exclusive interview

Dayot Upamecano: ‘Other kids mocked my stammer, but I found my voice on the pitch’

Exclusive interview: The Bayern Munich defender tells Miguel Delaney about his journey from a tough childhood to the World Cup final, as he prepares to face France superstar Kylian Mbappe in the Champions League

Monday 13 February 2023 11:56 GMT
Dayot Upamecano is a key defender for both German champions Bayern Munich and World Cup finalists France
Dayot Upamecano is a key defender for both German champions Bayern Munich and World Cup finalists France (The Independent)

It was a moment that could easily have gone down in history, rather than just being one that enriched a historic game. In the first half of extra-time in the World Cup final, Lionel Messi worked the ball towards Lautaro Martinez, with the goal seeming to open up in front of the forward. It looked like this could be it. This could have been the World Cup itself.

France’s Dayot Upamecano instantly and innately knew it, as he relays while offering an insight into a defender's thinking during a momentous event that goes to such levels of intensity.

“I was on the right and I saw Messi play the pass,” the Bayern Munich centre-half tells The Independent. “I could see Lauturo Martinez scoring and I just said to myself, ‘No he won’t’. So I gave everything to run as quick as I could to stop him. And of course that’s my job. Forwards have to score goals. Defenders have to stop them. That’s what I did.”

That’s an understatement, especially in terms of what actually happened. Upamecano didn’t just get across. He had been running at almost full pelt behind Messi to cover the space for a shot, only to then thunderously shut down Martinez’s effort in the instant it had come off the Argentine's boot. This, as well as being Upamecano’s “job”, was literally putting his body on the line, throwing himself into it with “absolutely everything”.

Dayot Upamecano challenges Argentina’s Lautaro Martinez in the World Cup final (Getty Images)

It’s a slightly odd feeling to question a player about his recollections of an epic match that nobody else will be able to forget, but could feasibly be one of the most painful memories of his career. Upamecano’s exceptional block ended up as just one of many twists and turns in extra-time alone, as France came within “touching distance” of the greatest trophy in football only to lose on penalties. The 24-year-old, to his credit, doesn't quite have that conflict to his thoughts.

“It hurts but it was still a great experience… We gave a different account of ourselves in the second half. We play football to be involved in those sorts of games, that’s what we love. I feel like I came out of the tournament with my head held high.”

His reputation is certainly far higher. Upamecano played his way into Didier Deschamps’ team with the defensive force and presence that has made some of the Premier League’s big six anticipate a move for next summer. The best illustration of this quality was the final.

It was a game that gave him too much in terms of the experience to try to forget, and that only goes with how the wider game as a sport has given him even more. He says it helped give him "his voice".

Upamecano is sitting on a snowy morning at Bayern Munich’s Sabenerstrasse base, and is so relaxed and confident in talking about all this in French, through interpreter Marc Joss. He didn’t always find it so easy, though.

Growing up in Evreux in northern France, Upamecano struggled with a stammer.

“I had some tough moments when I was young, because when you go to school and other kids mock you, it hurts.

“If the teacher asked me to go out to the board, I would be scared about stammering, because of what the other kids would say about me. I was quite shy in school.”

There was one place that was different, though, where he spoke with authority. It was, of course, the football pitch.

“When I was out on the pitch, I could express myself in the way I wanted. I was able to just focus on my game as captain, and had to give out orders. ‘Left.’ ‘Right.’ ‘Man on.’

“I would choose who went in goal and give orders out so I was effectively the coach and the captain at the same time, choosing the formation and the set-up.

“I’ve always been good at that and then there came a point where I thought to myself if I can do that in football why not at school as well and things started going much better.

“It got me out of the mindset where I was scared to speak. On the pitch I was louder, so football really helped me but I had my family who were constantly supporting me.”

Upamecano passes the World Cup trophy after defeat to Argentina (Getty Images)

It was also something that Upamecano sought to improve further once he’d grown up, in an attitude that shows a maturity beyond his age. His agent Raquel Rosa even helped him source an opera singer to help with his voice.

“A few years ago, I asked myself where I needed to improve as an individual and what I was lacking in my daily life. I learned how to cook. I got a fitness coach who helped me work much harder and I also wanted to deal with my voice, my speech, because I used to speak very slowly with my stammer. I found someone who had been an opera singer and that really helped me find my voice and speak more loudly.”

It’s put to Upamecano that football must have helped in another way, since being the best player in school helps with social cache, but he says that wasn’t quite the case.

“Ousmane Dembele went to the same school so I wasn’t the best! He was the captain of one team, I was the captain of another team and there was a bit of a battle ongoing between us. I guess I could say I was one of the best, but not the best!

“I have happy memories of that. I also spoke about that with Ousmane Dembele at the World Cup and about how far we had come, because it was amazing to get to a final with someone I had grown up with, in the same neighbourhood, and we went through it all together.”

It’s quite a beautiful story, two lads from the same streets starting the World Cup final together. It’s also an instructive one. French talent production is now so strong that any given town can have more than one potential World Cup finalist. The pool is that deep.

(Getty Images)

There’s still one player that represents the very peak of this era, though. That’s the one who was Upamecano’s vaunted teammate in that World Cup final, but will this week be a feared opponent in the Champions League last 16.

It’s of course Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe, who Bayern meet for the first leg at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday. Upamecano’s great contemporary is probably in the form of his life, with the great illustration of that his sensational second goal in the final.

“I don’t think anybody could have imagined that volley. It’s the sort of goal not many players can score. To receive the ball, turn and hit it was simply magnificent.”

And yet, as historic as that goal has already become, Upamecano almost sounds more impressed as he talks about the simple but sensational sight of Mbappe scorching into 10 yards of space. It has become one of the most awesome experiences in football, even for those on the pitch with him.

“You just say, ‘Wow’,” Upamecano exclaims, his face lighting up. “You have that feeling. When he takes off and gets going, it’s extraordinary to see. His pace is unlike other players.”

But maybe not unlike all players. Upamecano might well be as fast.

It is that speed that has been a core of Upamecano’s development as a defender, and was so visible in another key moment of the World Cup. It was his surge up the pitch - in the one single moment when Kyle Walker went against Gareth Southgate’s instructions and ran past the halfway line - that created the space that led to Aurelien Tchoumani’s goal against England. That assertiveness comes from Upamecano’s general approach to the game. It was why he loved actually playing in the World Cup final, if not experiencing its result, and he is so suited to Julian Nagelsmann’s football.

(Getty Images)

“It was still a great experience,” he says of that game in December. “To be part of the World Cup final is something I want to experience again.

“I like that kind of open game. I think the whole world prefers that. Of course it depends on the coach’s guidance and instructions, but there are more passes to play. You have more space to dribble forward.

“In German football in general, there’s a lot of pressing and we try to bring the ball out from the back, so the game does change.”

The club demands on Upamecano haven’t changed, though. He signed for Bayern from Leipzig in 2021, which was just three months before Nagelsmann made the same move.

“I’ve known the coach for a long time now, I’m familiar with his style of play. He enables defenders to move forward and break the lines, and I think I’m good at that. It suits my style of play. I’m the type of player who likes looking for forward passes that other players may not see.”

He’s also willing to look at remaining flaws in his own game, which syncs with his long-time club manager.

“He shows me videos, for me to watch at home, that show me what I’m doing well and not doing well. I like that. That’s the way I can improve. If you have a coach who doesn’t say anything to you, you can’t get better, and he really stresses the importance of improving in the next game. I really appreciate that guidance, I try to learn every single day.”

That is something Upamecano has clearly applied to every facet of his life. It shows how grounded he is - at least until comes to being willing to take off against Mbappe. We might see that race on Tuesday. We’re almost certain to see another open game - just as Upamecano likes it.

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