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Wilderness year pays off for France's Payet

"That's why I felt very emotional tonight," France match winner Dimitri Payet told EURO2016.com, vindicated on Friday after having dropped out of the international reckoning for a year.

Dimitri Payet speaks to EURO2016.com
Dimitri Payet speaks to EURO2016.com ©UEFA.com

From being frozen out of the France picture, to Didier Deschamps wanting to wrap his match winner in cotton wool, it has been an emotional journey for Dimitri Payet, Les Bleus' man of the moment.

That feeling came out after the West Ham playmaker netted a fabulous late clincher against Romania on Friday to give the UEFA EURO 2016 hosts an opening victory at the Stade de France. They were tears of joy, and also recognition of the road travelled by a player who has flourished since his international recall in March 2016.

Payet paid the price for a disappointing showing in the 1-0 loss in Albania in June 2015 by being left out of France squads until earning a 16th cap against the Netherlands in Amsterdam three months ago. The 29-year-old has not looked back and has scored three goals in his last four internationals. But when he found the stanchion of the Romanian goal, he recalled a time when he looked unlikely to even feature at UEFA EURO 2016, let alone be the toast of an adoring nation.

"That's why I felt very emotional tonight," Payet told EURO2016.com. "At one point I was a long way away from being here. I've worked hard and showed a lot of determination with my new club this season, even though I suffered quite a serious injury. I am very happy to be here tonight. And I'm enjoying it to the fullest."

Outstanding form in the Premier League persuaded Deschamps that Payet deserved another chance and the attacker will take some dislodging from the team now. As Deschamps said: "Football is a simple game when you can shoot into the top corner – it resolves a lot of problems. It was emotional as Dimitri has come a long way and gave everything to be where he is today. I want to wrap him up in cotton wool until our next match so that nothing bad happens to him."

That next Group A game is on Wednesday in Marseille, where Payet progressed enormously under Marcelo Bielsa's tutelage in 2014/15 before moving to Upton Park. The opponents are Albania, who should see a very different Payet from the one who played in Elbasan a year ago.

As well as scoring, Payet was France's most creative player against the Romanians, providing the assist for Olivier Giroud's opener and supplying eight opportunities in total. He became the first Frenchman to score a goal and set one up in the same EURO match since Thierry Henry against the Czech Republic 16 years ago, in a tournament Les Bleus went on to win. Sat just behind us at the Stade de France, Henry momentarily forgot he was there to commentate for the BBC, standing up to celebrate Payet's terrific strike. The admiring former Arsenal ace said: "Even if Romania had three goalkeepers, it wouldn't have been enough to stop the shot!"

It meant France escaped with the three points despite the likes of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann being a touch off colour. West Ham fans like to sing that Payet's "better than Zidane". A moot point, but he is certainly the early candidate to be what Michel Platini was to the victorious hosts at the 1984 finals and Zidane was to the FIFA World Cup winners 14 years later.