsal.
You read that right: Futsal was once supposed to be his sport. In 2010, Ben Yedder was still playing football at tiny fifth-division side Alfortville, and a professional career on the main stage didn't look likely at all. Toulouse scouts noticed the technical skills of the diminutive midfielder, however, and decided to give him a chance. The problem was that it took him time to understand the demands at Ligue 1 level, and only the patience of coach Alain Casanova saved him from being discarded.
@equipedefrance follow back ? 😉🇫🇷— Wissam Ben Yedder (@WissBenYedder) March 15, 2018
Moving away from his family was hard for Ben Yedder, who was born in Sarcelles north of Paris. He ate a lot of fast food, failed to integrate into the squad and made only a few short substitute appearances. "He had some very difficult moments," Mohamed Fofana, his former teammate at Toulouse, remembered. The turnaround occurred when Casanova decided to try the problematic youngster in attack and, in April 2012, Ben Yedder scored his first goal.
That was the turning point for him. Toulouse went on to lose at Evian that night, but for Ben Yedder, his goal was a life-changing experience. He constantly watched the video replay on his mobile phone. "I am doing that almost every day on my way home," he said. His self-confidence, almost nonexistent until then, suddenly skyrocketed. In one single moment, Ben Yedder fully grasped his abilities; there was no stopping him thereafter, as he became one of the most prolific strikers in Ligue 1 in 2012-13. "It took him 18 months to get started," Casanova said at the time.
Ben Yedder's futsal skills certainly helped him. He is used to making quick decisions because there is little time to think on a small pitch; his dribbling skills are exquisite, he loves to take on opponents in tight spaces; and his finishing ability proved clinical. Totally unknown previously, he netted 15 goals in his first full season in the first-team, including a majestic brace in the 3-0 thrashing of Lyon, and he earned a call-up to the France Under-23 team, where he was even preferred to Antoine Griezmann and Alexandre Lacazette in the Euro 2013 qualifying match against Norway.
Ben Yedder is older than both Griezmann and Lacazette but it's fair to say he has not reached the same heights yet. He is a late bloomer who didn't get education at an academy, is different in style and approach, but the pure talent has always been there waiting to be unearthed. Though Casanova went a bit too far in 2012 when he said: "Wissam possesses a quality last pass and finish, and there is something of Leo Messi in him."
However, there could be no better compliment for Ben Yedder, especially because he is a fervent and self-confessed Barcelona fan, claiming that the Catalans' style reminds him of futsal.
Naturally, he has always dreamt of moving to La Liga and was delighted when Toulouse finally agreed to sell him to Sevilla after lengthy negotiations in the summer of 2016. The Frenchman was a typical Monchi signing -- remarkable quality at a low price. Who else could get a player who netted 62 goals in four Ligue 1 seasons for a modest club for just €9 million?
Ben Yedder's debut for Sevilla came at Camp Nou in the Super Cup, even though it ended in a defeat, but he has yet to start a league game against Barca. He has had three coaches at Sevilla already, and none of them have used him as a certain starter, but he doesn't seem to care.
Jorge Sampaoli rotated his squad constantly last term, yet Ben Yedder managed to score 18 goals in all competitions. This season, Eduardo Berizzo and especially Montella tend to prefer Muriel, but Ben Yedder is much more prolific than the Colombian, with 19 goals. Of those goals, 10 have come in the Champions League, the competition in which he had already become the club's top scorer in history, ahead of Luis Fabiano and Freddie Kanoute.
Ben Yedder netted in both playoff legs against Istanbul Basaksehir, helping Sevilla qualify for the group stage, and then netted three times in two matches against Liverpool. He was magnificent in the 2-2 draw at Anfield and even better when scoring a brace as the Andalusians came from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 against Jurgen Klopp's team in November.
Overall, he had eight goals in Europe by the end of 2017, but that still wasn't enough for Montella to give him the nod versus Manchester United. Luckily for Sevilla, his patience paid off again as he broke the tie wide-open in the second leg just minutes after entering the game.
Ben Yedder has always had to wait for good things to happen. But now the waiting is over as far as the national team in concerned. The striker refused numerous attempts by the Tunisian FA to convince him to represent the country of his parents, and that gamble looked questionable at times, but he was proved to be right and might be rewarded with a trip to the World Cup.
Competition for a place in the France squad is extremely tough, but Ben Yedder won't be afraid. He is happy to bide his time, even as a substitute, and if he can repeat what he has been doing at Sevilla, he will certainly give Deschamps something to think about.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin