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In the 10 years since Raphaël Varane joined Real Madrid, he hasn’t done much. Apart from win the Copa del Rey, three league titles and four European Cups. There’s the World Cup, too; 360 games at the biggest club of all, and 79 more for France. But that’s about it. In his first clásico, a Copa del Rey semi-final at the Camp Nou, he cleared one chance one off the line, stopped Lionel Messi taking another and scored a superb header; in the second leg he scored again, taking Madrid to the final. He was 19, and it was all downhill from there.
Varane is 28 now, has racked up 18 winners’ medals, and has gone. Which tends to be about the time people realise what they’ve got. Varane’s departure has been a story followed closely for months – the first hint he might leave came more than a year ago – but its conclusion has passed relatively quietly. Perhaps the most striking part of his move to Manchester United is that there has been little eulogy or lament, no tearful farewells nor fierce criticism that it came to this.
In part, that’s circumstantial. In February contract negotiations definitively stalled, the club feeling that Varane’s agents had overreached or that he really didn’t intend to stay. It was hard to find a way back and a sale is easily seen as a solution for a club needing savings. For a player with one year left, €50m is a lot. Last season was poor for Varane and Éder Militao’s emergence encouraged the belief Madrid had a ready replacement. Even Sergio Ramos’s departure, which might have made a necessity of keeping him, didn’t: this, some believed, was a partnership.
There is another reason, though, more significant seen from Manchester. If there is little noise around him, it is also in part because he makes so little noise. And that’s a good thing even if it sometimes downplays his significance. Varane once said that growing up, he didn’t stand out much. “There are kids you see at 10 and think: ‘That guy will make it.’ That wasn’t my case,” he recalled. “I was good but not a phenomenon.” There might be something in that. When he joined Madrid, Zinedine Zidane said Varane had the tranquillity of Laurent Blanc and there might be something in that, too.
Ten years on, that clásico at 19 really might be his single most outstanding night. Cast the mind back, and there probably isn’t a game that leaps out, one moment to hang everything on, a portrait of him. He scored twice in one match last season, but it was only the second time and it came at Huesca, the first having arrived against third-tier Cornellá. It’s hard to think of a late winner, a huge goal or an obvious heroic display: some story, redemption tale or grand narrative.
The kind of thing that tends to trump simple sporting excellence, even if it shouldn’t. Confession time: over a decade at Madrid, these pages have only been dedicated to him once and that was seven years ago. “When I was little they said I didn’t have the mentality to triumph,” Varane has admitted. “I was nice, not enough of a bad guy.” There’s not much blood or thunder. Not much in the way of mud, either. No flying tackles, drama or defiance; no chasing lost causes, standing before supporters, chest out roaring. “My style doesn’t make you think I’m a warrior,” he said. “Anticipation is the key: you don’t have to touch an opponent to take the ball. I try not to go to ground.” At Madrid, he had only 27 yellow cards and one red. Compare that with Ramos, whose career totals are 226 and 26.
Compare that with Sergio Ramos may be significant words. Varane has played alongside the most absurdly charismatic, comic-book centre-back, a legend and almost a caricature of a captain. Perhaps at times he has been eclipsed by him. Tall and athletic, there’s a presence about Varane, an understated authority. But not exactly the loudest in the dressing room, nor immediately charismatic or flamboyant, he doesn’t demand attention, on or off the pitch. He just plays: regularly for a decade at the most unforgiving place, remember.
Álvaro Arbeloa may have put it best during a conversation a while back. “He’s a quiet lad who never causes problems, doesn’t make any noise and never wanted to be in the spotlight, and that personality fits the way he plays,” Varane’s then teammate explained. “He does everything in a way that makes it look easy. He’s got an incredible physique, such, such, such brutal speed that where others go racing across and dive in to the tackle, Rafa gets there a moment earlier, plays it to the keeper and it’s like he hasn’t done anything. I don’t know if that means he doesn’t get recognition but it hasn’t worked badly for him. No one has ever won four Champions Leagues as young.”
At one point, the people around Varane encouraged him to seek a media presence. He didn’t care. When Michel Platini said he should win the 2018 Ballon d’Or, it was a rare moment of someone pushing him centre stage. There’s no lobby and not many interviews, still less big statements on the few occasions when he did talk. There weren’t even rumours until now – and they turned out to be true.
Not enough of a bad guy to triumph, Varane won everything. If there wasn’t a single, stand out moment maybe that’s because there were so many nights that were just right. There’s something silly about wondering if a World Cup winner with four Champions Leagues can do it in the Premier League – a league that suits his skill set.
If Varane was accused of benefiting from playing alongside Ramos, not the same without the Spain captain, that can be turned on its head. He just got on with being exceptional, often rescuing his partner, leading in his own quiet way. An athlete almost effortlessly moving through the gears, there may be no defender who covers or recovers like him. Occasional positional errors – more Ramos’s than his – are swiftly put right. No fuss, just very, very fast. If you can recall him being outrun just once, write in for your prize.
“He’s one of the most tactically intelligent players around and has exceptional technical ability,” says the former Arsenal midfielder Denis Suárez, now at Celta Vigo. “Varane is elegant, efficient, but above all I’d highlight his tranquillity and the ability to transmit that to others, which is very valuable. It’s incredible how calm he is and that will give United a lot. A 10/10 signing and won’t have problems adapting to the Premier League.”
“Analysing his time, what stands out is his consistency,” says the Alavés defender Rodrigo Ely. “He might have been in the background because of Ramos’s character and goals, but they complemented each other. England is different and defenders tend to have less space behind them, but that’s not bad for Varane. With him, United could make the kind of leap Liverpool did with [Virgil] Van Dijk.”
Although periodically interrupted by injuries – enough to concern – that consistency probably normalised good performances and highlighted bad ones. Varane said he had been unable to prepare properly physically for last season. The previous campaign ended with Madrid knocked out of the Champions League on a night when, without Ramos alongside him, Varane’s mistake saw Manchester City progress.
That time people did talk about him and so did he, taking responsibility. “This is my defeat,” insisted the man who had won four European Cups, which were his victories too although he never said so.