For some reason, all the Guadeloupe-born stars who have worn the shirt of the France national team have been defenders.
The first was Marius Tresor, the elegant Marseille and Bordeaux centre-back who scored a famous volley against West Germany in the 1982 World Cup semifinals. Then came Jocelyn Angloma, the magnificently skilled attack-minded right-back who excelled at Euro ’92 and won the Champions League with Marseille a year later before enjoying successful spells in Italy and Spain.
Lilian Thuram was a combination of both, starring as a full-back and a stopper and becoming one of the best defenders in football history at Parma and Juventus. World champion in 1998 and European champion in 2000, he is the most capped France player by a distance with 142 games.
Thierry Henry, whose father is Guadeloupean, also rates a mention, though the former Arsenal great was born in Paris.
Now, at long last, Guadeloupe has managed to produce a remarkable attacking talent on the island. Thomas Lemar is only 21, but his performances for Monaco suggest that he is a superstar in the making.
The Monegasques are having a sensational season in Ligue 1 and currently top the table after scoring an amazing 60 goals in 20 matches. Leonardo Jardim has certainly built an entertaining team to watch that is popular with the neutrals, and all the players deserve huge credit for the achievement, but Lemar is arguably the jewel in the crown.
The diminutive midfielder has been exceptional throughout the campaign. With seven goals to his name, he is Monaco’s second top scorer in the league behind Radamel Falcao. And with four assists, he is second behind teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe.
Add decisive strikes in both Champions League fixtures against Tottenham, which led to identical 2-1 wins and enabled Monaco to finish top of the group and qualify for the round of 16, and it is easy to understand why many French fans are excited about the young prospect.
Lemar’s role model has always been Andres Iniesta, and it shows. While his dribbling skills are superb, he is not obsessed with taking on defenders, but rather puts emphasis on team play. Like the Barcelona genius, Lemar is able to create space for himself and his teammates, and seems to have more time on the ball than other midfielders. Indeed, he is more responsible than anyone for the Monaco’s eye-pleasing fluid style.
“I am trying to avoid duels and concentrate on passing and movement as much as possible,” Lemar told BeIN Sports.
Moving across the pitch is natural for Lemar. He is versatile, able to perform on both flanks and in the middle, and thrives in a free role. Naturally left-footed, he is very decent with his right foot too, which makes him even more difficult to mark. His range of passing is phenomenal, he likes to shoot from distance and few players in France are more dangerous from free kicks.
Now that he is fast becoming of the hottest prospects in Europe, it’s hard to believe his previous team Caen agreed to sell him to Monaco for just €4 million in the summer of 2015.
The man responsible for unearthing Lemar’s talent is Philippe Tranchant, who visited Guadeloupe in 2008 and spotted the 12-year-old who was much smaller than other kids at Solidarite Scolaire academy, but stood out nevertheless.
By 2010, the youngster joined Caen, and Tranchant himself had the pleasure of coaching him in the club’s reserve team in the fourth division. That’s when Lemar, who started out as a defensive midfielder, was moved higher up the pitch.
The transition to the first-team was not very smooth, though. Lemar was barely used in the 2013-14 season by the coach Patrice Garande as Caen were promoted to Ligue 1, and found his time on the pitch rather limited in 2014-15 as well. N’Golo Kante was the team’s best performer that season, while Lemar only started six games and was used as a substitute 19 times.
Monaco were impressed with what they saw from the midfielder in April 2015 despite the fact he only played 26 minutes against them in a 3-0 home defeat, but bizarrely his own coach was of the opposite opinion. And thus, Lemar was sold to Monaco at an outrageously low price.
“I thought that Thomas was extraordinary, and everyone at the club agreed with me but for Garande, who claimed that the player didn’t fit into his idea of the game,” Tranchant said before Lemar returned to Stade Michel d’Ornano last March with Monaco. “Garande didn’t trust him, and it ended badly.”
Sure enough, he found the net with a brilliant free kick, which only made Caen fans feel worse. Selling Kante to Leicester City for €8m looked to be a great piece of business for the French club when the deal was signed, but proved to be a major miscalculation in retrospect as he led the Foxes to the Premier League title. Letting Lemar go for half that amount could turn out to be an even bigger mistake.
Monaco coach Jardim rated Lemar highly from the first day, but didn’t want to put too much pressure on his shoulders last season, and the midfielder only completed the full 90 minutes on 10 occasions in 2015-16.
“I want Lemar to play well, and that doesn’t mean that he has to play a lot,” the Portuguese explained. “He is not prepared, physically and mentally, to play 40 games a season yet.”
Such patience was certainly justified and enabled the midfielder to develop gradually. Though that didn’t prevent the big teams to take notice of Lemar’s sensational talent.
Bayern Munich tried to sign him a year ago, while Atletico Madrid reportedly offered €20m last summer. Monaco naturally refused — this club excels in negotiations, and having sold Anthony Martial to Manchester United for a fee that could raise to £58m, they are unlikely to rate Lemar any lower.
Having come of age, Lemar has played 17 times in Ligue 1 this season already, and his contribution is immense. Elegant and inventive, he continues to work hard for a team which scored 57 goals last season, but have improved on that record already in 2016-17 with 18 matches remaining. No team in Europe’s top leagues are as prolific.
The unique nature of Jardim’s ensemble was confirmed once again on Sunday when Monaco visited Marseille. The hosts had conceded just a single goal at Stade Velodrome in the previous nine Ligue 1 fixtures, but the Monegasques thrashed them 4-1.
Lemar started the feast with a majestic lob over the keeper from a tight angle, which was probably the best goal of his career so far. But more is to come and, if everything goes according to plan, Lemar might yet eventually replace his idol Iniesta at Camp Nou.
The youngster should also become a valued member of the national team, having made his debut under Didier Deschamps in November. And while he is unlikely to break Henry’s record of 51 goals for France, Lemar is certain to score more than Tresor, Angloma and Thuram combined.