Barcelona have won the race to sign the 19-year-old centre-back, who is one of the big rising stars of French football
There can be little doubt as to the identity of the defensive revelation of the season in France. Jean-Clair Todibo had not played a professional match before the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign, yet moved to rapidly established himself as a key figure for Toulouse in the opening quarter of the season.
The teenager, who turned 19 on December 30, has played 10 matches for the Pink City club, even getting his first professional goal in September – a late equaliser against Rennes that underlined his importance to the side.
He has since agreed terms to join Barcelona at the end of the season, with the Camp Nou side set to sign him on a Bosman deal.
And yet, for the promising centre-back, who is versatile enough to play in midfield, his career could have gone off the rails before it had even begun after being knocked down by a car when he was only nine.
Todibo was born in the Paris region, where he spent his youth. Aged nine, he had yet to choose his favoured sport, as he was involved heavily in both football and judo. However, a twist of fate might have prevented him from reaching the top in either.
“It was May 24, I was nine at the time,” he told La Depeche . “I was leaving my house to go to judo, I crossed the road and a car knocked me down. It turned into a big accident.
“I had an injury on both my leg bones and down to the ankle, and there were several fractures.”
He was playing for Les Lilas at the time, where coach Dylan Greneche was overseeing his progress.
“We weren’t really sure if he’d ever play football again,” he admitted.
In the event, it would be a year that Todibo was away from the football field, yet it seems to have been a character-building experience for him that has served him in good stead for his adult life.
“He’s a young player who has always had a lot of tenacity, and he proved it at that time, despite his young age,” Greneche said.
Todibo, meanwhile, has consigned the incident to the past. “I’ve still got the scars, but it’s an old story,” he said.
He arrived in Toulouse in 2016, having forged a reputation for having a tremendous will to win while still a youth back in the Seine-Saint-Denis region.
“It was the last game of the season and a draw was enough for both teams to go up. The match ended 1-1 but I found Jean-Clair in tears, mad with rage. We had won promotion to the top division but a draw was not enough for him. He wanted to win,” Greneche said.
At that time, his favoured role was in the heart of the midfield, where he offered a game similar to Watford star Etienne Capoue, who came through the ranks of TFC from 2005-2013.
With the Under-19 team, he was given the captaincy, with team-mate Kilian Corredor explaining to LesViolets.com: “He speaks a lot. He’s a bit like the Paul Pogba of TFC.”
He featured eight times for the reserves last season but was given a chance to show his potential with the first team during pre-season. He was the only one of four youth players called up for the summer training camps to make the cut and from there was quick to establish himself in the plans of head coach Alain Casanova, who was seeking a replacement for Issa Diop, sold to West Ham in the summer.
After making a promising start to the season, Todibo has been missing from Toulouse’s first team since completing 90 minutes against Strasbourg in a 1-1 draw on November 3.
The following Wednesday, the teenager was notably absent from first-team training, cast instead to the reserves, and the next day the reason was explained.
“The situation and the reality is relatively simple,” Toulouse’s co-director general Jean-Francois Soucasse explained. “The club has been in negotiations with the player and his entourage over his first professional contract for many weeks.
“He was presented with a salary proposal unprecedented in the history of the club – very much above that of Diop and Alban Lafont [who signed for Fiorentina in the summer] to name only two recent cases.
“At the start of the week, Jean-Clair indicated to us that he still did not know what direction he wants his career to go in.”
As such, he will work with the reserves until his decision is made.
Toulouse have justified their decision, with Soucasse saying: “Casanova needs players totally invested and involved in the challenge for future matches. And more broadly, it is to do with the promotion of players from the academy, which is at the heart of our sporting and economic project. Even if the current situation is unprecedented, we regret it while still hoping a favourable outcome will be found.
“But clearly, as long as Jean-Clear has not made his decision, he will stay away.”
Toulouse, however, only opened negotiations with the player, who was on the radar of several top clubs even before this season, in October.
These failed and they resigned themselves to making a sale, with a transfer fee agreed for the player to join Manchester City.
Todibo, though, rejected the Etihad club, aware that there was interest from a raft of other top European sides, including Juventus, Liverpool and Dortmund. Out of contract in June 2019, he was free to talk with these teams as of January 1, and it was ultimately Barcelona who won the race for his signature.
Barca may yet be willing to placate Toulouse somewhat by offering them €2 million as compensation – half of what City were reportedly bidding but far more than the few hundred thousand euro they would have been made to pay by UEFA to the French side by way of remuneration.
At Camp Nou, the youngster will team up with fellow French defenders Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet, who will doubtless aid his integration into the team.
If his meteoric rise continues, Barca have themselves a star for many years to come.