Giroud could be France's missing link
Olivier Giroud is a great wine enthusiast. During the summer he even did a few tastings. “My wife gave me a cellar. I can stock 80 bottles,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche. “I will drink them one day…” For now, the Montpellier striker will allow himself a small glass of champagne to toast his first call-up to the France squad for the scheduled upcoming friendlies against the United States and Belgium.
Laurent Blanc had paid a visit to Montpellier’s training ground last week. He still has a soft spot for the club. It was there that he had emerged throughout the `80s and earned his first caps for France. Only four other Montpellier players have followed in his footsteps since then. Goalkeeper Bruno Martini was the last in 1996. So Blanc admitted to “teasing” Giroud before announcing his decision.
Montpellier had lobbied for his place in the squad. Coach René Girard said: “Other players have appeared [for France] after less time in Ligue 1.” With one season of experience in the top flight, Giroud is still considered relatively new on the scene. Interviewed in L’Équipe last month, Blanc had intimated that he “could wait” a bit longer before expecting a phone call.
Signed from Tours for €2.5m a year ago, Giroud arrived on the back of finishing top scorer in Ligue 2 with 21 goals. He had been close to joining Celtic. “I met their representatives in Paris,” Giroud recalled. “Montpellier were very reactive. President Louis Nicollin called me. He said: ‘What the f*** are you doing going to Kilmarnock?” It made me laugh. I got the impression we’d known each other for a long time.”
He was immediately put at ease and it showed. Giroud found the net on his competitive debut in a Europa League qualifier against Gyor. But it did take time to adjust. “There is a huge difference between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2,” he admitted. “I had a knot in my stomach before our first match against Bordeaux. I was tense at the Mosson. I’ve a tendency to put extra pressure on myself.”
Giroud didn’t get off the mark in front of his home supporters until late September, but once he did a steady drip nourished a Montpellier side that needed to know where its next goal was going to come from. They were Giroud-dependent. No-one except bottom club Arles-Avignon made the net bulge on fewer occasions in Ligue 1 last season than Montpellier.
The strings pulled by the team’s playmaker and free-kick specialist Tino Costa felt a bit slack following his departure for Valencia. Often it seemed like they had been replaced with sticks. Nine red cards, 83 yellows and 706 fouls led one to believe that Montpellier, even with the flair of Younés Belhanda and Marco Estrada in the team, were destroyers first and creators second.
Chances were few and far between. The tall and elegant Giroud, drawing inspiration from watching Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, had to fight for scraps on his own up front. He soon got a taste for it. Asked to reveal the striker who had given him the sternest test in Ligue 1 last season, Paris Saint-Germain’s beast of a centre-back Mamadou Sakho named Giroud along with Brest’s waspish Nolan Roux.
Here was a swan among ugly ducklings. “He is solid but full of finesse,” Girard said. “He has made huge progress.” Strong in the air but graceful on the floor, mobile but a target man with the ability to hold the ball up, Giroud ended the campaign with 12 goals in Ligue 1 and got the winner in extra-time against Paris Saint-Germain to book Montpellier’s place in the final of the Coupe de la Ligue.
He is the new darling of the Mosson, not least because of his good looks, something that has become a source of fun in the dressing room. During the summer Montpellier’s official website interviewed the club’s players on the subject of reality TV shows. As an opening gambit, they asked: “If you were The Voice of Secret Story, which teammate would you send into the House of Secrets and what would be their secret?”
Secret Story is France’s version of Big Brother. Each contestant has to conceal a secret, which they confide to The Voice. Everyone else has to try and discover it. Belhanda was first up. “I would send in Giroud,” he laughed. “His secret would be: “I am a model who walked for Karl Lagerfeld.” A week later, goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren jokingly picked on Giroud again. “His secret would be: “I am a man who uses three pots of hair gel a day.”
As Paris Saint-Germain prepare to bring Brand Beckham to Ligue 1, Giroud is thinking it’s perhaps time he started working on his image. The poster boy of Montpellier’s season-ticket campaign has a boot deal with Puma and a Facebook page. That’s it. But Giroud knows where his priorities lie. “I have no desire to be considered a model rather than a footballer,” he smiled.
Giroud has his feet firmly on the ground. At the age of 25, he is a relatively late bloomer and remains mindful of his time in Ligue 2 and how his brother Romain attended the academy at Auxerre, trained with Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet at youth level, but never made it and is now a dietician. “It’s a very tough world,” he acknowledged.
There’s more to Giroud than a pretty face. Fears that defenders would eventually see through him have been rubbished by the way he has started this season. Top scorer in Ligue 1 with eight goals in 12 games, including a hat-trick against Dijon, Giroud isn’t just scoring against the ‘little teams’. No other striker in France has put the ball past Lille, Marseille, Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain on as many occasions as he has since August 2010.
Contrasting starkly with last season, when Montpellier were paupers in front of goal, they are now princes and sit second in the table with the most prolific attack in Ligue 1. Is it all down to Giroud? Not totally, no. “We can’t forget that he has been helped by the entire team,” Girard told France Football. “In the box, he is a warrior, an extremely rare commodity.”
With that in mind, Blanc had to take a look at him before the European Championship. “It’s the moment to reward Giroud. He has an unusual profile,” the France coach mused. A couple of inches taller than Karim Benzema and about two stone heavier, Giroud presents Blanc with a more distinct alternative to the other players competing to be France’s second choice striker. Paris Saint-Germain’s Kevin Gameiro and Marseille’s Loïc Rémy are both shorter and lighter with little aerial presence.
“Olivier is the best link player in France, notably with his head,” Belhanda said. “I try to stay in his zone, just behind him, because I know that he wins each of his duels and that he uses me perfectly. I concentrate on the second balls.”
Blanc lacks a player capable of performing that role. In Giroud, he might find another outlet through which France could vary their play. He’ll be working on that from today at Clairefontaine. When Giroud arrives he will see a familiar face, that of his former teammate at Tours, the Arsenal centre-back Laurent Koscielny. The pair have come a long way in a short space of time. “It’s a dream,” Giroud gushed to L’Équipe. “I hope to prolong it for as long as possible because it’s not an end in itself. It’s the opening of a new page or, I hope, a new book.”
Montpellier and France are hoping for a happy ending.
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in the Guardian, The Blizzard, Champions and Four Four Two.