Football award ceremonies are much like penalty areas: both are practically second homes to the game’s most gifted forwards. However, even the deadliest predators can sometimes meet their match. Even the sharpest marksmen can face players whose dedication to the art of defending is as fierce as any striker’s thirst for goal.
The list of nominees for The Best FIFA Men’s Player 2018 follows a familiar pattern, with nine of the ten hopefuls plying their trade in attacking roles. One candidate alone bucks the trend, having spent last season trying to keep the rest in check – and marshalling the defence that helped France triumph at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
FIFA.com takes a closer look at the case for Raphael Varane, 12 years after Fabio Cannavaro became the last defender to win football’s most prestigious individual prize.
1 – Best defender in the world?
Vice-captain to France skipper Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane reached a whole new level during the World Cup in Russia. Despite often being portrayed as Sergio Ramos’s junior partner at Real Madrid, the centre-back finally emerged as a leader for Les Bleus, a role long envisaged for him in the France defence by Didier Deschamps. Always well positioned, effective with his passing, unbeatable in the air and quick to intervene, the Madrid stopper displayed the full range of his talents in Russia.
“Raphael Varane is, for me, the best central defender in the world,” said Jose Mourinho in 2014, having originally brought the Frenchman to the Spanish capital. It was a statement that seemed extravagant at the time, but maybe the Portuguese coach was merely four years ahead of everyone else. And if Varane is possibly not the best defender in the world today, who else can claim to have performed better over the last 12 months?
2 – A tale of two quarter-finals
Varane spent four years being haunted by one fleeting moment. It came during the quarter-finals at Brazil 2014, when he lost out in an aerial challenge with Mats Hummels, leading to the only goal in France’s eventual loss to Germany. Blamed countless times for his country’s exit since then, he has now surely banished that painful episode for good.
Four years later, in another World Cup quarter-final this summer, Varane was involved in a similar aerial tussle following a free-kick. This time, he got the better of Uruguay’s solid and tenacious defenders to plant a header beyond Fernando Muslera and set France on the way to a 2-0 win, while drawing a line under his anguish in Brazil.
“He’s four years older,” said Deschamps after the final whistle. “My players have grown up. They’re more mature, more experienced. We need that. I told him at the end of the match: ‘Today, it went the other way.’ It’s often during the most difficult moments that you learn the most.”
3 – Making up for missing out
Another difficult episode for Varane came ahead of UEFA EURO 2016, when he picked up a thigh injury a few weeks before the tournament and missed the chance to appear on home soil. As he explained after his crucial goal against Uruguay at Russia 2018: “If I was looking to get my own back, it was more to do with EURO 2016. It was very tough not to be there for that.”
Varane’s injury spared him the heartbreak of losing the final on French turf, but above all it fed his hunger to progress and leave his mark at the highest level. The former Lens player certainly achieved that in the UEFA Champions League last term. Aside from the wobble of a 3-1 home loss to Juventus in the quarter-finals, Varane was exceptional against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16, before excelling against Bayern in the semi-finals and Liverpool in the decider, en route to clinching his fourth European title.
That made him France’s most successful player in the competition, along with team-mate Karim Benzema, and he also ended 2017 by snaring a third winner’s medal in the FIFA Club World Cup.