Did you know? Five footballers from the tiny Indian Ocean island of Reunion

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Did you know? Five footballers from the tiny Indian Ocean island of Reunion
The wonderfully talented Dimitri Payet now plays for Vasco da Gama in Brazil
The wonderfully talented Dimitri Payet now plays for Vasco da Gama in Brazil
Profimedia
The tiny Indian Ocean island of Reunion - a French overseas department - has a population of less than 900,000 and yet it has produced its fair share of top-level footballers over the years. Here are five you might not have known to originate from the idyllic yet highly volcanic isle.

Florent Sinama Pongolle (one cap for France)

Florent Sinama-Pongolle playing for Atletico against Liverpool in 2008
AFP

Starting out at Reunion’s most successful club, Saint-Pierroise, Florent Sinama Pongolle was scouted at the age of 11 by Le Havre - a mainland French club with a famous youth academy (having produced Paul Pogba, Lassana Diarra and Steve Mandanda) that has a habit for recruiting well in Reunion as you will find out below.

After impressing in UEFA youth-level completions, he was signed by Liverpool along with his cousin Anthony Le Tallec (not from Reunion). Despite never really establishing himself at the Reds, Sinama Pongolle was a part of the 2004/05 Champions League winning team, although he was left out of the squad for the final.

After being loaned to Blackburn, he moved to Spain where he impressed in LaLiga with Recreativo before landing a move to Atletico Madrid. His career later took him to the Russian Premier League, MLS, Scotland and Thailand before he went back to his hometown club on the island.

Guillaume Hoarau
Guillaume Hoarau scored 94 goals in 141 league appearances for Young Boys
AFP

When Sinama Pongolle was scouted by Le Havre, the side also took a look at striker Guillaume Hoarau but chose the former over him. Later, Le Havre came calling again and he transferred to the club in 2004. Eventually, he broke into the first team, then in Ligue 2, and went on a scoring run that saw him notch 28 goals in the 2007/08 season in France’s second tier, including scoring in 12 straight matches.

That hot streak drew plenty of attention and Hoarau was signed by Paris Saint-Germain before the Qatari takeover. He went on to score 38 goals in 114 appearances for the Parisians before moving to the Chinese Super League.

Coming back to Europe he spent time at Bordeaux before moving to Young Boys Bern in 2014, helping the Swiss club to their first league title in 32 years in the 2017/18 season. Like Sinama Pongolle, Hoarau also moved back to Saint-Pierroise for the final glimpses of his professional career.

Didier Agathe

Celtic's Didier Agathe (R) during a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich in 2003
AFP

A marauding wing-back known for his many years at Scottish giants Celtic, Didier Agathe was spotted playing in Reunion by scouts from Montpellier in 1992. However, his time in France was marred by injury and he never truly established himself. That led him to try his luck elsewhere and after failing to find a club in England, Agathe ended up at Raith Rovers in what was the Scottish second tier.

After a strong season playing as a striker for Rovers, Agathe joined Hibernian on a short-term deal before being snapped up by Martin O’Neil at Celtic at the beginning of the 2000/01 season. He went on to become a regular on the right flank at the Glasgow club in a glittering spell that saw Agathe win three Scottish league titles, lift four cups, and make the UEFA Cup final in 2003.

He later reunited with O’Neil at Aston Villa but only managed a handful of appearances before his short-term contract expired. He also returned to Reunion to play for Saint-Pierroise. Agathe set up an academy in Reunion and has tried his hand at coaching, having managed Durham City and Chester-Le-Street - both lower league clubs in England’s North East.

Laurent Robert (nine caps for France)

Laurent Robert will never be forgotten by Newcastle fans
Profimedia

Like Agathe, Laurent Robert moved from Reunion to start his professional career at Montpellier. Robert will be most fondly remembered for his penchant for outrageous goals, particularly from free kicks - he scored plenty of them in an eventful career.

After spending a few seasons at Montpellier, the last of which (1998/99) saw him score 11 times, Robert sealed a move to PSG. In the capital, across two league campaigns, he scored 24 goals. In 2001, he signed with Premier League club Newcastle United. In four seasons with the Magpies, Robert hit his peak and plenty of free kicks, too.

He remains one of only seven players to have scored 11 or more free kicks in the Premier League. Most of the players in that group played for many years in the league, however. Of the 15 players to have scored from eight or more free kicks, Robert averaged his the quickest, with one every 994 minutes of playing time. After Newcastle, he never reached the same heights in short spells at Portsmouth, Benfica, and in Canada and Greece. His brother Bertrand Robert was also a professional player.

Dimitri Payet (38 caps for France)

For a brief moment, West Ham's Dimitri Payet was the envy of England
AFP

Surely the best-known in this list and another deadly set-piece taker, Dimitri Payet has led an impressive career that is largely remembered for his many seasons at Ligue 1 giants Marseille, his short-lived but incredible time at Premier League club West Ham and his sometimes rocky relations with teammates and coaches.

After being scouted by Le Havre (yes, another one), he returned to Reunion before getting a second chance in France with Nantes in 2005. After passing through St Etienne and Lille, Payet made his big move to the south of France in 2013. It was the arrival of coach Marcelo Bielsa to Marseille the following year, however, that helped elevate Payet into a world-class playmaker.

In 2015, Payet secured a switch to Premier League club West Ham and for a brief moment in time was the darling of East London and one of the most dangerous players in the best league in the world. After an impressive 2015/16 he was shortlisted for the 2016 PFA Players' Player of the Year Award and named West Ham’s payer of the season.

Things turned sour in East London for Payet when he was approached by Marseille in January 2017 and requested a move back. Some Hammers might hate him but the streets will never forget how good Payet was in the Premier League for a season and a half. Back at Marseille, Payet became a consistent presence up until the end of last season. He now plies his trade at Vasco da Gama in the Brazilian Serie A.

Football in Reunion

Reunion has its own league that is governed by the Reunionese Football League under the watch of the French Football Federation. As such, the local clubs are able to participate in the Coupe de France which famously draws in participants from the French overseas departments and territories - Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia and so on.

A few Reunionese clubs have progressed through the rounds over the years with Tamponnaise making it to the round of 64 last season and Saint-Denis doing the same the season before. This season, Saint-Denis made the eighth round before losing to Paris FC - they made the trip to mainland France for the tie.

Reunion also has a national team, although it is not a member of FIFA and only an associate member of CAF and thus can not participate in World Cup qualifiers or the Africa Cup of Nations. They do play friendlies, however. Mostly, they play against their Indian Ocean neighbours - Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Their all-time leading goalscorer is Jean-Michel Fontaine, who has scored 15 goals in 30 matches for the island.

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