"It's been one heck of a July so far. I hope it will continue like that." These were France defender Samuel Umtiti's parting words prior to leaving the Stade Velodrome this Thursday, 7 July, following a "heck of a" performance against Germany. It has certainly been an unforgettable last week or so for the Yaounde (Cameroon) native, who in the space of just eight days won his first Les Bleus cap against Iceland, signed for Barcelona – one of the biggest clubs in the world – and played a significant part in his national team qualifying for the UEFA European Championship final on home soil.
"I'm taking it in my stride. I won't let it get to my head," said the former Lyon player when asked to take stock of this whirlwind sequence of events. "I don't tend to get carried away with things. I live from day to day. I'm making the most of what's happening because I honestly didn't think I'd be here today," he added with a broad smile.
If the centre-back did not see this coming, few other people could have either. Just a few weeks ago, he was not even in Didier Deschamps' squad for the EURO, having been named instead on the standby list. However, injuries to Raphael Varane and Jeremy Mathieu, coupled with Mamadou Sakho's off-the-pitch issues, opened the door to Umtiti, although he was still some way off a starting spot. Yet the Lyon academy graduate's prospects took another turn for the better when Adil Rami picked up a suspension and, with Eliaquim Mangala out of form, Umtiti found himself catapulted into the line-up alongside the ever-present Laurent Koscielny for the quarter-final meeting with Iceland.
Thrown in at the deep end, Umtiti more than held his own. "Many were surprised to see him start in the heart of defence against Iceland and there were some mixed feelings about his first outing, but earning your first cap in such an important match is easier said than done. I think he did a very sound job, without taking risks or overcomplicating things, and hardly making any mistakes," the former goalkeeper Joel Bats – a EURO 1984 winner with France – told FIFA.com.
As a member of the backroom staff at Lyon, Bats has quite literally seen Umtiti grow up. After all, before agreeing to move to Barça, the central defender had spent his entire career at L'OL, rising all the way through the youth ranks before bursting into the first team as a youngster. By the age of 19, the 5'11 (1.81m) stopper – who arrived in France aged two and joined the club as an eight-year-old – had already won the French Cup and started in the UEFA Champions League.
Three cheers?Sam, as he is nicknamed, has been on a similar journey on the international stage, although it took him a little longer to make the breakthrough at the highest level. After representing France at every age group and tasting FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 glory alongside Paul Pogba, he got his first senior call-up as recently as this May. Having slotted in seamlessly against Iceland, as evidenced by his 100 per cent pass completion rate, he followed that up with a similarly impressive display against world champions Germany. As Bats put it, "That second match showed that he is very mature for his age. It was a perfect performance in my opinion. He rose to the occasion and was on a par with his team-mates."
"I felt good, it's as simple as that. I tried to stay calm once again and to play to my strengths, as I've learnt to do in club football. You have to up your game in these sorts of matches and it forced me to step it up a few notches. Playing alongside these players isn't difficult – you adapt easily," Umtiti himself said after the Germany encounter. "As the match wore on, I felt better and better. That said, a EURO semi-final isn't easy as second appearances go."
They say that good things come in threes and in all likelihood Umtiti will be trotting out in a Les Bleus shirt for the third time in none other than the European Championship final, against a Portugal side spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo, whom he can look forward to locking horns with again in La Liga next season. First, though, he has a lofty target in his sights: helping France to capture their third major trophy on home turf, after the aforementioned EURO 1984 and the 1998 FIFA World Cup™. If he succeeds, it will truly put the seal on a jubilant start to July for the young defender.