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France didn't want Laporte but Spain are lucky to have Man City centre-half

09:00 GMT 13/06/2021
Aymeric Laporte Didier Deschamps Spain France GFX
The Manchester City centre-back has been consistently one of the best defenders in Europe but turned 27 without ever winning an international cap

“Do you feel Spanish enough to defend the badge, the flag, the anthem?" Aymeric Laporte was asked at his first press conference as a Spain player.

The Manchester City defender looked slightly taken aback by the hostility of the question coming from his own team's media.

This, after all, is one of the best defenders of the world who has been persuaded to help a country in disarray and some way short of the quality they have been accustomed to for the last two decades.

“It's quite a strong question but I will try to reply in the best way possible," Laporte responded. "I will compete at the top level.

"The objective is the same as Spain's, to win the competition. I will give everything to win with the national team and that is the important thing."

Laporte's switch to Spain has been nearly seven years in the making but it would appear to be a perfect fit for both player and nation.

Born in Agen in the Basque region of south-west France, Laporte will not be the only player at Euro 2020 to represent a country different to one where he was born, but his change of allegiance is possibly the most controversial.

Brazilian-born Jorginho starred in Italy's opening night victory over Turkey, highly-rated midfielder Jamal Musiala played for England at youth level before making his final decision to play for Germany, while Declan Rice and Jack Grealish represented the Republic of Ireland too before committing to Gareth Southgate's team.

There are numerous other examples but what is different about Laporte's decision is that he has left it so late.

The centre-back turned 27 at the end of May and despite Spain first taking an interest him as long ago as 2014, he had always been determined to play for France.

A switch to Spain was first mooted when he established himself in the starting line-up at Athletic Club.

Laporte had already played regularly for France at youth level when Les Bleus under-21 Coach Pierre Mankowski told L'Equipe that Spain were trying to convince him to represent La Roja.

But Laporte committed himself to play for the country of his birth despite spending six years in Bilbao and never having played a game in Ligue 1.

"I have chosen France. I am French," he said in 2018. "I don't have dual nationality. I am not going to ask for it."

But a curious mix of bad luck and a strained relationship with national team boss Didier Deschamps meant he never earned a cap for Les Bleus.

Perhaps he may now consider it good fortune that he was not given a late appearance a substitute that would have tethered him to France rather than giving him his second chance at international football with Spain.

He was first called up in 2016 for World Cup qualifiers against Bulgaria and Netherlands but remained on the bench for both victories.

A recall in August 2019 was wrecked by a serious knee injury sustained two days later while playing for City and that seemingly signalled the end of his hopes of lining out for Les Bleus.

Deschamps had already persistently overlooked Laporte amid rumours of a personality clash, but the French coach was also fortunate to have a surfeit of top centre-backs.

At Euro 2020, he will have the luxury of choosing between Raphael Varane, Presnel Kimpembe, Jules Kounde, Clement Lenglet and Kurt Zouma.

The 2018 World Cup-winning squad also boasted the in-form Samuel Umtiti and Adil Rami, while younger players such as Dan-Axel Zagadou, Wesley Fofana and Ibrahima Konate are now pushing for inclusion.

With Laporte no longer first choice at City, having fallen behind Ruben Dias and John Stones at the Etihad, it was virtually impossible to see him forcing his way back into Deschamps' plans for the Euros.

Spain, by contrast, were desperately short of centre-backs with Sergio Ramos not fully fit and Gerard Pique having long since returned, meaning the heart had essentially been ripped out of the team that dominated international football a decade ago.

Consequently, the Spanish FA made another move for Laporte early in 2021 and switch was finally completed in May.

Laporte knew that there would be some backlash from the French media but he was comfortable with his choice. Indeed, he has always maintained links to Spain, even after moving to Manchester.

He regularly returned to the country for short breaks before the coronavirus pandemic, while AC Milan forward Brahim Diaz remains an extremely close friend after the time they spent together at City.

He is also on good terms with Chelsea goalkeeper, and former Athletic team-mate, Kepa Arrizabalaga. Even his girlfriend, Sara Botello, is from Bilbao.

There's also the very real prospect of him soon returning to Spain. Despite being City's most consistent player since he joined from Athletic in January 2018, he was unable to dislodge Stones and Dias in the second half of the season, missing out on a starting place in the Champions League final.

Pep Guardiola is understood to be happy with his options at centre-backs but Barcelona and Real Madrid, along with Spain, need long-term replacements for Ramos and Pique.

A confrontational welcome from a sometimes partisan Spanish media can be partly put down to the shock that no Madrid players made the national team squad.

Even so, it is surprising that a player that has made such an impact in transforming City into one of the best club sides in Europe, has faced scrutiny in both Spain and France.

However, he has always had the quality to shine on the international stage, and now La Roja have given him the chance to finally do just that.