Lucas Hernandez: instant world champion was Spain’s loss and France’s gain
Lucas Hernandez has a World Cup winner’s medal for France but could be playing for Spain if not for a phone call from Didier Deschamps three months before that 2018 tournament in Russia and a chat with his Atlético Madrid teammate Antoine Griezmann.
Griezmann admitted “putting pressure on him and talking him into answering yes” and also revealed Julen Lopetegui, the then Spain manager, had approached the full-back and put out feelers.
Hernandez had played for all France’s youth teams from under-16s to under-21s, but this was the turning point he had been waiting for. “I had long felt more Spanish than French,” he explained, “because Spain gave me everything personally and professionally. I even speak the language better. Yet my country remains France. When I received this call from the coach, I did not hesitate, not even for a second, before telling him I was ready to give my all for this shirt.” The next thing he knew, he was a World Cup winner at 22. Hernandez started all seven games at left-back in Russia and even had two assists, one to Benjamin Pavard against Argentina in the last 16, another to Kylian Mbappé against Croatia in the final – and life would never be the same.
Born in Marseille, where his father Jean-François, an aggressive left-footed central defender, played between 1995 and 1998, he was raised in Spain, where his dad finished his career before he left home overnight and vanished into thin air riddled with debts. Lucas would share his world now with his mother, Laurence, his maternal grandparents and his younger brother, Theo, who played for Atlético youth and reserves and then moved to Real Madrid and Milan.
“Those were beautiful but hard times. I remember my mom working overtime to feed us, taking us to football games and training … Theo and I owe her everything,” says Hernandez. “The only way to get through this and to give her something in return was to fight and keep fighting and try to make our dreams come true.”
Football had been his driving force and Atlético scouts spotted him at the age of 11 at Rayo Majadahonda, a small suburban team in the west of Madrid. The philosophy and spirit of Atlético, and later Diego Simeone, influenced his style of play and character.
“I like to defend, to compete, to be aggressive on the pitch. I dig one-on-ones, tackles and recoveries,” says Hernandez. “The way Atlético played – defending well to attack well, never the other way around – suited me and looked very much the same as France’s approach when I came in. In fact, Deschamps and Simeone have a lot in common and only one thing matters to them basically: winning. So I did not feel disoriented and could adapt quickly.”
Although a natural central defender, something that may also stem from his dad’s DNA, he made his breakthrough with Atlético and France as a powerful, explosive and uncompromising left-back. “I’m used to playing left now but I can play in both positions, so I have no problem switching from one role to the other, even within the same game. My brother is a pure left-back and much stronger than me offensively. But I am a better defender, no contest!” As Griezmann described him when he made the team just before the last Word Cup: “He’s my soldier.”
When Hernandez left Atlético for Bayern Munich in 2019, “never had a player from Atlético had won a World Cup before, so I felt quite proud”, he wanted to set a new challenge and “put myself in danger” in his own words. But first he had to undergo two operations (right knee and right ankle ligaments) and he suffered a few other injuries, and ended up only playing a minor role in last year’s last-eight mini-tournament in the Champions League, a mere six-minute cameo in the 8-2 demolition of Barcelona.
“Last season, Alphonso Davies was the best left-back in the world, so no hard feelings, but I was part of the adventure all along.” Having asked for the No 21 shirt, his usual one with France but which nobody had dared to wear since Philipp Lahm retired in 2017, he had to adapt to a possession team, playing offensive football and defending higher, quite the opposite of Atlético. “So I had to improve my passing game,” he admits.
After 18 years living in Spain, he also had to learn a new way of life. “I miss the local jamón and the great partnership we formed with [fellow countrymen] Tom [Lemar] and Antoine [Griezmann].” But he teamed up with three French players at Bayern in Pavard, Kingsley Coman and Corentin Tolisso, and recreated the same settings to unwind on a day off, going for a walk in the woods or fishing.
“I’ve been fishing since I was a child and my dad and granddad taught me. I just love that and I found paradise here. I even discovered amazing spots rich in pike, pike-perch and trout, the local speciality. ” However he admits: “My musical and cooking tastes, except cheese which has to be French, are very much Spanish. My wife, Amelia, is Spanish and my son, Martin, was born in Madrid, two weeks after the World Cup. When I’m in Spain, I feel Spanish. But when I’m in France, I feel French.”
And when in Germany, he is now a Bayern player, another World Cup winner added to the cast. Not an ordinary one, though: his €80m transfer stands as the most expensive in the club’s history. Still only 25, it already looks to be money well spent.