PARIS (AP)When Aurelien Tchouameni started his first game for France, the 21-year-old midfielder looked like he had been playing at international level for years.
There were no nerves as the Monaco player displayed uncommon composure and midfield control at Ukraine in a World Cup qualifier in September.
After helping France qualify for next year’s World Cup in Qatar, he looks to boost Monaco in its bid to rise from mid-table when defending champion Lille visits on Friday.
Tchouameni will be crucial to Monaco’s hopes of overcoming a slow start and pushing into the Champions League places, just like he did last season when Monaco surged late to place third.
But it’s his performances on the international stage that have drawn early comparisons with past France midfield greats, like World Cup and European Championship winner Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele – Vieira’s teammate when France finished runner-up in the 2006 World Cup final.
Tchouameni was propelled into the spotlight so quickly and brightly that Spanish sports daily Marca splashed his name on its front page two days straight as Real Madrid’s next big signing.
Such flattery came after he had helped France win the Nations League by beating Belgium and then Spain in the final, where he started a title-deciding game in only his fifth international appearance and caught the eye again.
”I woke up (the next day) and saw that people were ringing up from everywhere. What’s this all about?” Tchouameni reflected in a recent interview with L’Equipe magazine. ”But it’s not being on Marca’s front page that’s going to make me play well.”
Yet the fact that France coach Didier Deschamps had no hesitation throwing Tchouameni in against one of the world’s best midfields spoke volumes of the confidence he has in him.
Tchouameni’s rapid ascension started in February when an outstanding performance in a 2-0 win at title holder Paris Saint-Germain raised awareness. He kept that momentum going, helping Monaco hit top form in the second part of the campaign and qualify for the Champions League playoffs.
Deschamps rarely waits to test talent at the highest level and when Tchouameni got a first call up in August, he was quickly welcomed by Paul Pogba, who made his international debut at 20 and scored for victor France in the 2018 World Cup final.
”Paul told me during my first training session `The fact you’re here means that you have ability. Don’t be scared to get on the ball,”’ Tchouameni recounted. ”It stayed engraved in my mind, I didn’t need to note it down.”
He does write down other notes, though, from books he’s read on the late basketball great Kobe Bryant, on the all-conquering New Zealand rugby team, and former first lady Michelle Obama.
”I read biographies about people who have achieved excellence,” he said. ”(Michelle Obama) is a symbolic figure.”
When you are linked with Madrid and Manchester United, people are also expecting excellence from you. The next step for Tchouameni will be to join a much bigger club than Monaco, which won the last of its eight league titles four years ago and sits 11th in the French league.
Playing for the tiny principality’s team has given Tchouameni a bonus of competing and learning alongside former Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who won two European Championships and a World Cup with Spain.
”He’s done everything in the game. I like it when he gives me advice,” Tchouameni said. ”His positional sense is incredible.”
Given his wealth of experience, Fabregas is also well-placed to advise him on his next move.
So it may be no surprise if Tchouameni follows in the footsteps of Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and PSG’s star forward Kylian Mbappe, who made their names with Monaco before wider fame elsewhere.
This story has been corrected to show spelling is Kobe, not Koby.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports