In the Caribbean footsteps of Lemar, France's uncut diamond

When Thomas Lemar tried out for a place on one of the teams at his club Solidarite Scolaire, coach Christian Zeby remembers that he "thought it was a joke".

"You had to see him," said Zeby. "He was a little chap of 10 years old, very skinny, who did not look at all like a genius with the ball."

But at the afternoon training session "when that little shrimp found himself with the ball at his feet I understood that we mustn't let him get away."

Those who rubbed shoulders with the young Lemar in his early years in football all tell the same story.

A little kid who did not look much and was solitary, silent and introverted but on the football field exploded with skills extraordinary in a child.

Franck Louis, who runs a regional training programme in the French Caribbean, recalls that when he was teaching youngsters he would bring in Lemar, not yet 10, "to show my trainees what they needed to be able to do with a ball."

- Hard-working -

Lemar's first coach was his father, Edwige.

In an interview with the France-Antilles newspaper in June 2017, Edwige said that "at four or five, he was already juggling right foot, left foot" but that he already had a "very bad right foot". So much so that he broke one of his mother's flower pots with one huge, wild kick of the ball.

That is the only fault of the young Lemar that coaches and team managers can recall. Those around him say he was smart, focused and hard working.

"He came in to train alone and work on his shooting accuracy by aiming at the crossbar," recalls Christian Ajax, former president of Solidarite Scolaire, adding with a laugh: "When we did 'keepie-up' competitions we had to stop him because he could not stop by himself."

Over the years, the boy repeatedly won the prize for top scorer in tournaments. Losing a match or a title inevitably reduced him to tears.

"I took him in my arms and I consoled him," said Zeby, who calls himself a spiritual father for having helped develop more than one exceptional talent.

In his team he had not only Lemar but also Marcus Coco, a French under-21 international midfielder who plays in Ligue 1 for Guingamp.

It was not long before Lemar was on his way to an elite French academy.

"I called a friend who worked at the Caen academy and I told him: 'I believe I have the best player that Guadeloupe has ever produced.' The man at the other end of the line was interested but sceptical," Zeby said.

"A few weeks later, he came and confirmed what I suspected. We had a gem gifted with remarkable skills and football intelligence."

- Feet on the ground -

The gem duly signed for Normandy club Caen, despite other offers, including some from very big clubs.

"For Thomas, we thought it would be better to start in a 'small' club, with more of a family atmosphere," Zeby said.

Lemar only made 25 top-flight appearances for Caen before being sold to Monaco for four million euros ($4.62m, £3.5m) in 2015.

There he starred as they won the Ligue 1 title and reached the Champions League semi-finals last season, breaking into the France set-up as a result.

"He will continue to overcome obstacles, gain experience, and progress. He still has potential to unlock," said Zeby.

Lemar will cost a lot as well. He has been linked with, among others, Liverpool and Arsenal in the English Premier League with rumoured fees of up to 100 million euros. His contract with Monaco runs until 2020.

But the young man seems to be keeping his feet on the ground.

"'Mr Zeby, I am calling you to say I have been called into the France team.' That's what he told me when he was called up. It was simple and calm," said his former coach. "That day, I thought that I was prouder than he was."