Arsenal enticed by a Mavuba feast

Moving story of the little refugee who could be France's next big name and a target for the giants

"It just says 'born at sea' on my passport," says Rio Antonio Mavuba, with a sheepish smile, although France's latest international footballer is reluctant to discuss the details of what is one of the most extraordinary stories in sport. "As far as the rest is concerned," the 20-year-old declares, trying to end the subject before it has been properly broached, "I never talk about it. In fact, I have never sought to know the story of that crossing."

His reluctance is understandable. After all, the crossing he refers to is the traumatic journey his parents made aboard a refugee boat as they fled the civil war that was tearing Angola apart. Fortunately, the tiny craft was intercepted by the French authorities soon after Mavuba was born, and taken into port. Even more fortunately, they were allowed to stay and were granted the status of political refugees, before eventually settling in Bordeaux.

The year was 1984. It was March, and four months later the streets would be full of football fans celebrating the dramatic triumph of France, the host nation, in that year's European Championship finals. Last night the situation was very different, as Mavuba made his competitive debut at the Stade de France, in the World Cup Group Four qualifier against the Republic of Ireland. It was only his 32nd match as a professional footballer. But such is his burgeoning talent, and such is France's desperate need, that he was asked to replace the suspended captain, Patrick Vieira.

"It's normal that people ask questions about my experience," Mavuba says. "They can't comprehend that I've only got seven months' experience in Ligue 1. But me, I don't ask myself that question even if, I admit, I surprise myself with my performances."

Indeed Vieira - who is a fan - is one of the many players Mavuba, despite his small stature, has been compared to. But there are others, including one of those stars from 1984. "He has enough skill to be the next Jean Tigana," declares the French coach, Raymond Domenech, who, as former coach of the French Under-21s, championed the midfielder and now hopes to turn him into the team's talisman. Last summer Mavuba was player of the tournament at the Under-20s competition in Toulon. "I won't wait until he's 26 to test him," Domenech added last week before deciding to throw him in against Roy Keane.

Mavuba's response was bold. "A player is still a player," he said. "Even if his career demands respect, that doesn't intimidate me. I need not be afraid. I must play like I do every weekend for my club."

Mavuba also does not like to be compared with others, revealing the fierce determination that has helped him to succeed. "The day when people only talk about me and not my origins, and not about Tigana, who I don't know a lot about, will be the day that I have proved myself," he says.

Football is in his blood. His father - Ricky Mavuba - played in the 1974 World Cup for Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was known as "The Wizard" because of his habit of scoring direct from corners. But he died when Mavuba was just 13. His mother died when he was two. Aged eight, Mavuba joined Bordeaux. The club's youth-academy coach, Guy Dubois, says: "I knew his family were in need, but he was always smiling and hadimpressive willpower."

Mavuba explains it himself: "In 1997, after the death of my father, I concentrated on football as a way of getting over it. I used to play non-stop. Now I'm in the Bordeaux first team, it's like a dream, but I refuse to get carried away because I don't want to take a slap in the face if things go wrong."

He has taken the same attitude into the national team. "I don't know if the other players knew who I was," he says of his first call-up, which came in August, in the friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina. "But they all said hello to me. Normally the only time I see [Thierry] Henry and [Robert] Pires is on the television!"

He may soon be their team-mates at club level as well. Mavuba is already attracting interest from the Premiership and has expressed an interest in Arsenal - even if his first love is Juventus. "My dream is to play for a large foreign club," he says. Although Mavuba does not like to be compared with others, one hero is Juve's former midfielder Edgar Davids, and he has that same aggressive, pit-bull tenacity. It earned him a first-half red card in the quarter-finals of last season's Uefa Cup.

In the crowd when Mavuba played for France against Bosnia was Martin Ferguson, Sir Alex's brother and Manchester United's chief scout. Chelsea have also been touted, and although Mavuba has three years left on his Bordeaux contract, they may be ready to sell the player coach Michel Pavon has nicknamed "Mr 18-Lungs" because of his phenomenal work-rate. Much to his relief, Mavuba finally received his French passport little over a month ago, although his decision annoyed the Congolese, who wanted him to play for them.

Indeed, the delay denied Mavuba an earlier call-up for France. "I was frustrated and disappointed," he says. "Now I'm relieved everything is in order for the future. If I'm not picked it's because I'm not good enough. I've been given a chance and I want to seize it." It's something he has been doing all his life.