One of the most positive stories in our Portuguese Abroad coverage this season has been the tale of José Fonte in France with Ligue 1 surprise package Lille.
After a somewhat disastrous spell with English Premier League club West Ham United following a move from Southampton, Fonte moved to China and Dalian Yifang in February, and many could have been forgiven for thinking the veteran’s top-level career was winding down.
However Fonte, who recently turned 35, made a swift return to Europe just a few months later, joining Lille on a two-year contract. Fonte was joined in the north of France by his brother, Rui, forming a 5-man Portuguese contingent at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy along with ex-Braga midfielder Xeca and former Sporting academy prospects Edgar Ié and Rafael Leão.
Fonte settled immediately and up until a bizarre recent red card against Nimes, had started all 17 of Lille’s matches in Ligue 1 as Christophe Galtier’s side have surprised observers by finding themselves 2nd behind Paris Saint-Germain in the table. Fonte was named the club’s Player of the Month in November as part of a tight Lille defence.
“I’ve enjoyed it a lot here, I’ve never felt so confident and relaxed, I’m playing my best football,” Fonte told English paper The Sun. “The Lille sporting director called me and said ‘Listen, I need someone with your profile, I need someone with experience, leadership skills because I have a very young squad with no experience’.
“I spoke to my national team colleagues who were playing in France at the time, João Moutinho, Anthony Lopes, I spoke to Eder who used to play here. They all said it was a great club, with great facilities, they won the league seven years ago with Eden Hazard - that was a great generation of players.”
United move was close
Fonte’s hectic last couple of years in football could have taken an even more interesting turn, with the defender having been made aware that José Mourinho’s Manchester United were keen on taking him to Old Trafford two years ago. The move did not materialise, and Fonte instead endured a difficult spell with West Ham, although he remains complimentary about the London club.
“It did not go how I wanted it to, unfortunately, the time I joined the club was not a good time,” he said. “But what a club West Ham are, such a big club, the supporters are fantastic. There was a lot of problems and bad energy at the club when I joined, and in the end, things didn’t go as planned, not because I wasn’t trying.
“Yes Manchester United were interested, I had my agent talking to me but nothing concrete came. When United come knocking it’s always nice to hear about it, my agent told me there was a possibility.
“Obviously I was anxious to hear more about it, but in the end, it didn’t happen for one reason or another. United had to sell players but they couldn’t sell them. It didn’t happen so I had to move on quickly.”
PSG “not good for French league”
These days Fonte’s focus is on helping Lille secure their position in the upper reaches of the French league, with the battle for places in the top 6 in Ligue 1 looking fierce. The veteran Portuguese admits, however, that the gap between perennial champions Paris Saint-Germain and the rest is a source of frustration.
“I don’t think it is fair because nobody can compete against that - PSG winning every single game cannot be good for the French League. It would be nice to have more teams competing for the title, but we also have to give them credit.
“We would love to compete against them with the same weapons they have, but having said that, we are a squad that is very young, talented and people are starting to see we are a serious threat in the league.”
The young side at Lille contains emerging stars including Portuguese striker Rafael Leão, 19, who has scored in the team’s last two matches, as well as key man Nicolas Pepe. Fonte believes that Pepe is a big talent and is rightfully linked with teams such as Barcelona and Manchester City.
“Potentially he can play for any team in the world, without a doubt,” Fonte said. “He is that good, he has pace, unbelievable left foot, he can finish and now it’s only about his mind.
“If he keeps listening, wanting to improve and understands that he is only just starting his career, like Kylian Mbappe, he still has a lot to learn. You cannot let it get to your head, that the main thing but he has to keep doing the work he doesn’t want to do defensively.
“If you go to Manchester City, if you don’t work, you’re out of the team.”
The young Ivorian would do well to listen to the words of his vice-captain, who at 35 has years of experience over his younger colleagues. “I’m the oldest in the team, I play international football, I won the Euros and with all due respect, they have to listen.”
By Sean Gillen