The French shadow cast over Sunday’s north London derby looms large.
As travellers queued this week to board the Eurostar from London, a customs officer was busy checking passports. His name? ‘M Guendouzi’. Sadly for him, his midfield namesake, Arsenal’s Matteo Guendouzi, has kept more of his hair.
The road from the gritty suburbs of Paris — known as the banlieues — to football superstardom is well travelled. Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante are among those to battle their way out of the land of high-rise buildings and low opportunity.
Nicolas Pepe is likely to play in his first North London derby on Sunday against Tottenham
This season, two more players who grew up 15 miles apart are looking to make their mark on these shores.
Tanguy Ndombele and Nicolas Pepe cost a combined £137million this summer. They moved to north London, the most expensive signings in the history of Tottenham and Arsenal.
But how did they get here? And how do the areas around Paris continue to produce so many diamonds?
This summer, the Ndombele family have been toasting two new arrivals.
A month after Tanguy sealed his £65m move to Spurs, older brother Bosso celebrated the birth of his second son. Isiah is only three weeks old but already — as Sportsmail discovered when we visited the Ndbombele home — his early days have been immortalised in a photograph at his grandmother’s flat.
The picture shows Isiah and his older brother Aidan who, aged two, is used to having a ball at his feet. He’s in good company.
Dwarfing the photograph are two cabinets, filled with trophies won by Bosso, Tanguy and younger brother Daniel, 20. Lyon and France shirts hang nearby, with Tottenham mugs and London shot glasses the commemoration for Tanguy’s latest move.
Spurs’s record signing Tanguy Ndombele is also set to experience the derby for the first time
‘When he was very small, he began playing at home,’ Tanguy’s mum Blandine says. ‘He would be the players, referee, journalist, commentator… For Tanguy, football was life. At four years old he already knew team names.
‘Argentina! Holland! We would ask, “Can you read the names?” But no it was the flags. That was his passion for football.’
To this day the three brothers remain extremely close.
Daniel lives with Tanguy, 22, in London, Bosso still plays for nearby Linas-Montlhery, the club Tanguy joined as a teenager after leaving Epinay Athletico.
The brothers, and sister Annette, grew up in an eight- storey apartment block in Epinay-sous-Senart, just south of Paris. These days the family live in Ballainvilliers, a more leafy commune about 13 miles south west of the capital.
It is a train and bus ride out from the city centre. Here, they live in splendid isolation. ‘His roots are in the Cité (estate)… but here no one knows Tanguy,’ Blandine says. ‘Even the neighbours don’t know who he is.’
That’s just how the ‘reserved’ midfielder likes it. Ndombele’s pleasures are simple — cards, mobile game Candy Crush, FIFA — but his route to north London has been bumpier than most. As a teenager he was rejected by several clubs and struggled with his weight. ‘He ate everything,’ his sister remembers.
Ndombele’s proud mother Blandine back home pointing to a framed Lyon shirt her son wore
When he returns to France, Ndombele still enjoys the tastes of home, such as pondu (crushed cassava leaves) with rice, a favourite of his parents’ native Congo. ‘When he was at Lyon and I went to see him, I would take Pondu and when I go to England I will take him Pondu,’ his mum smiles.
Having whipped himself into shape, Ndombele got his break at Ligue 1 side Amiens and now, less than three years after signing his first professional contract, he’s a France international. At the heart of this success, his family believe, is a strong religious faith. Our interview began with a prayer and ended with a trip to church.
On Sunday, though, the family will watch the derby. Ndombele has a thigh injury but if he is fit, Bosso will be in London, supporting his brother and collecting his match shirt. Soon that could be another framed memory fighting for space back home.
At Paris’s north-eastern tip a group of boys are playing at the Jules Ladoumegue sports centre.
This is the home of Paris Solitaires-Est and of Nicolas Pepe, the latest in a long line of French-born players to wear Arsenal red.
The winger, who signed for £72m this summer, played for Solitaires for nearly a decade. Ex-Spurs midfielder Georges-Kevin Nkoudou and Birmingham defender Cheick Keita were team-mates. They still come back for an occasional kick about, too. It looks different now. Artificial grass has replaced the ‘rocky’ surfaces of yesteryear. Pepe is different, too. Back then he was a goalkeeper, battling for a place with Yosry Braik.
‘Pepe was awesome as a goalkeeper, he had this ability to know what the striker was going to do because he was a striker also inside him,’ Braik says.
Pepe and Braik were team-mates until their early teens, when Pepe moved to Poitiers in western France and his career as a forward took off. He represents the country of his parents’ birth, the Ivory Coast, and has 16 caps.
‘When we heard that Pepe had found Angers, a professional club, we were surprised because there were so many good players but he wasn’t the kind to say what he was doing,’ Braik remembers.
Back then Pepe was a goalkeeper, and he battled for a place with Yosry Braik (pictured)
‘He did his stuff in the shadows. He worked a lot, a lot, a lot and he got what he deserved.’
A decade has passed since Pepe left Paris but he has not forgotten his roots. He still wears No 19, the district where he grew up. The barber shop in Reims that he part owns is called 19, too. ‘In this part of France we have a lot of talent,’ Braik adds. ‘There is a lot of competition. Just here in this stadium we have four different clubs.
‘Football is our only exit gate if you want to succeed in your life. Coming from this district, the 19th, you’re hungry… families here don’t have a lot of money but they have what they need to live. The local government helped us have a lot of activities.’
Indirectly, Pepe, 24, is doing his bit, too. FIFA solidarity payments see five per cent of international transfer fees paid to those clubs who trained the player between 12 and 23, Solitaires are entitled to around £360,000.
‘The stadium was really poor,’ Braik recalls. ‘As kids we used to play on rock pitches. So that’s why Pepe, me and the other goalkeepers used to play in full trousers. The club were able to give us pants with protective (padding) so we could throw ourselves to get the ball.’
The pitches are unrecognisable now. Like Pepe — and Ndombele — they have come a long way.