This is the latest feature in our series counting down French football’s 20 hottest properties, those most likely to feature in elite clubs’ 2023 transfer plans. Look out for the next player tomorrow and follow the run down in full here on GFFN.
Prising Séko Fofana away from Lens will undoubtedly be a target for many a European contender this winter, but the mercurial midfielder has so far eluded every approach from his many suitors. Get French Football News’ French based player of the year for 2021 admittedly suffered a slight dip in form in the first half of the calendar year, as his team once again missed out on European football by the skin of their teeth. However, the beating heart of Franck Haise’s valiant Lens side has more than justified the past year’s links with a move to the Premier League or France’s top sides. Although, as he enters his third season with everyone’s second-favourite Ligue 1 team, tempting him to move could prove a difficult proposition.
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The midfield pivot he formed with Cheick Doucouré – now of Crystal Palace, and replaced by Clermont’s Salis Abdul Samed – has been, along with the all-encompassing role of Lens’ wing-backs, the defining feature of Haise’s team since their return to Ligue 1 in 2020. Taking the fourth most shots in the league last season, more than PSG’s Lionel Messi despite being a central midfielder, Fofana’s long-distance goal scoring exploits – ten in all competitions last year plus two more this season – are just part of the reason why Fofana is crucial to the side’s success.
All-action displays such as his early-season performance against Paris Saint-Germain last year spring to mind as an example of how his driving runs and eye for a long-range pass under pressure can propel his side forward in the face of adversity. His signature move, cutting inside from the left-hand side and rocketing a shot into the top corner, has provided many a crucial goal. He was rightly named in the Ligue 1 team of the season in May as Lens came within four points of a place in the Europa Conference League. Another barnstorming start to the season has Lens aiming high again this campaign, and Fofana’s decision to stay has been a major part of that.
Recently, Fofana has taken his talents to the international stage, after a three-year break from the Ivory Coast national team to focus on his club football (a decision which has more than paid off). On his return, he found the net in both of Les Eléphants’ matches during the September international break against Guinea and Togo, and firmly established himself in veteran former Bordeaux and Saint-Étienne coach Jean-Louis Gasset’s all-star midfield trio alongside Franck Kessié and Ibrahim Sangaré.
The signing of the former Manchester City youth graduate was seen as something of a coup back when the newly-promoted team acquired him from Udinese, fending off more lucrative destinations, but what the northern side could offer was something not many others could – a close-knit environment with an ambitiously original project plus a clearly defined and valued role.
Newcastle’s push to sign Fofana in January of last year was soon followed by moves from other English clubs, including Arsenal, while this summer saw constant links with a move to PSG or Marseille. Lens’ reported €35m asking price is said to have put off the Ligue 1 champions, and, having put pen to paper on his new deal, the midfielder is likely to see that valuation go up – although that’s unlikely to put off some of the more determined teams from across the Channel. However, Fofana won’t be influenced easily, as the player stressed to GFFN last season: “I take my decisions on my own.”
But there’s a certain Romanticism about Fofana’s relationship with Lens which would be hard to replicate in the cut-throat, unforgiving arena that is Premier League football. By his own admission, Fofana places paramount importance on a feeling of mutual understanding and the love he gets from supporters in his decision to join a club. When asked by GFFN what his aims were for the year, the 27-year-old replied: “To be honest, I take a more collective approach. Because as a collective, if we do well, the personal achievements will come. I am more focused on our team. My aim is for the club to finish as high as possible.” A move away would also be rather anticlimactic given the literal fanfare that welcomed his contract extension – the club organised an elaborate ceremony after the 5-2 win against Lorient to celebrate his decision to commit his future up to 2025.
Fofana clearly values what a club can offer him off the pitch just as much as on it, and any potential suitors will have to prove their worth in that regard if he is to move on. However, the Sang et Or captain, only just entering his prime, has all the tools to succeed at a higher level if he wishes to do so. Whether he finds a place that can show him as much love as the Artois faithful do, though, is another matter entirely.