The little Stade Municipal in Les Lilas hasn't changed much since the first time Jean-Clair Todibo walked in 10 years ago. It's still located at the bottom of a big council estate, with the main pitch in the middle and the training ones next to it. It's a place very familiar to Todibo, who joined this small club in the north of Paris, with a first-team currently competing in the fifth tier of the French league system, at just 6 years old. He used to come and train here two or three times a week between then and the age of 16, when he left for Toulouse.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Jean-Clair Todibo was still playing here, captaining the under-17s. Now, the 19-year-old is set to line up alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona next season after agreeing to a deal to sign for the Catalan club on a free transfer this summer.
Until the start of the 2018-19 season, Todibo had never played a professional game in his life. Ten Ligue 1 games for Toulouse later, he's on his way to Barcelona. It's a fairytale story that only football (and especially French football) can write. But how did the defender get here?
"Les Lilas are a family club, and Jean-Clair was part of our family. We saw him grow, develop, mature and become stronger and stronger. He was always very determined, driven and ambitious," Les Lilas sporting director Bruno Coton-Pelagie, who has trained the U17, U19 and first team over the past 20 years, told ESPN. "But he was a local kid from the next town over, Bagnolet, very respectful and hard-working. He was talented, but he worked so much to become better and to make it to the top."
After a pause, Coton-Pelagie also admitted: "It is an incredible story and one that you could not have predicted when he was 17. We never thought his rise would be so quick, but he deserves a lot of credit for making it happen."
At 14, Todibo was not among the best players in his Les Lilas team. So he did what few kids might do in that situation: He kept working. "When his training session with the Under-17s was finished, he was asking if he could train with the under-19s," Todibo's former coach Amadou N'Diaye said to ESPN. "And he would do really well with them as well. After that, he would have a warm down, some stretching. He was so dedicated, and he knew what he wanted and what he had to do to make it.
"He was not the most talented, but he was the most determined."
At 16, Todibo became much stronger, and his talent started to shine. "He was playing as a defensive midfielder, and he was excellent," Coton-Pelagie said. "His older brother, Loic, was always behind him. He was doing his warm-ups before training would start. They would work after training. He was always pushing him and was really strict and demanding. I thought at times that it was too much, but Jean-Clair was relishing the challenges given by his brother. He wanted to work more, to work harder. And it paid off."
The pride in Coton-Pelagie's and N'Diaye's words is clear, as is the case with everyone else at the club.
Todibo, a versatile, 6-foot-2 centre-back with pace and great technical abilities, had trials at Manchester United, Le Havre and other clubs around Europe but signed for Toulouse in the summer of 2016. There, he played for the U-19 team but wasn't offered a professional deal until he made the breakthrough into the first-team this season. It took the club two years to realise what a talent they had on their books, and by then it was too late: Todibo refused to sign. As a result, after only 10 games, the defender was frozen out by Toulouse and hasn't played for the club since Nov. 3 because of his contract situation. (He likely won't play again.)
As soon as Barcelona made their interest clear, it was an easy choice. Very few young players refuse a chance to play at Camp Nou, and if you think Todibo is apprehensive about the idea of joining such a big club, you are wrong. After years of fighting mentally and physically on the rough pitches of the Parisian suburbs, after being run over by a car at 8 years old and fearing he would never play football again (he has one leg longer than the other since the accident) and after making a huge impression on Ligue 1 despite his inexperience this season, he is ready for bigger things.
"[Todibo] has always hated losing. As a kid, he was so upset after a loss that I had to talk to him for an hour to console him. It made him even hungrier," N'Diaye said.
This also comes from the education Todibo received.
"He had a strict upbringing. He was not the kind of kid to be out on the streets late at night. He was serious, with good manners. He worked well at school and wanted to do well at everything he was doing," Coton-Pelagie said.
In many ways, Todibo is the new Raphael Varane, who was signed by Real Madrid from Lens as an 18-year-old back in 2011. He is fearless, talented and determined but has his feet firmly on the ground. "A couple of months ago, he came back to see us at the club. He came to watch the first team play. He was there with his mates, the same friends as when he was here, telling the same jokes and talking about the same things. He will never change," Coton-Pelagie said with a smile.
For Barcelona, landing Todibo on a free transfer is an incredible piece of business, given that he was being tracked by the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. The influence of France legend Eric Abidal as technical director is clear, with the French contingent at the club swelling to include Clement Lenglet, Samuel Umtiti and Ousmane Dembele. Plus, Adrien Rabiot is expected to arrive this summer.
Ultimately, Barca felt they could not afford to miss out on a talent such as Todibo; the teenager could not miss such an opportunity, either. He won't have it easy at the Camp Nou, as the competition for places will be fierce, but given where he was playing two-and-a-half years ago, Todibo will be given time to adjust.
For Toulouse, however, seeing their prodigy leave on a free transfer like this is hard to swallow. The club has decided not to talk about it publicly, but in private, owner Olivier Sadran and the club's hierarchy are still livid.
"We made him a really good offer to sign his first professional contract with us, better than any other youngster in our history, and yet he didn't want to sign. We need players who are committed and invested," Jean-François Soucasse, one of the club's two CEOs, said in the local press a few weeks ago.
Sadran, on the other hand, has chosen only to criticise Barcelona. "They haven't behaved like a big club," he told L'Equipe. "And also, it's extraordinary: They declare that the player will be with them in July, but I don't know anyone who knows what will happen in six months. Life can spring surprises on you, even the most uncomfortable ones. It shows their arrogance. From a big club, it's not very gracious even if, legally, they had the right to do it.
"We also have some of the responsibility," he said. "From my point of view, the player has been badly advised in the sense he has 10 Ligue 1 matches under his belt. Barca also haven't lived up to what they should be."
Jean-Clair Todibo won't care, though. He will keep following his destiny and believing in himself, just like he did in Les Lilas when he was a kid.