At the turn of the millennium, on the cobbled streets of sun-drenched La Seyne-sur-Mer on the south coast of France, ‘Papy’ was falling in love with football.
With his cousin Alexandre and a clutch of close family friends, the diminutive midfielder, who now represents Leicester City in the Premier League, was learning quickly.
Despite sharing a coastline with Marseille, Nice and Monaco, Papy’s neighbourhood in La Seyne-sur-Mer was a modest corner of town, with concrete pitches rather than grass fields.
The humble surroundings inspired the French schoolboy, who watched in wonderment as his nation hosted and won the 1998 FIFA World Cup, to dream of one day reaching the game’s pinnacle.
LCFCQ Issue 7
“My mum loves the city and never wants to leave! Before I moved to England, I had lived my whole life in the south of France.
“Whenever I get a couple of days to myself, I go back to France to see my mum. Every time I go back to Toulon, to my old street, where there is two small pitches with a concrete surface.
“I was born there and I had never been in the north. All of my life, I lived in the south with my family. For me, it’s better to work with my family next to me. I love my family.”
Heartbreak lay around the corner for Papy, though, after emerging through AS Monaco's academy to play for Nice, before a move to join the Foxes presented itself in the summer of 2016.
In the 53rd minute of a late-August encounter between the previous season’s top two sides, City and Arsenal, Papy’s ankle twisted in the turf early into his new life in England.
It took two surgeries to repair the damage done and, while he did make another seven appearances during the 2016/17 campaign, it was clear that something was wrong.
It was my first big injury and I was in a new place. My wife was pregnant and I didn’t have any family in England, so it was very difficult for me.Papy MendyLCFCQ
“I felt a lot of pain,” he explains. “It was painful and it is difficult to play when you are in pain. All the time for many months, I was playing with pain.
“It was a big disappointment for me and my family. I wanted so badly to show my quality for the supporters at my new club but I was injured for a long time.”
The sheer length of time it took for Papy to recover, which included a season on loan back home at Nice, presented some difficult questions for a footballer who couldn’t play freely.
Patience was required, but it is not a luxury often afforded to players at the top of the game. After a stop-start maiden season in England, Papy decided to head back to France.
He was friendly with the physios at Nice and knew – if he wasn’t going to play at Leicester – that would be the next best place for him to get game time and recover.
LCFCQ Issue 7
“I had a lot of questions in my head. I had to think a lot about my career and if I could come back at all,” he continued.
“It was my first big injury and I was in a new place. My wife was pregnant and I didn’t have any family in England, so it was very difficult for me.
“In January of 2017, Wilfred Ndidi came in at Leicester and I had to ask myself some questions. It was tough, but that’s life and all you can do it work and focus on your objective.
“I went back to Nice because I knew the club, I knew the physios and that’s why I chose Nice. It’s next to my home as well. When I went there, I knew I wasn’t 100 per cent but it was for my recovery. I tried to take the maximum amount of time on the pitch as a I could.”
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