“From time to time, it hits you and you think to yourself: ‘Wow, I’m at Lyon now, I’m an international’. It makes me happy, and drives me to take the next step in my career”. Ferland Mendy, now 24-years-old, has been labeled by many as a “late bloomer”. In less than two years’ time, he has progressed through Ligue 2 to starting for Lyon and forming as part of the Ligue 1 team of the season. Now he is a member of the French National team and has officially signed for the biggest club in the world, Real Madrid. Though, it nearly ended before it all began. The Frenchman, of Senegalese descent, was raised in a rough neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. At 11 years old, he tragically lost his father. At 12, the first signs of an infection in his hip had appeared – an injury that would linger and eventually fester. It’s been a spectacular rise for the fullback, but the road traveled was long and arduous.
His hip issues started at 12, but escalated at the age of 16. He was hospitalized with an infection and unable to walk. The arthritis can be caused by bacteria, virus, or fungus entering the blood stream or an open wound being left untreated. The condition, which directly affects the joint, can cause severe fatigue, pain, chills, and swelling. It was a brutal eight months before he was able to step foot on a pitch again. The injury would have a lasting legacy. At 17-years-old, Mendy was released from PSG’s academy. He could no longer move up the ladder like, friend and academy teammate, Presnel Kimpembe; now a member of the PSG senior side. For much of his time in Paris, he lingered in the “foundation academy ” of PSG’s youth ranks, an affiliate of the main academy team. From the youth levels of U13 – U17, he was an after-thought, and his injury made him a forgotten man. So he returned home for a year to FC Mantes, just outside Paris, a club that resides in the amateur league (4th tier) of French football. It would only be a transition year, before he was picked up by Le Havre. “After eight month, I went back to training as usual and I was rubbish. I just wasn’t up to it, but I worked really hard, and with time I felt myself getting back to a good level, so I left PSG, and eventually signed for Le Havre. It’s behind me now, and it has helped me, it gave me a boost, and gave me character. It has made me who I am,” Mendy said in an interview with the Ligue 1 show.
Once he reached 18-years-old, Mendy was settled into Le Havre’s academy, desperate for his breakthrough. His namesake, Benjamin Mendy—now with Manchester City, was just one year older and already starting and making a name for himself in the left back position for the Le Havre first team. At that time, professional football still felt distant to Ferland. Le Havre had seen the likes of Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, and Dimitri Payet come through their ranks, it was an academy held in high esteem. From 18 until about 21 years of age, Mendy was scrapping it out, trying to find a way through to the first team and get some action in Ligue 2. He played one game in the 2014/2015 season for Le Havre as a full flight professional in the second division, a 90 minute 1-0 win over FC Sochaux. He didn’t play a single minute more after his debut near the end of April. Jerome Mombris, a left back from Madagascar, who was 8 years more senior than Mendy, had the position on lock down. In the 2015-2016 season, as a 21-year-old, Mendy slowly started to form part of the rotation and featured in 11 games—8 as a starter and 3 as a substitute. It still didn’t seem like Real Madrid, or Lyon, or even being a consistent starter in Ligue 2 was on the horizon for Mendy. Le Havre’s last 8 matches of that same ‘15/’16 season, saw Mendy either on the bench or not in the squad all together; not a single minute was played. He was still an unknown quantity in 2016.
As he has so often done in his life and his career, Mendy stuck around and persevered. Jerome Mombris was sold that summer and Mendy was given the opportunity to become Le Havre’s starting left back. There was no turning back. He played 38 games and started 37 of them. He was one of the Ligue 2 revelations of the season. Premier League sides in England like West Brom, Brighton, and Crystal Palace were all interested, but Lyon were the most heavily linked. They made a move for Mendy in January, but were rebuffed and had to wait until the summer to get their man. “It’s true that everything’s happened very quickly since Le Havre, but I tell myself that it must go quicker!” the fullback told France Football in January.
Many critiqued Mendy’s signing when he first was bought by Lyon. His detractors felt he was too fragile and would struggle with the higher level of physicality in Ligue 1. Those detractors were quickly silenced as Ferland became an immediate starter upon joining Lyon. He played over 2,500 minutes in his first season in Ligue 1 keeping 16 clean sheets and contributing 4 assists. Less than half-way through the following season, 2018-2019, Mendy would be called up to the French National team. He played the full 90 minutes on his debut in a 1-0 victory over Uruguay. He was one of the hottest new names in the world of football. His agent was fighting off offers. “He’s the Kylian Mbappe of the left-back role”, Yvan Lee Mee, Mendy’s agent, told France Football. “Contrary to popular belief, the left-back position is the most requested after that of striker because their difficult to find. Mendy is good offensively and defensively, which is very rare. At his age, aside from Andy Robertson who won’t leave Liverpool, there is no one comparable.” Mendy finished last season with 45 games played, 44 as a starter – over 3,600 minutes – with 3 goals and 3 assists (xA of 6). Juventus and Barcelona were among the many top teams interested, but Zinedine Zidane had identified his man. The Madrid coach has had a keen eye when judging Ligue 1 talent – he wanted Real Madrid to sign Eden Hazard back in 2011 while at Lille and identified Raphael Varane, aged 17, while at Lens.
The harrowing and humbling thoughts that must have entered Mendy’s mind as he went from a hospital bed to wheel-chair for months at a time as teenager made the idea of receiving calls from footballing legend Zinedine Zidane seem like the stuff of fairy tales. Spending a year at FC Mantes, struggling to find his form, made his dream of playing the beautiful game professionally wither. Watching Benjamin Mendy and Jerome Mombris play week in and week out for Le Havre first team meant his good performances for the reserve side were falling by the wayside. Yet, Ferland Mendy was resilient. There is no doubting the mental strength of this player, the dark days of his past only made him stronger. Like an Olympic sprinter, Mendy has been hurdling career obstacles with ease. Once unearthed from the depths of fourth tier football and Ligue 2 mediocrity, Mendy has progressed at a jaw-dropping pace. “Growing up, when I played football in my area, I would dribble people and beat them with my pace. I used to say, ‘Speed! Speed! Speed!’. That was a while ago. Now it would just be taking the mick.” If you told Mendy just two years ago that he would be signing for Real Madrid in June of 2019, he would say you’re taking the mick, but instead his “Speed! Speed! Speed!” and rise through football’s elite has seen him reach a day he likely never imagined would come—becoming a Real Madrid player under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane.