The following article is extracted from Football News’s 200,000 word guide to the world of French football, The Football News 100 which focused on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2014 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
The following piece was written in December 2014 and published on the 5th January 2015. Papy Djilobodji ranked 18th in our index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Football News 100, rising an incredible 78 places from his position in the previous edition of the Football News 100.
Nantes’ towering Senegalese central defender went from strength to strength in 2014 as Les Canaris confirmed their Ligue 1 status for the 2014/15 campaign and have since continued to shine, finishing the calendar year in the top half of the table, to the surprise of French football fans and pundits alike.
Another one of Nantes’ modest, hard-working individuals, it is perhaps a miracle that Papy Djilobodji has found his way into one the top five leagues in European football. As a youngster he joined Senegalese side ASC Saloum’s youth excellence centre before being promoted (but only by allegedly faking registration by taking the name of a player who looked like him) to the first team where he remained for two seasons. Djilobodji then made the bravest of decisions at the tender age of 19 to leave everything that he knew behind to try his hand at integrating into a European football team.
In his initial attempts, by all accounts, he failed. Trials at Lille and Lazio were unsuccessful with 1.93m man apparently lacking a good enough touch to become a professional footballer. It was a cruel, brutal fall back down to earth for Djilobodji but where many might have tried to return to Africa in his situation, the central defender refused to let go of his dreams.
Papy Djilobodji joined a fourth division French side just outside of Paris in the form of Moissy-Cramayel, one of the few clubs that were at all interested in taking the player on. He was quickly spotted by higher tier French clubs who realised that his muscular build and powerful defensive attributes would make him an instant hit in Ligue 1 or Ligue 2. With his technical abilities improving as his time with Moissy in pre-season developed, Djilobodji had the option to join Dijon after just two games but decided to wait until halfway through the season before making a decision on his future.
Djilobodji was 21 at the time and the big career decisions that he has made to date reflect his measured on-pitch persona. It is Djilobodji’s unique approach towards attackers and dangerous situations that has made him into one of the best Ligue 1 central defenders in 2014. This tenacity to quickly weigh-up the risk and reward each time he either makes an interception or chooses to merely track his man seem to point to a reflective character trait which Djilobodji does not only deploy on the football field.
In December 2009, he duly signed the dotted line for Nantes at he remains at the Beaujoire side to this very day. Because of his unexpected pace owing to the weighty unit that Djilobodji carries around the pitch, he was first deployed as a defensive midfielder for Nantes, but he struggled with the core concepts of bridging the gap between defence and attack and was move to centre back with urgency.
The decision proved crucial in formulating a sturdy backline over the course of the 2012/13 season that gave FCN the platform to launch themselves back into France’s top flight. Djilobodji earned something of a bad reputation with Ligue 2‘s officials however with late challenges a plenty, especially in the seasons before Michel der Zakarian took charge of the club. In 2014, Djilobodji has proved that he has become a far less wreckless defender, most likely due to the increased experience that he has accumulated over the course of Nantes’ ascension to Ligue 1 fame.
A red card against Toulouse in May somewhat dilutes the above analysis in a moment of madness from the former Moissy man but thankfully he did not cost his side all three points as Les Canaris’ left the southern region of France with one point. That was the only card that Djilobodji picked up in the whole of the second half of the 2013/14 Ligue 1 campaign. While Nantes are a seemingly ever-improving outfit, their midfield is oftentimes overrun and thus Djilobodji has to pick up the odd tactical yellow card here and there, with five cautions already in the first half of the 2014/15 campaign.
Papy Djilobodji has largely disappointed at the other end of the pitch in 2014, failing to score a single goal for Nantes in the last twelve months. With his size and stature, it would be easy to reproach the Senegal man for failing to improve his technical capacities when putting ball to head. He often gets in dangerous positions from attacking set plays, but fails to put his efforts on target. This is surely a part of his game which he would enjoy receiving the opportunity in training to perfect as it provides a kind break from the otherwise drab, inflexible daily defensive drills.
As a result of Djilobodji’s fine defensive displays, underlined most suitably by Nantes’ extensive overachievements this season, which sees them sit joint third in the least goals conceded table as we head into to the Ligue 1 winter break. He has been the subject of intense, almost harassing levels of interest from Marseille who remain a big admirer of the Senegalese international’s talents.
2015 will undoubtedly bring more success to both Djilobodji and Nantes but the latter will be without the former for the first few weeks of the New Year when he takes the trip to travel to Equatorial Guinea in January. Senegal’s squad has been controversial to say the least but Alain Giresse is a manager with vast experience in Africa’s premier continental competition and who is to say that Djilobodji cannot win his first piece of professional silverware there?
The African Cup of Nations serves as a fortunate obstacle to potential buyers in the January window. If Djilobodji can continue to display his majestic defending, he can surely make the big-money move that his play merits in 2015.