The goal that made the world take notice: Benjamin Pavard's stunning Goal of the Tournament at the 2018 FIFA World Cup for France ensured that everyone had heard of the VfB Stuttgart defender. - © © imago / Bildbryan
The goal that made the world take notice: Benjamin Pavard's stunning Goal of the Tournament at the 2018 FIFA World Cup for France ensured that everyone had heard of the VfB Stuttgart defender. - © © imago / Bildbryan

"One hell of a shot": How VfB Stuttgart's Benjamin Pavard underwent his Russian revolution


It's fair to say that life will never be the same again for Benjamin Pavard after he became just the third VfB Stuttgart player to win the FIFA World Cup this summer. As the 22-year-old defender heads into his second top-flight campaign with the Reds, takes a look at how a moment of magic in Kazan changed everything for France's curly-haired wonder.

It was one of those rare and thrilling moments in football, where time seems to slow down.

The World Cup round of 16, Kazan, 57 minutes in. France left-back Lucas Hernandez comes racing down the left flank to latch onto Blaise Matuidi's through ball and manages to get there just ahead of Argentina defender Gabriel Mercado – but his spinning cross is nowhere near Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappe. Nicolas Otamendi tries to head the ball away and Nicolas Tagliafico attempts a backheel flick, but neither make contact. And so it falls to right-back Pavard on the edge of the area.

"When I see the ball arriving, my heart is going boom, boom, boom," the Stuttgart star later told L'Equipe Magazine. "When I hit it, I tried to get over the ball as much as possible but make sure it stayed in the air. Afterwards, I just ran. I had no idea where I was going!"

Afterwards. After his stunning effort – later voted goal of the tournament – had arrowed into the top corner to bring France back to 2-2 against Argentina. After Les Bleus had seen off Lionel Messi and Co. in arguably the best game of the World Cup. After Didier Deschamps' side had gone on to beat Uruguay, Belgium and Croatia to be crowned world champions for the second time.

"It was only later that I realised: that goal will stay with me for life," Pavard admitted. "It has changed my life. Everyone talks to me about it. In 20 years, when you search 'Pavard' on YouTube, it'll come up with 'goal against Argentina'. Not everyone is lucky enough to score a goal like that at the World Cup, but the main thing was going on to lift the trophy. That was simply the best moment of my life.

Benjamin Pavard was one of only four outfield players to play every second of the 2017/18 Bundesliga season. - © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA

Watch: What makes Pavard so good?

"It's the most beautiful title there is, and not everyone gets to win it," he added. "Even top players like [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi have never won the World Cup. It's simply exceptional. Here I am, 22 years old and a world champion. It's magnificent."

Benjamin Pavard has become a leader at VfB Stuttgart, despite his limited German skills. The language of football allows him to pass on his unique knowledge. - © gettyimages / Stuart Franklin

Much of the charm of Pavard's fairy-tale rise stems from his almost total anonymity a year ago. Having made just 21 Ligue 1 appearances for boyhood club Lille between 2014 and 2016, he took a gamble by moving to second-tier Stuttgart two summers ago. After setting the tone on his debut, with a goal and an assist in a 4-0 win over Greuther Fürth, he played a further 20 games as the Swabian outfit achieved promotion as Bundesliga 2 champions.

Given his first real chance by VfB Stuttgart and the Bundesliga, Benjamin Pavard has now become a household name across the world. - © imago

His excellent performances for VfB throughout 2017/18 turned out to be the real game-changer, although Pavard seemed just as surprised as everyone else when he was called up for France's friendlies against Wales and Germany in November 2017. Back then, hardly anybody had heard of him – but by the time Deschamps announced his final 23-man squad for the World Cup six months later, there was no doubt Pavard would feature, having become an indispensable cog in the machine for both club and country.

"Benjamin has been adored in Stuttgart ever since his arrival, and he built on that last season," explained VfB sporting director Michael Reschke. "He played every minute in the Bundesliga and became one of the team's leaders, so he was already a fan favourite even before the World Cup. He had a reputation in Stuttgart, now he has one in Germany. That's the difference."

"With Pavard, it's almost like we stayed world champions," agreed Reds supporter Martin Bauer. "He's living proof that Stuttgart is a club that knows how to recognise talent. He arrived here as an unknown and become a player who won the World Cup." 

As well as finishing the 2017/18 Bundesliga campaign as one of just four outfield players to feature in every second of all 34 games, Pavard helped Stuttgart to the second-best defensive record in the division behind champions Bayern Munich. He also displayed his versatility, playing mostly as a centre-back but also slotting in at right-back and occasionally in midfield. VfB came seventh, and would have qualified for Europe were it not for Bayern's defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the DFB Cup final.

Pavard, who played all but one of France's games in Russia at right-back, wasn't even born the last time a Stuttgart player lifted the World Cup. That was Dunga, who captained Brazil to the trophy in 1994 after a tense penalty shoot-out against Italy in the final. Four years earlier, Guido Buchwald played the full 90 minutes in central defence as West Germany edged Argentina to become world champions for the third time.

The young Frenchman therefore finds himself in esteemed company as just the third VfB man to lift football's biggest prize, and while that is sure to change how he is perceived within the club, he appears to be keeping his feet firmly on the ground. 

"I don't get the impression that he now sees himself as a different player," observed head coach Tayfun Korkut, who masterminded a remarkable turnaround after replacing Hannes Wolf in January, with Stuttgart down in 15th. "That's his character. I've found him just as cheerful – and cheeky – as he was in his early days here. He's back home."

If home is where the heart is, then Pavard appears to be very much chez lui in Stuttgart. The freshly minted world champion was so keen to get stuck into pre-season that he cut short his holidays by a week to return to training at Mercedesstraße. He was given a warm welcome by his teammates, who kept a keen eye on his exploits in Russia – and even recorded a version of his fan chant ahead of the quarter-final with Uruguay. 

"His level of popularity has skyrocketed, and I think our video may have had something to do with that," Reschke confided. "It's had over two million views in Germany, and I've been told it's done well in France too. The World Cup has put Benji on the radar of all those who are passionate about the game."

The question now turns to what the future holds for one of the brightest defensive talents in European football. In the short term, Pavard appears to be fully committed to Stuttgart. He was certainly disappointed not to feature in their opening game of the new season: a shock 2-0 reverse to third-tier Hansa Rostock in the first round of the DFB Cup.  

"He was desperate to play, which reflects his ambition," Korkut acknowledged. "It shows the extent to which he identifies with the club. I had to put the brakes on because he hadn't been back in training for very long.

"We're perfectly aware of how valuable he is to the club, and not just because he's a world champion," the 44-year-old went on. "He's precious because of his consistent performances: he always delivers. As far as I'm concerned, that's more important than him winning the World Cup."

Captain Christian Gentner and Bundesliga stalwarts Holger Badstuber and Mario Gomez are the leaders of the Stuttgart dressing room, but Pavard isn't far behind, and he was one of the first names on the teamsheet long before this summer's triumph in Russia. The Frenchman may have reached the pinnacle of the game at just 22, but if anything, it seems to have sharpened his appetite for success.

"I have to win, win and win again," he insisted. "In two years there's UEFA Euro 2020, which I want to win. I want it all: more World Cups, the UEFA Champions League, every trophy possible. I want to end up with a huge honours list. I've savoured the World Cup win, now it's time to head back into battle."

Pavard is one of the most popular figures at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, and he is sure to get a raucous reception as Stuttgart host Bayern in their first home game of the season on Saturday. But his lofty ambitions mean it is only a matter of time before he moves on, and the club accepts that this will probably be his final season in Baden-Württemberg. 

"He has a superb mentality and will continue to progress in his own time," Reschke predicted. "One thing's for sure: Benjamin Pavard will be playing for a top European club in 2019. We know that, and it's absolutely fine. But before that, we're counting on him."

After a difficult start to the new campaign, Pavard will be hoping to give the VfB faithful something to cheer about against Bayern and fellow World Cup winner Corentin Tolisso. Meanwhile, both men have been selected for France's upcoming UEFA Nations League opener with Germany, in what promises to be a fascinating battle between the 2014 and 2018 world champions.

"Benjamin Pavard, Benjamin Pavard / I don't think you know him," goes the famous chant. "He came from nowhere / One hell of a shot / We've got Benjamin Pavard!"

It has been an incredible rags-to-riches story, from Bundesliga 2 to the World Cup final, but one part of the song no longer rings true. After his Russian revolution, everybody knows exactly who Pavard is – and, in many ways, the Stuttgart star is only just embarking on what promises to be a glittering career.

Andy Smith

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