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‘My spiritual father’

Ribéry, a surprise visitor and the Ballon d’Or

Day seven in Doha, and a soaking wet morning workout. Fans and reporters scurried for the trees and canopies in search of shelter. Only one man stood resolutely on the touchlines, seemingly oblivious to the rainswept conditions, without an umbrella, a hat or a rain jacket. But Jean Fernandez ignored the water running down his cheeks and watched one special player in particular: Franck Ribéry, the man he discovered.

It was almost exactly a decade ago in February 2004 when third-tier Stade Brest visited FC Nantes in the last sixteen of the French cup. The first division team won 4-0, but that was of no interest to Fernandez. The FC Metz coach saw quite enough in just one incident: the Brest left winger duped two opponents and sped clear. “I immediately knew he could be a good one,” Fernandez recalls. A couple of months later Ribéry signed his first professional contract in Metz.

“Oh!“ Ribéry made no secret of his stunned surprise after the session in Doha when he was accosted by Fernandez, the man he once described as his “spiritual father”. Fernandez also brought Ribéry to Marseille from Galatasaray in 2005 when the pair spent another season together. They embraced in the Doha rain and made a date to meet at the team hotel.

The best player in Europe and the man who discovered him had plenty to talk about, including Ribéry’s chances of being named world player of the year. The Ballon d’Or Gala takes place in Zurich on Monday evening, just two days after Ribéry addressed the Saturday lunchtime press conference in Qatar. “I’m sleeping well,” the 30-year-old said, “Pep advised me to stay cool and relaxed - and to steal the trophy and run away before it’s presented.“

Sammer: He deserves it

“I’m kidding of course,” laughed Ribéry. Winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or “would be a dream,” said the Frenchman, “it’s a big award and I have a big chance. 2013 was my best year with the team, but also as an individual.” However, Franck knows it will be tough: “My rivals are superb.” Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the other names on the shortlist, “and I’m just happy to be put together with these two great players.”

Naturally, everyone at Bayern thinks the only worthy winner would be Franck Ribéry. “I think it’s clear Franck deserves it this year,” declared Philipp Lahm, who had a vote as Germany captain. “And I voted for Franck.“ In Matthias Sammer’s opinion, “Franck was the most complete and best player. He applies his individual quality to the team effort. It would be logical for him to win.”

Always a team player

Sammer returned to the theme of Ribéry’s progress in recent years. “Apart from his attacking excellence, which he has in any case, he nowadays defends with discipline and team spirit.“ That has struck a real chord with his team-mates: “I’ve rarely seen such incredible support for an individual player from the rest of the team. It’s because of the way he’s come on.“

“The team believes in me. They know what I can do. They know at once if I’m having an off day,” responded Ribéry. Scoring two goals himself but losing 3-2 would bring him no pleasure at all. “I’m not an egotist. I always give 100 percent for the team,” he declared. Jean Fernandez can be justifiably proud.