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Dimitri Payet back in the limelight as World Cup looms

April 21, 2022 GMT
Marseille's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the Europa Conference League, second leg, quarterfinal soccer match between PAOK FC and Olympique Marseille at the Toumba stadium in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Thursday, April 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
Marseille's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the Europa Conference League, second leg, quarterfinal soccer match between PAOK FC and Olympique Marseille at the Toumba stadium in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Thursday, April 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
Marseille's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the Europa Conference League, second leg, quarterfinal soccer match between PAOK FC and Olympique Marseille at the Toumba stadium in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Thursday, April 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
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Marseille's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the Europa Conference League, second leg, quarterfinal soccer match between PAOK FC and Olympique Marseille at the Toumba stadium in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Thursday, April 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
1 of 4
Marseille's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the Europa Conference League, second leg, quarterfinal soccer match between PAOK FC and Olympique Marseille at the Toumba stadium in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Thursday, April 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

It’s been more than three years since Dimitri Payet last played in a France shirt. At 35, his best years are behind him and his legs get tired quicker than they used to.

But with one last chance to play at a World Cup, Payet is doing everything to earn a seat on the plane that will carry the defending champions to Qatar in November.

He has been stellar both on and off the field for Marseille this season, despite having to deal with the psychological challenges brought on by repeated attacks by opposing fans.

Often mocked for his tendency to put on weight, Payet has maintained his fitness throughout the season and has been crucial in leading Marseille toward Champions League qualification.

Payet’s performances have not gone unnoticed by France coach Didier Deschamps, who is not closing the door on his return amid fierce competition in the team for the attacking spots.

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“At one point he had an important role, even decisive,” Deschamps told local newspaper La Provence last month. “He can still be called up. It sounds like I’m not saying anything, and that I never call this kind of player. But it means something. It will depend on the situation.”

Payet has made 38 appearances and scored eight goals with France. The Réunion-born player started his international career in 2010 and became a regular starter in the team that reached the European Championship final in 2016.

He missed out on winning the 2018 World Cup with France because of an injury suffered in the Europa League final that year. His last appearance with Les Bleus dates back to October 2018, when he came on as a substitute for 23 minutes in a friendly against Iceland.

Facing competition from players of the caliber of Kilyan Mbappé, Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and Wissam Ben Yedder, Payet knows his chances to make the cut are slim.

“Being in the 23-man squad would be amazing, the attacking pool of talent is incredible,” the Marseille captain told L’Equipe recently. “I would come back to polish Karim’s boots if necessary.”

With five matches left to play in the league, Marseille looks set to finish second behind runaway leader Paris Saint-Germain in the automatic Champions League spot. The nine-time champions hold a six-point lead over Rennes and Strasbourg ahead of Sunday’s trip to Reims.

Payet has scored 12 goals — one short of his career best with Saint-Étienne more than a decade ago — and delivered eight assists in 29 league matches. He was again decisive this week in delaying PSG’s title celebrations as Marseille rallied to clinch a 3-2 victory over Nantes with Payet converting two penalties.

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PSG has a 15-point lead at the top of the standings and will claim a record-equaling 10th league title if it does not lose at home against Lens on Saturday.

To build his case for a shot at the World Cup, Payet can also point to his excellent displays on the continental stage. This month, his winning goal in Thessaloniki clinched a 3-1 aggregate victory over PAOK that led the 1993 European champions into the semifinals of the Europa Conference League, where they will face Feyenoord.

“The objective was to come here to qualify and qualify for the semifinals,” Payet said after scoring his third goal in five Europa Conference League matches. “So it’s mission accomplished.”

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