Dimitri Payet looks skyward whilst playing for Marseille against OGC Nice in Ligue 1, Orange Velodrome, Marseille, France, 20 March 2022

Dimitri Payet is a football wizard and his golazos arrive when they mean to

Dimitri Payet is a magician. His latest trick, the outrageously powerful screamer against PAOK in the Europe Conference League, was yet another reminder of the illusions that his wand of a right foot can produce.

He plays football in a manner that doesn’t make sense for the professional game. The mercurial footballer continually tries the big and the exciting rather than the often-times correct and mundane.

You wouldn’t even try half the stuff he does in a five-a-side league. It’s more like how you would play football on the playground or in FIFA, constantly trying the stupidly outrageous partly to impress, and partly because you’re bored.

Now firmly in the twilight of his career, this latest jaw-dropping goal was an eternal reminder of Payet’s footballing message: what’s the point in playing if you’re not having fun?

Football is a visual game through and through. Sure you can listen to it on the radio, but it’s not quite like cricket where you could quite happily sit outside on your deck chair and leisurely listen to Test Match Special, getting pretty much the same experience as watching it.

But such is Payet’s magical mastery that he transcends the senses. Just close your eyes and listen to the goal against PAOK, with no commentator or interruption getting in the way.

You can hear every step of the screamer as it plays out: the distant sound of the ball being hit when the corner is taken; the silence as it makes his way out to Payet; the satisfying thwack as it meets the back of the net at full speed; and the sheer, unadulterated roar of almost 70,000 people crammed into the Velodrome. Perfection.

Now open your eyes and watch the goal through. Is it anything like what you imagined? No, it’s better.

Firstly there’s the way the ball bounces before it reaches him. Usually, the bounce would make such a goal less impressive, but here it only serves to increase the magical nature of the goal.

It hits the ground in such a way that the arc of the ball becomes perfect for Payet’s strike, his leg already wound up and waiting to spring forward.

If the ball wasn’t already under Payet’s spell, it was about to be. As his foot met it,l he embued it with his special power to entertain and off it flew. Payet may well have possessed it himself, guiding it every step of the way as it rocketed past everyone.

Normally goals like that see the ball bend left and right, confusing the goalkeeper. But not Payet’s, this one was impossibly straight.

Heading ever so slightly rightwards but along a path as straight a ruler, it rose ever upwards, the pure ferocity of the shot confusing the goalkeeper rather than any curve.

It slammed into the top corner, wrapping itself around the inside of the net and bouncing out the goal as if it needed to be reiterated just how hard he had hit it.

How Payet’s time ended at West Ham will forever be a shame. The tricks, the flicks, and of course that freekick still live long in the memory.

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READ: We still can’t believe how good Dimitri Payet was in his first West Ham season

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“With Dimitri, he had a great season [2015-16],” West Ham’s former manager Slaven Bilic said on Monday Night Football, explaining why Payet left.

“He enjoyed it and was brilliant on the pitch, off the pitch and in the dressing room. He was vocal in a good way, having fun and mixing with all the players.

“In the second season he was doing everything right on the pitch but he just wanted to go. He had some private problems and wanted to go.

“I tried to persuade him and spoke to him a few times, but when it came to the point that it started to damage the dressing room… then I had to react.”

The simple fact of the matter was he wasn’t having fun anymore, and for Payet, there’s no point playing football if it isn’t fun.

He’s since been bitterly unlucky. In 2018, he helped Marseille to the final of the Europa League, only to get injured as his team lost. That injury saw him out of the reckoning for the French World Cup squad, meaning he missed out on not just winning a Europa League, but the World Cup too.

Both he and Marseille will hope the Conference League will provide an opportunity to undo those past woes and lift silverware, something that at the age of 35 he still has not done at a senior level across his career, and which Marseille have not done for a decade.

For now, though, Payet will disappear – but not for long. You might not see or hear from him for a week or a month, but he will be back on your timelines scoring a banger sooner or later.

Because a footballing wizard is never late, nor is he early.

He arrives precisely when he means to.

By Patrick Ryan

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