At the start of last year, the stars all seemed to be aligning for Saint-Etienne winger Max-Alain Gradel. The goals and assists were flowing and the Côte d'Ivoire international's dribbles were thrilling crowds, making him a fixture for both club and country.
His progress appeared unstoppable, until he picked up a seemingly innocuous injury during training in March 2013. The final diagnosis was devastating, however, with an anterior cruciate ligament problem keeping him out of action for the next six months.
"It was a huge ordeal," Gradel explained to FIFA.com. "With an injury like that, it always takes you time before you can get back to your best." Indeed, the 26-year-old has only recently started to pick up where he left off, just over a year after he was left on the sidelines.
Typically brought on towards the end of games after making his comeback last September, Gradel finally turned a corner when he struck the winner in Saint-Etienne's 2-1 derby win against Lyon last month. A week later, he scored in the last minute to seal a 1-1 draw with Nice, and on Sunday he excelled in a 2-2 stalemate against Reims.
The key has been effort and application, according to the player himself. "My work's paying off," he said. "I always had confidence in myself and I knew I had the quality to come back. I never gave up. Some people thought it was over for me, and that I'd never be able to recover from my injury. They didn't know me very well. I've always known what I'm capable of. I'm still the same player – I just needed time to show it."
Having managed just 371 minutes in nine matches during the first half of the season, the outlook certainly appeared grim for Gradel at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Rumours circulated of a winter return to England – 'Mad Max' having started his career at Leicester City and enjoyed a spell at Leeds United – but ultimately he stayed with Les Verts, who currently lie fourth in Ligue 1. "I have absolutely no regrets," he said. "There are six league games to go, we're having a fantastic season, and that's the only thing I'm focused on."
Saint-Etienne may be the priority, but Gradel has not put Côte d'Ivoire out of his mind either. Born in Abidjan in 1987, he has always felt a searing pride whenever he steps out on the pitch for Les Éléphants.
"They represent everything for me," he said. "They're my friends, my family, my driving force, my reason for being. It's because of them that I exist." He displays that passion on domestic duty too, wearing a foam wristband in the same orange, white and green of the Côte d'Ivoire flag. "It's a homage, a way of saying that I'm proud of my colours and my country."
Gradel's international performances have tended to speak for themselves as well. Often sent on from the bench to inject fresh energy, he has made a number of decisive contributions, most recently hitting an added-time leveller in the 2-2 draw with Belgium last month.
"Even if he's not a starter in every game, I consider Max-Alain to be more than a super sub," explained Côte d'Ivoire coach Sabri Lamouchi, who has nothing but praise for Gradel's attitude behind the scenes. "He's someone who's well integrated in the squad and serves as a link between the two generations. He'll start to be given a lot of responsibility in the years to come. He should go on to take over from the senior players."
For the moment, though, Gradel is just enjoying every moment spent with the national side. "We're always happy to meet up with each other again. We have really great times together and there's a genuine atmosphere and joie de vivre within the squad. Our get-togethers always go by too quickly."
As a result, he is dreaming of a more prolonged period with his international colleagues as the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ looms ever closer. "Obviously I'm hoping to be involved. I have confidence in myself and my ability. I'll keep working and make sure I don't have any regrets. I don't get to have the final say, but I'll make sure I give myself every chance.
"To take part in a World Cup would be a dream come true, and it doesn't happen to everyone," he added. "Some players have had fantastic careers without ever getting that opportunity. And this World Cup will be even more special because it's in Brazil. It's going to be magical."
Given his recent experiences, however, Gradel remains understandably wary of tempting fate. "I don't want to talk about it too much. I'd prefer to wait until I'm there. You never know what can happen between now and then."