When Adrien Rabiot left his native Paris for Manchester City as a 13-year-old, he hoped to go on and achieve glorious things with the upwardly mobile English club.
When City kick off their Champions League quarter-final in the French capital on Wednesday, they will find a 21-year-old Rabiot determined to help demolish their European dream. And they will know that Rabiot’s determination is a formidable force. And so is his mother.
Véronique Rabiot has said she pulled her son out of City’s academy after six months in 2008 because she felt the club were not looking after his interests as well as they should have, though others have spoken of homesickness. She has remained a major influence on his career ever since, so much so that in recent years parody websites in France have had fun exaggerating the demands she regularly makes of her son’s employers on his behalf, and the recurring vows that he will leave PSG if he does not play as often as she wishes.
Rabiot has never been embarrassed by his mother’s pushiness even though he has shown that he is perfectly capable of sticking up for himself. Is she uncompromising? Yes. Unreasonable? No. And now he does play regularly in one of the strongest midfields in Europe. So Rabiot is building the career that he and his mother want for him. His father, Michel, wants it for him too, and, as a longtime PSG fan, he indicates his pride in his son’s success by moving his eyelids. That is the only part of his body he can move since being afflicted by locked-in syndrome following a stroke the year before Rabiot left for City.
“Unless you’ve experienced this illness you don’t know what it’s like,” Rabiot told Le Parisien after signing his first professional contract, with PSG, following his 17th birthday in 2012. “It’s a very frustrating feeling. Ever since his stroke, when I go out on the pitch, I’m fighting for him too. He was the one who introduced me to football and he knows it very well. He still has all his cognitive functions, he’s the same on the inside. When I told him I was turning pro I could tell by his look that he was proud.”
City had spotted Rabiot playing for Créteil in south-eastern Paris but the player did not go straight to PSG upon his return from England; he had short stints at a couple of small outfits in the south of the country before being invited to join PSG’s academy at 15. He progressed rapidly there and was still only 16 when Carlo Ancelotti took him to train with the first team. The Italian gave Rabiot his senior debut in a friendly against Barcelona in the summer of 2012 and then, within a few months, made him the youngest player in the club’s history to play in Ligue 1 and then their youngest in the Champions League.
An ultra-dynamic, ball-winning midfielder with an eye for a pass and the physique, technique and smarts to compete with adults, he was doing more than just pursuing his own ambitions – he was also becoming the flagbearer of PSG’s much-trumpeted policy of hothousing French talent to provide a crop of youngsters for the first team. But then, and since, critics – including the Rabiots – pointed out that despite that policy, PSG have mostly been unable to repel the temptation to buy ready-made stars.
Many gifted peers of Rabiot left because they feared the route to the first team was blocked, players such as Kingsley Coman, now a Bayern Munich sensation and France international, and Moussa Dembélé, currently scoring regularly and earning rave reviews at Fulham. Only Rabiot has made it through to the first team at PSG. But until recently his position there has been unsettled, even if in March he clinched his fourth league title. He spent part of the 2012-13 season in Toulouse after asking for a loan move, and the following season he declared “I do not want to go through what Mamadou Sakho had to put up with” in reference to the centre-back who spent years trying to nail down a regular starting place at PSG after graduating from their academy before concluding he would have to move to Liverpool to play more.
The next season Rabiot played often, but mostly from the bench, before being frozen out for refusing to sign a new contract. He eventually agreed a deal, which is one of the reasons why Crystal Palace were able to buy Yohan Cabaye last summer, but then, earlier this season, Rabiot was at it again, declaring he would seek a loan move away if he did not start as often as he wanted to (his mother said in the summer he should be getting at least 35 full matches a season at his age).
Even some PSG fans were tiring of his agitation by then, especially as he piped up at a time when Laurent Blanc had already started playing him regularly. Initially the manager used him mainly because of injury to Marco Verratti, but when the Italian came back Rabiot retained a frequent starting place, with Blaise Matuidi or Thiago Motta sometimes omitted instead. Verratti was injured again for the second leg of the Champions League last 16 match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where Rabiot opened the scoring. Even if the Italian were not still suffering groin trouble, Rabiot would be aiming to repeat that feat on Wednesday. Is he uncompromising on and off the pitch? Yes. Unreasonable? No.
Asked last week whether his increased playing time this season means he has finally resolved to stay at PSG at least until the end of his contract in 2019, Rabiot replied: “I live for the present. I take things as they come, maybe because I’m well aware that everything is fragile.”
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