Mathieu Valbuena was playing at third-tier FC Libourne Saint-Seurin until, nearly 22, Olympique de Marseille took a chance on a player released three years earlier by FC Girondins de Bordeaux for being too small. After an injury-plagued start he has gone from strength to strength at the Stade Vélodrome. Now a French international, ahead of Tuesday's meeting with SSC Napoli he tells UEFA.com about Marseille's passion, coach Élie Baup and turning the television up for the UEFA Champions League anthem.
UEFA.com: Is playing in the UEFA Champions League a dream for you?
Mathieu Valbuena: Of course. When you are a kid you watch it on Tuesday and Wednesday nights with your parents. I would turn the volume way up for the Champions League anthem. Every kid who wants to be a footballer dreams about a competition like this. I have achieved the dream and I am really proud of it.
UEFA.com: Will reaching the quarter-finals two seasons ago help Marseille in such a strong group?
Valbuena: Yes. It is a very difficult group, but it's not impossible either. We beat Dortmund in the last game [of the 2011/12 group stage] which allowed us to qualify, along with Arsenal. We know these teams very well, especially Arsenal because a lot of French players play there and they have a French coach. The unknown team are Napoli but looking at their recruitment and investment, they're a big team.
UEFA.com: What are your memories of the 2011/12 campaign?
Valbuena: It was very emotional because Marseille hadn't reached the quarter-finals for so many years. We then faced Bayern and it was a lot more difficult – we lost 2-0 in both legs. But when you start playing in the Champions League you want to be in it every year.
UEFA.com: What are the qualities of your coach Élie Baup?
Valbuena: He never gives up and tries to impose his style. In his first season everyone started from scratch. He brought a winning culture, some aggression. Everyone adapted to that and we finished second. He doesn't know the Champions League too well, but you don't need to be motivated for these games. When you go onto the pitch the motivation comes by itself.
UEFA.com: Does the OM fans' passion help you as a player?
Valbuena: Football is like a religion at Marseille. That is why I didn't take things for granted: I worked a lot harder to succeed at such a demanding club. Somehow it brings a lot of positives. And it makes me want to push my limits even further.
UEFA.com: Do you feel you're writing a new chapter in OM history?
Valbuena: It is a real source of pride to be wearing this shirt. Coming from Bordeaux, I would have never thought that. But now I am in my eighth year here, I am the oldest in the squad and I try to bring my experience and be a leader on the pitch, to be as good as possible. It would be great to contribute even more to the story.