Valbuena - France`s Little Big Man
Brasilia: Mathieu Valbuena has had the last laugh over former tormentors Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery after becoming integral to France`s World Cup hopes.
The pocket-sized 29-year-old wideman -- nicknamed the `little bike` -- has always punched above his weight and never shirked a challenge.
Thus it was he finally established himself for his country ahead of Nasri after the epic two-leg play-off win over Ukraine last November.
It is as much his usually cheery disposition that earned Valbuena a place on the plane and not the more skilful Nasri, whose badboy image and disruptive influence counted against him when Dider Deschamps came to name his squad.
Valbuena, born near Bordeaux to a Spanish father and a French mother, will have shed no tears over his omission given Nasri and Ribery ganged up on him when he first arrived at Marseille, making a particular point of singling him out because of his lack of height -- he stands at just 5ft 6inches (1.67metres).
"When I see them at the national side get togethers, I prefer to make light of what went on because the story is over," he told radio station RTL in February last year.
"Despite it being over I still have a bad memory of what went on.
"To be systematically singled out for bad jokes really hurts.
"Nobody else in the dressing room would have put up being targeted like I was. I was not ready to be subjected to that. I was too nice but I am now made of harder stuff," added Valbuena, who was also singled out for especially tough treatment on the training ground.
Valbuena, scorer of five goals in his 35 international appearances since making his debut in 2010, may not have earned a big money move abroad like Ribery or Nasri have done.
However, he is hoping that good performances in Brazil will finally see him cut the bonds with Marseille after eight years, a rarity in terms of longevity for modern footballers.
Deschamps, for whom Valbuena was an integral part of the Marseille side he coached to the 2010 title, is overjoyed to have such a cheerful presence along at the finals and equally so that his performances, especially in the warm-up win over Norway, were so impressive.
"He (Valbuena) has been superb for us (the national side) for the past two years," Deschamps said.
"He arrived with a big smile, a great eagerness to succeed and you can see that on the pitch, you can really feel it.
"He has never been better than he has been for France coming into the finals."
For Guy Stephan, assistant coach to Deschamps at national level as he was at Marseille, summed up the importance of Valbuena to the France set-up.
"Mathieu is indispensable," he said.
"He has been given a role he has never had before. Didier has allowed him a lot of freedom to move around and animate the flow of the game, but he knows that he has to get out to a flank if we lose the ball.
"He is an extraordinarily giving person on the pitch," added Stephan.
Valbuena, who has scored some eye-catching goals in European competition, including spectacular efforts against English side Liverpool and Germans Borussia Dortmund, has according to friends always been able to raise his game when needed.
Indeed he came in for criticism last season that his performances for Marseille lacked the enthusiasm and level of previous seasons whereas when he pulled on the French team shirt in the warm-up games he was transformed back into the dynamic hardworking and effective player people were accustomed to.
"Since he was very young he was always like that," said fellow France player Rio Mavuba, who came through the youth system with Valbuena at Bordeaux.
"He really loves it when there were big matches, he loves that pressure."