When Denis Genreau was substituted into the game in the 63rd minute of Australia's 2-0 loss to Argentina in June, he accomplished something that, at the start of the 2022-23 season, he probably thought would have arrived much sooner. In effect, though, that's almost a fitting conclusion to themes that had marked his year: A promising conclusion -- on and off the field -- giving hope that what lies ahead will make up for missed opportunities and setbacks that had haunted him in the previous months.
Like Lionel Messi, who won the Ligue 1 title with Paris Saint-Germain, the 24-year-old Melburnian had spent the campaign playing in the French top flight, with Toulouse; it was his second season with Les Violets, after previously being part of their successful push for promotion. However, Genreau did not play against Messi in either of their sides' meetings in the campaign: The Australian was an unused substitute in a 3-0 loss a month into the season, and he was not a part of the squad for a 2-1 loss in Paris in Week 22.
Of course, Messi has a habit of making opponents regret ever sharing the field with him, and Genreau, in Beijing, like many others before him, found the task of trying to contain possibly the greatest player of all time to be much easier said than done. The former Macarthur Medal winner fouled Messi to give away the free kick from which the Argentine almost scored just past the hour mark, with the corner that resulted eventually leading to German Pezzella's sealer. The moment that has gone viral from the game, La Albiceleste's No. 10 somehow shaking free of multiple defenders to advance the ball forward, features Genreau as one of the despairing Socceroos.
Nonetheless, given everything that had happened in the months before that point, the fact that Genreau was even playing in the Beijing Worker's Stadium, pushing his case for greater involvement in Graham Arnold's plans in the AFC Asian Cup, represents something of a win.
"Towards the end of the Ligue 2 season, I started having those groin issues," Genreau told ESPN. "And then I went away with the national team for the [FIFA World Cup] qualifiers for three extra weeks at the end of the season and came back to preseason later, about a month behind all the other boys. Then you're just playing catch-up when you miss that much preseason.
"I just wanted to hold out and try to get as many minutes before the World Cup. And it wasn't easy with the injury and not being at full fitness. Then when I didn't get picked for the World Cup, I decided it was a good option to get surgery."
Positively, however, the end of the recently completed season augured greater opportunities, with Les Violets' run to become Coupe de France winners and coach Philippe Montanier casting one eye forward in league play giving Genreau, upon his recovery, greater scope to contribute.
Genreau made his first start of the season in a 2-1 win over Montpellier on Apr. 9, when he recorded an assist, and the midfielder started a further six games for Toulouse in both central and more advanced roles -- his side winning three games and drawing three against just two losses during the stretch.
"I had the surgery during the World Cup break," Genreau said. "It's a pretty quick surgery, a short surgery and the quick rehab as well, so I didn't miss too many games -- about two months out -- then started being picked for games again in February.
"We had a cup run, which was important to the club, so towards the back end of the season, [Montanier] started rotating a bit and then after the quarterfinal played me for my first start and then I had an assist in that game and then basically started every league game until the end of the season."
Genreau's groin injury and lack of minutes for Toulouse meant his absence from the Socceroos FIFA World Cup squad in Qatar wasn't as much of a surprise as it would have been earlier in the cycle -- when he was an almost constant, albeit underutilised, presence -- but the missed opportunity to represent his country on the biggest stage still stung.
"It hurt a lot to not be picked for the World Cup," he said. "I was part of the journey for four years and was in Arnie's first camp. You go through COVID, you go through all the qualifiers and everything, and then it hurts not to be picked in the World Cup.
"It makes you more hungry to play for the national team, more hungry to do better for your club. Those are the best parts about setbacks and failures: That you always come back stronger and more motivated to never take anything for granted, and keep working hard."
This work includes a focus on mental acuity and mindset, which is appropriate given the increasing importance with which it is recognised in elite sports and Arnold's elevation of his take on it.
"I've been doing a lot of work on the mental side because I feel like that makes a big difference for all footballers," Genreau said. "At a certain level, everyone's a good footballer and then the little differences can be mental or decision-making.
"In French, [it roughly translates to] mental trainers, so it's not really psychologists but... they just do a lot of work with [online cognitive training tool] NeuroTracker. And then they do a lot of conversations because if you play a bad game, you might be thinking about it and you get to speak up because once a week and you just let out your frustrations, you let out what you thought about the game and stuff, and it all comes down and then you move on.
"Then also ways of dealing with being present. Because in the game you have to stay present even if you make a mistake or if you do something good. You can't let your emotions get on top of it. You just got to think of the present, and it's interesting working with those kinds of people.
"I've been working with them for two years now, and I feel like my game is going to another level because of that.
"To have people you can talk to about that, [who have] no judgement... these people don't expect anything from you. They're just there for you, and you talk to them about whatever you want. Whether it's not football, about football, there's no judgement and they're here to just listen."
Genreau is now preparing for the coming season, with new opportunities and challenges in the south of France.
Toulouse open their Ligue 1 season away to Nantes on Aug. 13, while they also have European football to look forward to thanks to their triumph in the Coupe de France; they are set to enter the UEFA Europa League in the group stage, alongside the likes of Liverpool, AS Roma, and Villarreal.
Montanier, though, has departed, replaced by his assistant and one-time Barcelona youth coach, Carles Martinez Novell. Speaking on Novell's appointment, club president Damien Comolli said: "Our club is at a decisive turning point in its development. As we embark on this new cycle, we are convinced that Carles is the right person to help us achieve our ambitions".
In addition to the changes in the dugout, midfielders Branco van den Boomen, Brecht Dejaegere, and Stijn Spierings have all left the club, with L'Equipe reporting their exits are part of a "data-driven" strategy of American-based club owners RedBird Capital. Van den Boomen has since signed for Ajax Amsterdam on a free transfer, while Spierings has joined Lens.
Signings have been earmarked but Genreau recognises the opportunity to stake a claim on regular first-team football with Toulouse's midfield in a state of flux and extra games heading their way in 2023-24.
And he'll have at least one extra person in his corner whatever happens next season, after he and his partner welcomed their first child, Louis, into the world in May.
"That's something that's been a massive positive this year because it just brings so much joy to your life," Genreau said. "If you have a bad training or a good training, or a bad game or a good game, you come home to your kid and he looks up to you and smiles, so it's something massive positive for me and my partner. He brings us lots of joy."