On loan from Arsenal, young English striker Folarin Balogun has hit the ground running at Reims and is currently level with Lionel Messi on the Ligue 1 Uber Eats scorers chart. He sat down for a chat about escaping the comfort zone, his progress thanks to contact with Lacazette and Henry, his third-culture lifestyle and his mental toughness. Pt I of a two-part interview.
On a sunny autumn day, Folarin Balogun begins with a polite greeting as he enters the auditorium of the Stade de Reims training centre. He takes a seat in the second-from-last row, explaining with a smile that he has his own seat. In Ligue 1 Uber Eats too, the 21-year-old English striker wasted no time in getting comfortable.
Folarin Balogun scored the winning goal in Sunday's 1-0 win over FC Nantes, which took his season tally to eight goals in 14 games - that's more than half of Reims' goals this season! Thus the uber-talented youngster was in fine mood when he sat down to discuss his taste for risk-taking, adapting to a new league, his international future, his young years with the Gunners and becoming mentally tougher... Pt I of our two-part interview.
Folarin, you scored your eighth goal for Stade de Reims on Sunday. Did you expect to adapt so quickly to Ligue 1 Uber Eats?
"Before I signed here, I had seen how the other teams in the league played, how Reims liked to play, and I came to the conclusion that Ligue 1 would be perfect for me. I know my qualities and I was convinced that I could succeed here, so I am not really surprised by my start to the season. But I know that nothing is ever guaranteed so I am very happy with my first months here."
What did you notice when you were looking at the league?
"I saw that there were a lot of quick transitions so, as a striker, I had to, or rather, I have to be particularly careful with my movements. In the Premier League too, there is a lot of transition, a lot of speed in the game, but here the transitions are maybe even faster. A lot of teams are able to wait in a block and then go forward in two seconds to bang a goal in."
What surprised you the most during your first games in France?
"The atmosphere in Marseille! It was my first game here and I had no idea what to expect. The Vélodrome was something else: there were more than 60,000 spectators, some of them a bit hostile... It surprised me because I didn't know that Marseille was such a big football city. It immediately got me into the swing of things! Overall, I find that there is a lot of passion around football in France. It's new for me. Here, you can really feel the emotion of the people around you. If the fans aren't happy, they make it quite clear."
'I have to develop that killer instinct'
You've said several times that your objective was to score ten goals this season, but you're already on eight goals after 14 games...
"I know [smiles]. I talked about scoring ten goals and, even if I'm not far from it, I have to remain humble. I'm still two goals short of ten. I prefer to concentrate on the next game and, if I reach ten goals, I will raise my target. But I'm not there yet; one thing at a time."
What areas have you identified as those in which you need to improve the most?
"First of all, the timing of my runs. I know I'm fast and I'm able to hold off defenders so the most important thing for me is really the timing. If you start at the right time, nobody can stop you. I also need to be more effective in front of goal, more of a killer. I have to be able to finish in every possible way: with my left foot, my right and with my head. This was a priority for me and I'm quite satisfied because this season I've already scored with my head, my right foot and my left foot! It shows that hard work pays off and I need to keep it up."
Will Still became the number one coach at Stade de Reims just under a month ago. Can you tell us about his first weeks in this new role?
"The general public may not know him very well yet, but as soon as I arrived at the club, when he was an assistant, I found him to be a good guy. He speaks perfect English, which is great for me, but also French of course and Dutch. That allows him to communicate with the whole squad. Will gets on well with the players; he is always ready to help. He is also a demanding person. Just because we've won or played well doesn't mean we can relax. He expects a lot from us, all the time. He's a good coach and he's a good person outside football. The squad welcomed his appointment and everyone is motivated to have the best season possible."
'It was Nicolas Pépé who set my goal target'
Going back to last summer, how did you choose Stade de Reims as your next club?
"I had several leads in England, France and Germany. When my agent told me that Reims were interested in me, I saw it as an opportunity. I've always liked taking risks. I am not someone who plays it safe. The easiest solution would have been to stay in England, in the country I know, with my family and friends, which is what they encouraged me to do. But that didn't appeal to me. I really wanted to test myself, get out of my comfort zone and see how I would respond to a new challenge. I have no regrets."
What did the Reims management say to you?
"I was looking for a club where I would have game time, and they were very clear with me. They didn't promise me anything. I was told that I would have to prove that I deserved my place and that if I did that, then of course I would play. Some clubs only tell you what you want to hear to convince you to sign but that's not the case here. I knew that if I came to Reims and performed well in training, which I knew I could do, I would play in matches."
When you made your choice, you were also able to seek the advice of your Arsenal team-mates...
"Yes, I spoke with Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé. It was Nicolas who set me the goal of scoring ten goals. He told me that that would constitute a good debut in Ligue 1 and that I had the qualities to play in France."
It seems Nicolas Pépé missed you so much that he came back to Ligue 1 to see you!
"[Laughs] To be honest, it was Alexandre Lacazette who started the movement by signing for Lyon. Then I arrived in Reims at the beginning of August. And then it was a nice surprise to see Nicolas Pépé come back to play in France, too. I was hanging out on Twitter when I saw that he was joining Nice. We haven't played them yet but I can't wait [the fixture is in mid-January]."
That way, if you reach ten goals, Nicolas Pépé can set your next objective!
"We can do it like that (laughs). If that's the case, it means I've reached ten goals, I'll take it!"
'You can't call a championship with Messi and Neymar a farmers' league'
You talked about getting out of your comfort zone by coming to Reims. How did your first days in France go?
"No particular worries. Marshall Munetsi was very important in my adaptation. He helped me a lot. Even today, he helps me a lot because there are always things I don't understand, during the talks for example. Marshall translates and explains the instructions to me. We also spend time together outside the club. It's very important to have someone I can speak English with and who can teach me French. Like Bukayo Saka, he has a big heart and is a very good person. Junya Ito also played a special role in my first weeks here as we were staying in the same hotel at the beginning. We were both in the same situation because in the hotel there was not much to do, we were bored, so we met to talk."
What was the reaction from your family when you told them that you would be playing in France this season?
"Some of them were a bit scared because it was going to be my first time living abroad, discovering a new language. Many things can go wrong when you leave home. So there was a bit of anxiety but, at the same time, they supported me in this choice and they trusted me. I know that, on social networks, some people call the French championship a farmers league but I play in France now and I can tell you that it is never easy! With Reims, I have only played difficult and close games. And I don't think you can call a league with players like Messi and Neymar a farmers league [laughs]. These comments come from people who don't understand football."
'Your comfort zone is not always the right place to be'
You said that some things can go wrong when you leave your homeland...
"For anyone changing jobs or starting a new adventure, the most important thing is to feel comfortable. You need to feel that you can reproduce the things you did well at home in this new place. Not knowing the language, discovering a new cuisine, not having friends there... You can ask yourself questions but sometimes you have to make sacrifices to achieve your goals."
Some players who change clubs make the move with family or friends. Was this the case for you?
"No, I came alone to Reims. At the risk of repeating myself, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and I wanted to do everything I could to learn French and to make new friends. I'm not a great cook, so that's also something I have to manage. It's part of a whole and it's the fruit of reflection. Coming here alone forced me to adapt more quickly. I think that's a good thing."
Even if there is the recent example of Tammy Abraham at AS Roma, English players, and even more so strikers, rarely make the choice to leave England. Why is it less natural for English people than for players from other countries?
"It's true that English players often prefer to stay at home. Thierry Henry told me the same thing. For example, as soon as I'm in London, I feel good because it's my home. In my neighbourhood, I know all the shopkeepers, I talk to them. All these little things make many people prefer to stay in their comfort zone. But for me, your comfort zone is not always the right place. Sometimes you have to put yourself in danger. That's what I decided to do. But I didn't look at how well the English strikers who had gone abroad before me had done before I made my decision. I just had to choose what was best for me."
Click below for the second and final part of our chat with Folarin Balogun ahead of Stade de Reims' trip to Montpellier for Round 15!>> PT I: Folarin Balogun: 'I'm going to make a decision soon'