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Yann M'Vila is not usually one to show emotions, but as the France midfielder sat on the bench receiving treatment for the ankle injury he had just sustained in the friendly against Serbia last month, the tough-guy mask fell and the tears began to flow.
"At that moment I thought my hopes of playing at UEFA EURO 2012 were over," the Stade Rennais FC anchorman told UEFA.com. "I started thinking about my future. It has to be serious for me to go off the pitch. Last time I did something like that I was out for six weeks. I had all those thoughts in my head and I suddenly became overwhelmed."
The old injury M'Vila is referring to occurred when he was a kid. Since he made his Ligue 1 debut in August 2009, he has not missed a match for Rennes through injury; an ever-present last term, the 21-year-old has already featured 110 times in the top flight.
He puts his stamina down to the long runs he used to go on with his father, a former Congolese international. "My dad's been very important," M'Vila said. "He got me into football when I was three. He used to take me jogging too. We didn't do little 20-minute runs. We'd run for an hour at a time. That's why I'm able to run and run on the pitch."
Running is second nature to M'Vila, so much so that coach Laurent Blanc has had to hold him back in recent weeks to ensure the former regional cross-country champion could recover fully from what, fortunately, was only an ankle sprain. "I'm happy when I run," the Amiens-born midfielder went on. "In the holidays I go jogging with my headphones on and I get so into the music I forget I'm even running."
Having been confined to a watching brief for the opening Group D fixture against England, M'Vila completed his comeback on Friday, picking up his 20th cap when he replaced Yohan Cabaye for the last 22 minutes of the 2-0 triumph against Ukraine. "That was the biggest moment of my career," M'Vila enthused. "Playing in such an important match, against the co-hosts, is something that'll stay with me forever."
Not that he looked nervous, slotting seamlessly into the heart of the team, helping Les Bleus close out the contest with a series of clean tackles and neat passes. It is a sight French fans have grown accustomed to since Blanc first blooded the youngster against Norway two years ago. M'Vila has a simple explanation for his international form, saying: "
I just play the same way I always have done. I'm lucky because I never get stressed. When I was young I always played against bigger boys, so I have no problem facing top players. I forget about the pressure and just play."
His muscular, unfussy and effective style has drawn comparisons with compatriots Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele – the mention of whom brings a smile to his face. "They're both role models," he said. "When I was younger I used to watch them a lot – they were the best midfield pair around. Now I look at current players like the excellent Xabi Alonso, who is an example for all up-and-coming defensive midfielders."
As with the Real Madrid CF man, M'Vila's game is not only about tackling. "My role is to win as many balls as possible, but also to get the team moving forward with good passes. I try to play what [Rennes coach Frédéric] Antonetti calls a 'Champions League pass'. They're passes that get the ball in an attacking position quickly." With M'Vila fighting fit again, snapping into tackles and playing those 'Champions League passes', Blanc has a serious selection headache for Tuesday's match against Sweden.
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