When he lifted the World Cup trophy high into the Moscow sky last summer, Samuel Umtiti would’ve owed much of that success to his time at Lyon. The French club picked the defender up at the age of nine and gave him that first footballing platform to perform on his way to major club and country glories.
When the current Barcelona centre-back made his Lyon debut at the age of 18, Les Gones were one of the most successful and competitive sides in Ligue 1. They were still clinging onto the golden era that Juninho and co. had left them to remember at the Stade Gerland. Remi Garde was trying to build on Claude Puel’s polemic performance in the year prior that had seen OL secure a Champions League spot.
By the halfway stage in the season, a promising start had succumbed to fragile form, with Lyon losing four of their seven league games in October and November. Hugo Lloris was struggling for clean sheets, picking up just four in Ligue 1 before the winter break, and the likes of Dejan Lovren and Cris were unable to provide sturdy enough protection. That’s when Garde turned to the young but imposing figure of Samuel Umtiti to bolster his defensive rearguard.
The Lyon fans were struck by the physicality, power and pace of their newest kid who initially started out at left-back, with Umtiti going onto be very popular amongst the home crowd at the Stade Gerland for the remainder of the campaign. The teenager played a key part in Lyon’s Coupe de France run, including starts against Lyon Duchere, Luçon and PSG, which ended with victory over minnows Quevilly in the final.
Garde opted against finding a new central defender in the summer transfer market and put his faith in Umtiti for the following season. And, during a consistent campaign playing regularly in France’s top flight, he netted his first senior goal in a win at Troyes. That was one of his five goals at his boyhood club, with the most memorable one being that curling, stunning strike against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in the Europa League.
Umtiti joined Paul Pogba and Florian Thauvin in the French squad for the under 20 World Cup in Turkey. Having joined forces with St. Etienne’s Kurt Zouma at the centre of defence, Umtiti helped France to the title. Then it seemed as if every major club in Europe had eyes on the 19-year-old.
Zouma got his move to Chelsea the following January while Umtiti continued to assert himself as one of the most impressive players, let alone defenders, in France. PSG’s Qatari billions changed the landscape of French football as some of the biggest names in world football flocked like moths to the City of Light. Former Lyon defender Hubert Fournier was tasked with bringing down this growing monopoly but could only manage successive second place finishes.
Fournier’s defensive credentials made him the ideal man to build on what Umtiti had already learned off Remi Garde. Those two years under Fournier didn’t bare fruit in terms of Lyon silverware, but it did produce one of the most well-rounded defenders on the continent. However, the football public of Europe only got their first glimpse of Umtiti on the world stage during Euro 2016. In Adel Rami’s suspended absence, the 22-year-old was trusted to fill the centre-back role in France’s quarter-final with Iceland.
After a composed and confident display during his first French cap, Umtiti kept his place for the semi-final with Germany. It’s not outlandish to say that those 90 minutes against the world champions persuaded Barcelona to come calling after the tournament finished. Before the age of 23, Umtiti had all the attributes to become one of the best defenders in the world and, with his first three games for his country coming in the quarter, semi and final of a home major tournament, he had experience at the highest level too.