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When international breaks come around these days, it’s almost an eerie silence which descends upon Everton’s Finch Farm training ground.
So littered is David Moyes’ squad with players whose talents are exploited by their nations, for days the air filling the hallways of the Club’s state-of-the-art Halewood complex goes almost undisturbed.
Yet there is one man who remains, a player for whom international recognition is bafflingly elusive.
For 12 years now Sylvain Distin has been one of English football’s most reliable and consistent performers.
A near unblemished injury record has seen the wardrobe-like centre-half become the first overseas outfield player to reach 400 Premier League appearances, while an FA Cup winner's medal achieved at Portsmouth also serves as a marker of his unquestionable success on these shores.
Yet, inexplicably, there is no French cap.
“It's hardly believable when you see the names of some of the centre-backs who have played for France since Sylvain rose to prominence in the early 2000s,” says France Football’s England correspondent Philippe Auclair. “You'd have thought he'd have been given a chance at some point, that he'd had the qualities for that.
“Why the scouts at the French FA would have overlooked him is a question you would have to put to them because, honestly, it doesn't make any sense.”
One reason may be the manner of his departure from Paris Saint-Germain, the club where he made his top-flight breakthrough.
Aged just 21 and having been a first-team contender for only one season, Distin fell out of favour with coach Luis Fernandez and was sent away from France on loan to Newcastle United.
He has never been back, and in the intermittent 12 years Auclair believes he may have become so indoctrinated in the English way, he simply slipped from the consciousness of folk back home.
“He has the qualities to succeed in England, where you've got to be tall and good in the air, where you have to have this incredible engine to run at full speed for 90 minutes,” he reasons.
“These are qualities which fit the English football model and is perhaps not what you would expect from central defenders in France. He's not exactly in the mould of Laurent Blanc or even Philippe Mexes, for example. I mean, he's such a beast, isn't he?
“When he left France people saw in him a player who had those remarkable athletic qualities but perhaps lacked the determination to go on to the next level.
“Afterwards he joined clubs which are not quite as sexy as PSG, if you'll pardon the word, clubs which were not followed all that closely in France, and he went a little bit off the radar. I think those are the main reasons he has never had a call-up.”
It makes sense. Look down the list of centre-backs to be capped by France in the last decade and even the most infrequent of football observers would find ease in picking out those less deserving than Distin.
“The thing for me is that he has never even been called up, let alone given a cap,” says Auclair. “To not even make a squad of 23 is, to me, absolutely astounding.
“For the 2002 World Cup, he was a newcomer at the time. But then you think about the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup and he was never in the reckoning it seems.
“If you asked me to take a contemporary example, I do like Adil Rami an awful lot as a player, he's got great qualities, but if I were to choose between Adil Rami and Sylvain Distin, I would choose Sylvain Distin at the top of their games. And Adil Rami became, at one point, a regular in the French team and was always a part of the 23. That Sylvain’s never got so much as a look in really is a mystery.”
But what of the man himself? Does Distin regret having never been recognised on the international stage?
“People ask me sometimes if I've got regrets regarding me not playing for France and I don't because look where I've got now. I'm 35, I'm in a great club, I enjoy my football, I'm fit, I feel good, there is a great atmosphere where I am; why should I regret?,” he told me recently. “There is not much for me to regret. I don't see why there is reason to regret the past, what is it going to change?
“Maybe if I'd played for France I wouldn't be here, I'd be at another club, I wouldn't enjoy it, maybe I wouldn't be so down to earth, maybe I'd have a big ego.
“That's why I feel like there is nothing for me to regret. I’m really happy with what I've got and I'm really happy with what I've done and if I had to do it all again, I'd do it exactly the same way.”
“For me, he's the proof that you can have an absolutely magnificent career as a footballer without having a cap for your country, despite the fact you deserve it,” Auclair concludes. “I think when he looks back he will have an awful lot more to be proud of than a number of people who've had a career in which they’ve won far more honours, be that at club or national team level.
“I think that in a way that's quite apt. It's more in keeping with the type of player that he's been and that he is, the kind of person that he is. He will never blow his own trumpet and he's somebody who is fundamentally humble, who concentrates on his job, loves his job and loves his clubs.
“There's an awful lot to be proud of there. I think he's been magnificent.”
To find out more about Distin’s story and how he went from being released by Paris Saint-Germain to rejoining the Ligue 1 giants via a spell in the non-leagues and a job as a teaching assistant, listen to our special podcast Back From The Brink using the player below.
- Dave Hickson: A Tribute 104 2 23/08/2013
- 'Je Ne Regrette Rien' 23 3 22/03/2013
- Back From The Brink 5 0 04/03/2013