Raphael Varane is casting his mind back to the summer of 2011, when Europe’s biggest clubs were vying for his signature and Sir Alex Ferguson appeared at the door of his mother’s house in Lille to try and persuade him to join Manchester United.
The centre-back, 18 at the time, would end up choosing Real Madrid following a late intervention from Zinedine Zidane. But even as the seasons passed and the silverware stacked up in the Spanish capital, Manchester United remained in his thoughts. Ferguson did not get his man but his trip to Lille was not in vain.
“It was a special moment for me and my family,” Varane tells Sky Sports, speaking over Zoom from the club’s Carrington headquarters a decade on. “It’s amazing to meet a person like him at 18. You know, after that, it’s your destiny. Ten years in Madrid and now I’m here.”
Varane smiles. He has no regrets and why should he? He blossomed into one of the world’s best and most decorated defenders during his time at Real Madrid, lifting 18 trophies, including four Champions Leagues, and becoming a World Cup-winner with France.
Ferguson could be forgiven for wondering what might have been as he watched Varane excel on his belated debut against Wolves from the director’s box at Molineux. But the feeling at Manchester United a month on from his £41m arrival is that he was worth the wait.
They have acquired Varane at the peak of his powers. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has talked up the 28-year-old’s quality and experience. But he has also described him as “humble” and “inquisitive”.
A player who has won it all is hungry for more.
“That’s my mentality,” says Varane. “I want to be better. I want to improve. I want to push myself.
“This is a new challenge for me,” he adds. “A different competition, a different mentality, a different atmosphere. It’s all new for me but I’ve enjoyed every day so far.
“It’s a big challenge to get Manchester United back to the top but I feel people want to win, people want to do great things with this club, and that’s a big motivation for me.”
Varane was sold on the project by Solskjaer – “he spoke to me about the ambition of the team, and how I would feel playing for Manchester United,” he says – and it helped, too, that he could pick the brains of close friend and international team-mate Paul Pogba.
“Paul spoke to me about the club, about the atmosphere, about the expectations,” says Varane. “Of course, he is a great player. But he also has very good, positive energy. He is a leader for the group. I’ve known him for a very long time so I’m happy to play with him.”
It’s a big challenge to get Manchester United back to the top but I feel people want to win, people want to do great things with this club, and that’s a big motivation
Varane is a leader too – albeit in a different way.
He is no extrovert but he is seen an example to others and speaks with authority and intelligence. At 21, he became the youngest player to captain France in the country’s history. “He’s really good in the changing room, which is very important in football,” said Pogba.
Varane’s influence is obvious to those he has played with. But he is not someone who seeks the limelight. At Madrid, few players contributed more to the successes of the last decade and yet Varane’s name rarely appeared in headlines.
“I don’t play football for this focus,” he shrugs. “I just want to help the team and do my best. I want to improve and be who I am on the pitch. That’s my objective and my mentality.”
There were no complaints, then, that his arrival at Manchester United was overshadowed by that of his former Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo on the final day of the transfer window.
I think he is the best example in the world in terms of work ethic and winning mentality
The 36-year-old’s sensational return to Old Trafford sent ripples around the footballing world and, with three goals in his first two appearances, his impact has been immediate.
Varane is delighted to be reunited having seen first-hand the work that has gone into prolonging his extraordinary career.
“I think he is the best example in the world in terms of work ethic and winning mentality,” says Varane, who shared a dressing room with Ronaldo for seven seasons at Real Madrid.
“Playing with this type of player, you improve every day. If he is still playing to such a high level at his age, it’s because his work is amazing. I’m very happy to play with him.”
While Ronaldo is reacquainting himself with the Premier League, Varane is experiencing it for the first time. It is, he admits, an adjustment from what he had grown accustomed to in La Liga.
“It’s a different kind of football,” he says with a smile. “It’s faster, you have more duels and the intensity is very high in every game. The rhythm on the pitch is different. You repeat a lot of runs and effort and you have to be ready because there is a lot of pressure.”
If the change of pace has surprised him, you wouldn’t know it.
Varane was unable to prevent United’s 2-1 defeat in their Champions League opener against Young Boys on Tuesday but he impressed on his Premier League debut against Wolves and looked similarly assured against Newcastle last weekend.
“The atmosphere was special,” he says of that 4-1 win at Old Trafford. “It was absolutely incredible to hear the fans all game. There was a lot of positive energy and I think the team felt that.”
Varane’s impact is perhaps not as obvious as Ronaldo’s but there is already evidence that he is changing the way Manchester United defend. He has added pace to a backline that badly needed it. Solskjaer’s side are able to play higher up the pitch as a result.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville highlighted the importance of that last season, saying United needed a defender who is “quick, good in the air, strong, and can cover Harry Maguire one-on-one”.
Varane offers those qualities in abundance but he stresses it will take time to build up an understanding with Maguire like the one he shared with Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid.
“With Sergio Ramos, I had 10 years to get to know him, to get to know how he moves on the pitch and how I have to move to be complementary with him,” he says.
It’s a different kind of football. It’s faster, you have more duels and the intensity is very high in every game
“I think Harry Maguire is a great player but we have to work hard to feel comfortable on the pitch. It’s the same with every defender in the team. It’s important to feel connected. We have to move together and motivate each other.
“Every day, we are learning and improving.”
The same can be said of Varane’s language skills. Indeed, it is a testament to the way in which he is throwing himself into this new challenge that he insisted on conducting this interview in English.
“It’s important for me,” he says. “I have to connect with my team-mates, with the fans, and with the country where I am. I see it as part of my experience, to come here and learn and improve.”
Even after all he has achieved in the game, Varane’s enduring desire to learn and improve suggests the best is yet to come from him.
It is a tantalising thought for Manchester United. They had to be patient but Raphael Varane is here now, his destiny finally fulfilled.
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