Raphael Varane was 17 when he lined up in his first professional game and seven months later Zinedine Zidane had to intervene on Real Madrid’s behalf to stop him signing for Manchester United.
“Let’s hope he proves to be more Pogba than Obertan,” RedIssue quipped in number 249, released on the coronation day of United’s 19th title.
United’s French scout David Friio watched Varane regularly during his last six months at Lens, who were relegated from Ligue 1 at the end of the 2010-11 season. That was never going to be held against Varane.
The parsimony imposed by the Glazer family prevented United from competing with Manchester City and Chelsea for established players, so the club spin was that they were focusing on potential players amid the ‘kamikaze spending’.
United bought the 20-year-old David de Gea and Phil Jones, 19 at the time, in 2011 while Ashley Young was approaching the last year of his contract when he arrived just before his 26th birthday.
Varane had turned 18 by the end of his first professional season and capped Lens in his penultimate appearance for the club. Lens had tied Varane down on a new contract until 2015, guaranteeing a fee reflective of a centre-back pursued by United and Madrid. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was also aware of Varane’s development.
The Lens academy coach Eric Assadourian described Varane as a ‘truly first-class player’ and United confidently briefed a deal was likely. Varane found United’s interest to be ‘greatly flattering’.
Zidane, the recently-appointed sporting director at Madrid, got wind of the discussions and, as Ferguson later recalled, ‘scooped him up’. Zidane gladhanded Varane and provided him with a tour of Madrid’s Valdebebas training base. Varane never visited Manchester and joined Madrid for €10million on a six-year contract.
“I played an active role in the transfer. He is a quality player and has an incredible future ahead of him,” Zidane said at an event in the south of France.
“The fact that he saw Jose Mourinho was very important. This is the most important because he is the coach who will lead the team. They met. And essentially that’s it.”
Lens president Gervais Martel was thrilled for Varane and promised ‘I can tell you he will not go to Real Madrid to repaint the changing rooms’ and marvelled at the ‘exceptional’ conduct of Zidane.
“Even if Lens had stayed in Ligue 1, Raphael Varane would have left because he is a phenomenon,” Martel told supporters inside the club’s Gaillette amphitheatre. “He is going to play for Real Madrid under the leadership of Jose Mourinho who he has already met, and he has also met club adviser Zinedine Zidane.
“Raphael is an exceptional boy. I am proud that he is going to don the Real colors – he has been pursued by Real for the past two months.
“Madrid directors were very good to us, they have been speaking with the player. There is nothing that could go wrong.”
Lens continue to commend Varane. A Madrid shirt signed by the World Cup winner was auctioned to raise funds for hospitals in Lens and Varane returned to the club a year after the Madrid transfer.
United instead bought Jones for £16.5m. Ten years on, Varane could line up with Pogba and even Jones at United – but not Obertan.