October 8, 2021

Lemina's five countries

In 2013, L1 fans got their first chance to witness Lemina. Talented, capable of playing on the wing, through the middle or at the back, technical, versatile, and already boasting a strong character. Breaking onto the scene at Lorient then quickly leaving for Marseille, Mario returned to France this summer to wear the Red and Black shirt at 28 years of age. And those who love Ligue 1, like those who love Le Gym, have discovered a different player. Stronger, more composed, more complete: the Gabonese international has quickly imposed himself as the boss of the Nice midfield. Progress that has been made around the world, thanks to different styles of football, different cultures, different influences, and an ability to take the best from every experience and to add it to his game. Before heading off to join up with his international teammates, Le Gym's n°18 stopped to sit down and discuss his evolution was a player. And the five countries that have allowed him to do so. 

France / Lorient, Marseille (2013 / 2015), Nice since 2021
"I started to play football very early on, at 5 years old with ES Nanterre. Soon after I joined Sport-Etudes in Rueil-Malmaison. I played there for two or three years. Then I had the chance to join the big clubs in the Paris region, like ACBB, but I wanted to stay with my friends, before playing for La Garenne-Colombes. I met some very good coaches there, who are now scouts for Liverpool and others. They are the ones who secured trials with Lorient for me.

When I was small, I was a very creative attacking midfielder, very good on the ball and I scored a lot of goals. As a teenager, at Lorient, I moved out to the wing, like my little brother at the moment at PSG. Between U17s and U19s, I scored an awful lot of goals. In the CFA, I was moved back to the middle and it went well and quickly made it into the first team, before leaving Lorient for Marseille. With Bielsa, I even played on the right side of a back three. They were good experiences.

At the same time, I played for the France youth teams and was even crowned U20s World Champion. The typical player that comes through the ranks in France? Athletic, technical and very complete. You only need to look at players like Kondogbia, Varane or Pogba...

I am back in Ligue 1 after 7 years away. We have gone from seeing a player who was looking to find himself, who wanted to grow, to a player who has gained a lot of maturity and experience, who is a lot calmer in his football. Now if you ask me to play right wing-back, I would do it, even though I prefer playing through the middle (he laughs). L1 has changed a lot too. Lots of coaches have broken through and learnt from others. It's a league that plays a lot better football than before, with teams that look to create chances. So much the better!"

Gabon / First team since 2015
"I always wanted to play for Gabon. It was a dream that I shared with my brothers and cousins. I had it in my mind. I had the chance to play for the France youth teams, honestly, I couldn't say no, because it was something I needed to do in order to say that I am part of the elite in France. After that, I really wanted to give my all for Gabon, to help the team to grow. When I first played for them, I was at Marseille and then Juve (on loan in 2015, before signing permanently in 2016, Editor's note), so straight away, people were expecting a lot of me, I arrived with a certain status.

But African football is very different. It's another mentality, another way of playing. You need to get used to the pitch, the circumstances. You need to be more present for the long ball, win more second balls and battles. It's a pretty tough game, in difficult conditions, with incredible heat. To start with, it was tough for me. I needed to get used to it and understand that there are two styles: the European and the African. You need to be able to quickly switch between the two.

Gabon is a small country, with a population of 1.5 million. Football is a ray of sunshine. We all look to the national team. Our performances influence the daily lives of the people, you can feel it and that's why we try to make them happy. When there are good results, they're happy all the way up to the next match. It's not always easy for people in Gabon or in Africa. There isn't the same stability that we have in Europe. African football brings a lot to you, on a human level and a professional level. It makes you think. Personally, it has helped me to take a step forward in terms of my leadership skills. Leadership and mentality."

Italy / Juventus (2015-2017)
"When I arrived at Juve, I couldn't believe it. I was a youngster, who had only just broken onto the scene in L1, and who was then all of a sudden over there training with huge players. But I tried to play my own game. I really learned a lot from Juventus, the demanding nature of top-level football, the tactical side of things. It helped me. You struggle to finish the training sessions, it's no lie. I experienced it. When I arrived, I often felt dizzy at the end of the session. I slept straight after them, all the way through to the next day when I was back out on the pitch. It was tough. Very tough.

After two or three months, you can feel those efforts paying off. You get into the rhythm, working hard, battling and becoming a real professional footballer. In order to hit certain levels, you need to work a lot. There's no secret around that. I did it, playing on the right wing, in front of the defence and in centre midfield.

Juve completely changes a player. Especially a youngster. You quickly learn that if you want to reach a certain level, you need to be extremely demanding, and really put in the effort. Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci: seeing them train on a daily basis, with the levels they demand and their desire to win… you quickly realise that if you want to be a part of that, you are going to need to work. They do it, so you can't afford to let off. You quickly get used to it. My dream was to play for a top club and I did it with Juventus. And I played in a final of the Champions League (1-4 defeat against Real Madrid on 3 June 2017)."

Turkey / Galatasaray (2019-20)
"I chose Galatasaray because it was the right time for me to go and see something different. I love the supporters and what they are able to give off, it really galvanised me. It made me want to give even more. There, I had everything I wanted at that time in my career. It's a very big club, with huge support. The conditions came together for me to develop even more as a footballer.

Turkish football is a bit like English football: lots of fans, lots of atmosphere, and you can see it in the results, with some crazy scores. There is a very good level in Turkey. And when you are at Galatasaray, it's like when you play for Juve: everyone wants to beat you. I liked it a lot. The Turkish league is less tactical and the Turkish players are very, very technical. Most Turkish players who come to Europe are like that, we saw that when we played Marseille with Under. That's the type of player that Turkey produces.

My time there didn't change my game, but Turkey allowed me to kick on. I even finished as captain. It's what I wanted. Before going there, I asked myself one question: could I bring out the leadership inside me that I hadn't been able to demonstrate because of my timidness? There, I had my answer: yes. I was able to show everything that I had. It allowed me to have a very important role in the team. It's what made me the player that I am today."

England / Southampton (2017-19), Fulham (2020-2021)
"I played at Southampton and Fulham, and I was very happy. Southampton have had some very good players, Mané, Van Dijk, Bale, Walcott. For me, it was a very good club where I was going to blossom.

I arrived in England in top form after my time with Juventus and I put in some top performances before getting injured. The Premier League is very tiring mentally. There are lots of matches, Boxing Day, the cups, and every match is very intense. It's not very tactical, even though it's getting more so with coaches coming from overseas. In the Premier League, there needs to be a show and the fans want to get what they paid for. It goes both ways. What did I most enjoy? The big matches. Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City: that's where you find yourself."

Photos: Icon Sport