From being booed to becoming France’s joint record goal-scorer: The Giroud story

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Express News Service

CHENNAI: When Thierry Henry scored his 51st goal for France on October 14, 2009, it was assumed that Henry would score more for Les Bleus. It was also assumed that the next person to come within striking distance of Henry’s goal-scoring record would be Karim Benzema. It was a safe bet. The night Henry scored his 51st, Benzema, a 21-year-old who had just moved to Real Madrid, had scored his ninth goal for France.

Two days later, Olivier Giroud started for Tours FC, a club in the second tier of the French league system. Tours lost to CS Sedan-Ardennes, who have played Ligue 1 once this century. Tours haven’t featured in Ligue 1 this century. Long story short, Giroud was living and earning his bread in France’s footballing backwaters, away from the traditional riches of Marseille, Lyon and PSG.

On Tuesday night, Giroud scored his 50th and 51st French goals to become France’s joint-leading goal-scorer. Even in a sport filled with feel-good stories and redemptive arcs, the story of Giroud, who went from Tours FC’s main man to Kylian Mbappe’s wingman to France’s record goal-scorer, is wild. It features Arsenal, a sex-tape involving Benzema, a 2010 World Cup blow-out, Giroud’s highly sophisticated technical play and, in the last year or so, AC Milan.

Cut back to Tours. At the end of the 2009-10 Ligue 2 season, Giroud was a wanted man. What he lacked in pace, he made up with touch. While some of the big European clubs waited, Montpellier, an established Ligue 1 club, moved to buy him. He repaid that faith with playing a starring role as Montpellier won the title in the 2011-12 season, pipping nouveau rich PSG in the process. Twenty-one goals in 36 goals was nothing to sniff at in a league that’s famously physical.

During that record-breaking season, France, who were undergoing a transformation, handed a first cap to him. Following that season, both Arsenal (to replace Robin van Persie) and Chelsea (to replace Didier Drogba) were after his signature. Arsenal bagged him and it was a natural choice. A technically sound French striker who had scored goals in France.

But that’s when the problems began. Arsenal fans wanted an A-list striker to replace Van Persie. While Giroud was perfectly functional, he had his flaws. He missed presentable chances and wasn’t pacy. Yet, he became a lightning rod for Arsenal’s managed malaise.

Even as Arsenal and France made him their main striker, the white noise surrounding Giroud increased. He was on five international goals after 26 international caps. It was clear France was having a moment in terms of talent. Enter the highly-talented Antoine Griezmann, all dancing feet, gun finisher and pacy runner. In short, everything Giroud wasn’t.      

Arsenal had bought Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez but Giroud’s profligacy meant the boos from the stands had started to rain down on the forward. Months before the home Euro in 2016, Giroud went on a 15-game goal drought for the club. By then, it was clear that Benzema, following a sex-tape scandal that also involved teammate Mathieu Valbuena, was effectively banished from the national team.

By now, Giroud was the main No. 9 for both club and country but a man that both club and country didn’t want. Just before those home Euros, Giroud wanted to feel the love from terraces. “You know that I have gone through stages in my career that have been quite complicated, so these things don’t hurt me much, but it is true that it is a shame,” he had said. “Being French, playing in France, if we miss a chance we want the fans to encourage us.

“People say I get better through adversity but I’d be happy to live without all the mudslingers.” While he scored for France in that Euros, he missed one big chance against Portugal in the final. The boo boys were back.

Even when he started and helped France win the World Cup two years later in Russia, they didn’t leave him alone. They were quick to point out that he hadn’t scored.

But one man was already revelling with Giroud’s technical qualities, especially his close control. He brings runners from the wide areas into the game, he holds the ball up well so attackers could use him as a wall. Mbappe quickly realised this, it was a partnership that was blossoming. It was a sentiment shared by Eden Hazard after Giroud moved to Chelsea from Arsenal, who were happy to move him, even to a rival.

Even though he helped Chelsea to multiple titles, they were also happy to move him on. Milan made him the main man and the Frenchman led them to the league title in 2022, their first since 2011.

On the international front, Benzema, though, was back in favour. Even if the court had ruled him guilty of blackmail, Deschamps brought him back from the wilderness. So, the reigning Ballon d’Or was heading to the World Cup, with Giroud as a substitute.

A few days before the opener, Benzema aggravated an injury. It put Giroud back in the spotlight. On Tuesday night, the French fans were beginning to vent their frustrations. That’s before Giroud scored two goals to once again silence his critics. He’s been doing it for a very long time. The sense, though, is when he misses the next presentable chance, the boos will begin.

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