LONDON, March 22 – A new song has energised an old stadium this season as West Ham United’s supporters have fallen beneath the spell of shimmeringly skilful French playmaker Dimitri Payet.
The Boleyn Ground, in east London, has been graced by West Ham greats such as Bobby Moore, captain of England’s 1966 World Cup winners, 1980 FA Cup final hero Trevor Brooking and record appearance-maker Billy Bonds.
But as West Ham prepare to leave the 112-year-old arena for London’s Olympic Stadium, it is the name of Payet, spearheading Slaven Bilic’s side in an improbable top-four push, that is echoing off the rafters.
The song, to the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus’s ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, goes: “We’ve got Payet, Dimitri Payet!/I just don’t think you understand/He’s Super Slav’s man, he’s better than Zidane/We’ve got Dimitri Payet!”
Payet’s eight goals and eight assists in the Premier League may have convinced West Ham’s fans he is “better than Zidane”, but there is no clear consensus over who, exactly, he resembles.
For Bilic, the West Ham manager, the 28-year-old stands comparison with Arsenal’s German schemer Mesut Ozil.
Former West Ham midfielder Scott Parker says that Payet reminds him of maverick Italian striker Paolo Di Canio, while vice-chairman Karren Brady believes he “ranks with Lionel Messi”.
The player himself, touted as a potential Player of the Year in England, has only one idol.
“Ronaldinho was my favourite player,” Payet told British newspapers recently.
“People say he enjoyed humiliating defenders, but he was always efficient. I try to put on a show while being effective because the spectators come to be entertained by beautiful play.”
A cut-price £10.7 million ($15.4 million, 13.7 million euros) signing from Marseille last June, Payet proved an instant hit, scoring five goals in his first nine league games.
– Flamboyant but errant –
His performances helped West Ham climb to third in the table and although they slipped back during his two-month absence with an ankle injury going eight games without victory his return has seen them surge back to fifth, a point off the Champions League places.
They are also due to face Manchester United in an FA Cup quarter-final replay the last cup tie the Boleyn Ground will stage after Payet netted a stupendous 30-yard free-kick in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
Amid reports of a mega-money offer from China, Payet signed a new five-year contract in February and this month he was elected London’s Player of the Year.
It was the first individual award he had ever won, reflecting a career that, prior to his arrival in England, had been dogged by reservations about his temperament and consistency.
Hailing from the French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Payet was released by mainland club Le Havre at 16 and had to be persuaded not to abandon his dream of becoming a professional by his father, Alain.
Offered a path back to Ligue 1 by Nantes, he acquired a reputation as a flamboyant but errant talent.
At Nantes he clashed in training with former France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. At Saint-Etienne he headbutted team-mate Blaise Matuidi in the middle of a match. At Marseille he fell out with Florian Thauvin.
It partly explains why Matuidi now of Paris Saint-Germain has 41 France caps to Payet’s 15, despite the two being born less than two weeks apart.
But faced with the incontrovertible evidence of his West Ham form, France coach Didier Deschamps has ended Payet’s nine-month international exile by calling him up for the Euro 2016 hosts’ friendlies against Holland and Russia.
“If I hadn’t taken Dimitri, it would have been for non-sporting reasons,” Deschamps explained last week. “And as I don’t have any, it seems completely logical to me that he should return.”
Back in the blue of his country just in time for Euro 2016, Payet’s next aim will be to have the whole of France dancing to his tune.