Monday, June 24, 2024

Jean-Clair Todibo is a Premier League target – but accident could have halted football career

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By then Todibo, who grew up in the Seine-Saint-Denis banlieue in Paris – having been born in Cayenne, the capital of French Guyana – was starting to be noticed. “It was not like the Paris dream, you know! But it was good for me and I appreciated it a lot. There are a lot of football players from that area,” he says.

Among them are Moussa Diaby – now at Aston Villa – and Monaco’s Youssouf Fofana. “There are a lot of memories. The first time we got together with the French national team we talked about it. It was cool,” Todibo adds.

At that age – and despite not having a background in academy football – he had a trial at Manchester United, for a week, and before that, one at Nottingham Forest. “It was a good experience,” he says. “I discovered a little bit what the professional world was like.” His main memory is being at United, in February 2016, when Marcus Rashford made his debut in the Europa League and burst onto the scene.

Instead Todibo joined Toulouse. By 18 he had made his first-team debut. Within a year he was signed by Barcelona – after playing just 876 minutes of first-team football. “I was really young but it was like a dream come true,” he says. In terms of his football, he was ready to play. But it was a big move. “Outside of football I was not prepared for what it is like to be at this type of club; this type of big club. I think I was a little bit too young. I had come into the professional world a little bit late. At 16, I was still in my ‘hood’. It was a big gap for me and it happened very quickly,” Todibo says.

Unsurprisingly he struggled for game-time – ahead of more experienced defenders such as Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet – but was brave enough to go out on loan to Schalke 04 in Germany, then Benfica in Portugal before Nice. It meant by 24 he had played in four major European leagues.

“It’s been good for me because I have learned different cultures and worked with different coaches. So now I think I have more weapons. I am more prepared about big things. I think my mind is more ready to be at a big club and it has, for sure, made me a better player,” he says.

‘Todibo is a true defender’

Certainly Julien Sable, Nice’s assistant manager who is something of a mentor to Todibo, is in no doubt as to his ability. “His first quality is that he is a top-level athlete who combines power with speed. He moves so gracefully that it looks like he’s flying at high speed,” the former St-Etienne midfielder says.

“He also has very good technique, especially under pressure. He has made great progress in ball distribution….JC is a true defender: he hates being passed, loves one-v-ones, and duels. He likes to face the best forwards, it’s what motivates him.”

Mention by Todibo of a “big club” turns the attention, again, back to his future. He is naturally coy to discuss it publicly but, clearly, his reasoning behind joining Nice, initially on loan an then permanently, was to “grab some minutes and play football” and get his promising career back on track, which he has done.

“Honestly I don’t want to talk about [my future] because of my respect for the fans here and the club also. But we had a little discussion, for sure,” he says when asked about United and Tottenham.

Does what happened to him in the past mean he must be more careful about making another big move? “I think that’s not the reason. The reason was I was 18 when I went to Barcelona. Now I am 24, I am married, I have two kids,” he argues. “My mind is different. I am a national team player. I have to think a little bit more. The life that I want to have means I’m much more thoughtful about what I do.”

Nevertheless he has closely followed the impact his friend, and former team-mate at Nice, where he was on loan, William Saliba has made since establishing himself at Arsenal.

“I played against him when we were young. He was playing for St-Etienne, I was playing for Toulouse. Then we played together at Nice for six months and now we are playing together in the French national team,” Todibo says, adding he had tried to persuade Saliba to remain longer at Nice.

“For sure, I wanted him to stay another year. But he is playing very well at Arsenal. Last season was a fantastic one for him,” he says.

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