Oh, Dimitri, we hardly knew ye—not that we were given much of a chance, seeing as your too-brief and utterly incandescent Premier League career lasted just a season and a half.
It was right around this time a year ago when, after 14 league appearances with six goals and four assists and countless Oh shit did you see what he just did?!?! dribbles and passes, it became evident that Payet was no mere free-kick specialist on a hot streak. Payet came into the Premier League and dazzled immediately, running past the strongest and toughest defenders in the world as if they were overmatched children, flipping the ball into the net as if no one dared to even attempt to stop him, and then swaggering over to the sidelines with a simple smirk, as if to him tossed off moments of genius came as naturally as breathing.
Payet finished the 2015-16 season with 9 goals, 12 assists, and a newfound superstardom. He was one of the breakout players of the year (a title he couldn’t own himself, due to Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy doing the impossible with Leicester City) for one of the most exciting, upwardly mobile middle-tier clubs in the Premier League. Despite his age—Payet turned 29 toward the end of last season—there was no reason to doubt that he and we had a couple more years to enjoy the peak of his powers. The Prem’s TV money and West Ham’s new stadium meant the club could afford to lock down their stud to a new contract paying him a well-deserved £125,000 per week, and the future, for Hammers fans and EPL fans alike, looked bright.
Amidst this joy and promise, Payet joined his fellow Frenchies with the national team for the Euro 2016 tournament they hosted. There he thrived too, doing the same things in France’s blue as he had in West Ham’s colors. In spite of the fat new contract the London club gave him, Payet’s name still attracted rumors that one of Europe’s true elite teams would swoop in to snatch him away, the most prominent linking him to reigning European champions Real Madrid. Still, because of the money he was getting from West Ham and the fact that it was difficult to find an elite team that had a starting spot available for him, it appeared that he’d remain a Hammer and everything would be good.
This was not to be. The rumors about Real Madrid and a move to the big time must have turned Payet’s head for good, and for perfectly fine reasons. Payet has been something of a vagabond over his career, tending only to stay in one place for a couple seasons before moving on. Two years after breaking into Nantes’s first team, Payet left for Saint-Étienne; after four seasons there, he forced his way to Lille, where he spent two years before leaving for Marseille, where he stayed for two years before being sent to West Ham, which he has now left after a season and a half. For a while Payet tantalizes fans of his current team with his undeniable and readily apparent talent, then angers them with his restlessness as he pines for pastures new. It’s a recurrent theme in Payet’s career, and now it has taken him away from West Ham and back to Marseille.
Payet must’ve mentally checked out at West Ham after the big move he had his heart set on never materialized. Unable to springboard from West Ham to one of the world’s biggest clubs this late in his career, he has settled on a return to Marseille, as the place where he can play out the back end of his prime in the comfort of his native France.
For Payet, the move is obviously good. In explaining why he was so adamant about leaving the Hammers, Payet said “I no longer felt well at West Ham, I needed to return to my roots.” He tweeted a photo of the plane on which he flew from London to Marseille yesterday along with the words “Going back home.” It’s clear that this was a personal decision based primarily on his own well-being—more proof being that he reportedly took a pay cut to join the Ligue 1 outfit—and it’s impossible to fault him for that.
On top of those considerations, Payet probably has better odds of playing in the Champions League in the near future with Marseille than West Ham. Marseille won’t get there next season—they’re currently sixth in Ligue 1, 13 points away from third place and the Champions League qualifiers spot that comes with it—but the club does have a new, rich (?) owner, Frank McCourt (hence the “?”), who’s promised to spend big to win. Even with everything West Ham have going for them, they’re still not likely to topple any of the six super-rich clubs in England for one of the league’s four UCL places. For personal and professional reasons, the move makes sense.
And yet, it’s still too bad from a Premier League fan’s point of view that Payet has gone. He’s left a visible club in the world’s best, most-followed, and most-easily-followed competition for a team in a league relatively few pay much attention to and a team for which the overwhelming majority of matches won’t be televised in the U.S.
We’ll still have the odd free kick stunner to relive when someone posts a shaky phone recording of the goal on Twitter minutes after it happens, and the compilation makers will no doubt have just as much material to edit into their long, atrociously-soundtracked highlight reels. But there’s no substitute for watching Payet in real time, the way he goes from an amorphous glob of color amidst a sea of green to an unmistakably electrifying jolt of brilliance once the little white dot comes near him, the way he breaks up spells of aimless play by imposing form on everything via his will and his skill once he decides to take the ball and run, the pleasure his play and demeanor give viewers practically every time he steps onto the pitch.
Like any great soccer player or match, Payet is best appreciated in full rather than in measured doses, and opportunities to sit in front of a screen in awe of him just got a lot rarer for most of us. He will be missed.