France out to make Euro his­tory

Lesotho Times - - Sport - Igor Mlade­n­ovic

PARIS — Olivier Giroud waves a dis­mis­sive hand at the huge replica of the World Cup tro­phy out on the lawn of Château de Claire­fontaine.

“I don’t re­ally notice it any­more,” he says, which is some­what sur­pris­ing as it is 12ft tall, but is a clear in­di­ca­tion of the mood in the France camp as they pre­pare to start their Euro 2016 cam­paign against Ro­ma­nia to­mor­row.

This team are fed up with be­ing com­pared with the suc­cess­ful teams of the past; all they want is to show what they are ca­pa­ble of. The buildup to the tour­na­ment has been long, and of­ten dif­fi­cult, the con­tentious de­ci­sion about whether to in­clude Karim Ben­zema over­shad­ow­ing the team’s po­ten­tial.

The Real Madrid for­ward has been left out of the squad over his role in the al­leged black­mail of his in­ter­na­tional team-mate Mathieu Val­buena in the so-called sex tape scandal, but this team are so tal­ented the host na­tion ex­pects them to win the tro­phy with­out him.

Giroud, who is ex­pected to lead the line for Di­dier Deschamps and scored twice in the fi­nal warm-up game against Scot­land last Satur­day, says the tension is build­ing but the play­ers are cop­ing well. “There is def­i­nitely ad­di­tional pres­sure as there are lots of ex­pec­ta­tions,” he says. “The closer it gets to the Ro­ma­nia game the more tension we will feel but there is no neg­a­tive tension.

“The pos­i­tive spirit that Di­dier Deschamps has cre­ated since he took over has re­ally helped. Now is time for this French gen­er­a­tion to make its own his­tory. This (Claire­fontaine) is a myth­i­cal place but it is our turn to win some­thing now.”

The France squad are a good mix be­tween young and old, ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­u­ber­ance, with Giroud one of the team’s el­der states­men, together with Pa­trice Evra and Hugo Lloris. “The in­te­gra­tion of the new play­ers has been made a lot eas­ier be­cause of this pos­i­tive team spirit. The team have evolved nat­u­rally since the 2014 World Cup and that has given new im­pe­tus. We have had good re­sults ever since, play­ing well and scor­ing goals.

“Ev­ery­one con­trib­utes to the squad and who­ever has been com­ing in, young play­ers or the ones who have re­turned af­ter a spell out, has blended in seam­lessly. Last week play­ers such as Adrien Rabiot, Djib­ril Sidibé and Sa­muel Umtiti were singing [a rit­ual for all new play­ers] and will tes­tify to that.”

Giroud cuts a re­laxed fig­ure amid the rare af­ter­noon sun­rays at the coun­try­side train­ing cen­tre, an hour’s drive from Paris. This is where French na­tional teams of all age cat­e­gories gather be­fore a ma­jor tour­na­ment and an elite youth acad­emy, INF Claire­fontaine, has groomed the coun­try’s best tal­ents since 1988, from Thierry Henry to Ni­co­las Anelka.

Olivier Giroud has been a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor here for five years now, and goes into the tour­na­ment on 49 caps and 17 goals. He does so on the back of a dif­fi­cult sea­son with Arse­nal and the news Jamie Vardy is about to join. Af­ter the friendly against Scot­land, Giroud said he “would be happy with the com­pe­ti­tion” and Vardy would hope­fully “help Arse­nal win the ti­tle”. He and his agent, Michael Manuello, dis­miss any sug­ges­tion he is look­ing to leave Arse­nal in the sum­mer.

“We thought this was go­ing to be our year when we beat Le­ices­ter (2-1) at home,” he says. “Un­for­tu­nately we dropped points at the Emi­rates against the sup­pos­edly lesser teams.”

Giroud had a strong first half of the sea­son, crowned by a hat-trick at Olympiakos to en­sure Arse­nal reached the knock­out phase of the Cham­pi­ons League, but then his form dipped and he lost his place in the team in March. “Start­ing games with the French na­tional team helped me bounce back when it was get­ting dif­fi­cult with Arse­nal,” he says.

De­spite his dif­fi­cul­ties in the sec­ond part of the sea­son, Giroud’s re­turn of one league goal ev­ery 152 min­utes was the fourth best in the Pre­mier League be­hind Ser­gio Agüero, Vardy and Harry Kane. An un­der­rated side to his game is what he does out­side the box, link­ing up play with his back to goal and be­hind the op­po­si­tion for in­com- ing team-mates. This is why he thinks he should also be judged in mea­sure with his side’s col­lec­tive per­for­mance too, ar­gu­ing his poorer run co­in­cided with a down­ward curve across the Arse­nal team. “For some rea­son we al­ways seem to have this dip around March. Not just me, if you look at our best play­ers, such as Me­sut (Özil) who made less as­sists af­ter the turn of the year [16 be­fore Jan­uary and four af­ter]. In my first year we fin­ished fourth, the fol­low­ing sea­son third and now sec­ond. We will have to im­prove on that to take the fi­nal step next sea­son.” Arse­nal fin­ished ahead of Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur but 10 points be­hind Le­ices­ter. He ad­mits the crit­i­cism that it was not good enough and re­alises fin­ish­ing sec­ond will be just as bad at the cham­pi­onship. “Arse­nal ended up be­ing crit­i­cised de­spite fin­ish­ing be­hind just one team,” he says, “our best fi­nal po­si­tion for over a decade. It will prob­a­bly be the same with France if we come out of Euro 2016 sec­ond best.” That much is true, although a place in the fi­nal would con­sti­tute an im­prove­ment on the last two ma­jor tour­na­ments where France lost in the quar­ter-fi­nals. Giroud sat on the sub­sti­tutes’ bench as Karim Ben­zema started the two last-eight games against Spain at Euro 2012 and Ger­many in World Cup 2014. With the Real Madrid striker not in­cluded in Deschamps’ fi­nal squad Giroud knows he will have a more prom­i­nent part to play but dis­misses the sug­ges­tion Ben­zema’s ab­sence has lifted a weight off ev­ery­one’s shoul­ders. “No, I can­not say that be­cause it would im­ply Ben­zema was a weight on my shoul­ders which is wrong, he is one of the best French strik­ers. We will miss him, and we will miss the ones miss­ing through in­jury as well [Raphaël Varane and Las­sana Diarra among oth­ers]. We have known he would not be here for a while and now we look for ways to func­tion with the strik­ers who are here.” The new faces in the squad mean France should cope with­out the ab­sen­tees. N’golo Kanté is one of them and his tale of tri­umph over ad­ver­sity, go­ing from non-league football five years ago to the na­tional team, is a key fea­ture of this France squad to which Giroud is no ex­cep­tion. Giroud went through the lowkey Grenoble acad­emy which his brother rec­om­mended so he would stay close to his fam­ily, where one of his coaches said he was not good enough to play in the French sec­ond league, let alone Ligue 1. He was loaned out to Istres in the third league at the age of 21 be­fore re­turn­ing to Ligue 2 at Tours, where he played along­side Lau­rent Ko­scielny, now a team­mate with club and coun­try.

Two years later he joined Mont­pel­lier in the French topflight, be­com­ing Ligue 1’s top scorer as he helped them clinch an un­likely a league ti­tle in 2012. He fi­nally joined Arse­nal where he was met by re­newed scep­ti­cism, his ath­letic frame prompting crit­i­cism that he was not suited to the typ­i­cal pro­file of past Arse­nal strik­ers stretch­ing sides and cre­at­ing space be­tween lines.

“Ad­ver­sity has de­fined this team,” he says. “Sev­eral play­ers did not go through an acad­emy. Many of us came through a dif­fer­ent way rather than sign­ing a pro­fes­sional con­tract aged 17 or 18. I think this made us more re­silient. My time in the lower leagues cer­tainly helps me put my cur­rent achieve­ments in per­spec­tive and gives me more am­bi­tion for the fu­ture.”

His ex­pe­ri­ence makes him a key mem­ber of this squad and he is tak­ing more and more re­spon­si­bil­ity, in his own way. “I try to be a leader on the pitch rather than off it,” he says. “It is not re­ally my thing to speak and I tend to leave the talk to other play­ers, such as Pa­trice.”

The tour­na­ment opener will kick off amid some so­cial dis­con­tent, with the fall­out from last Novem­ber’s ter­ror­ist at­tacks there for ev­ery­one to see. The World Cup tri­umph in 1998 sparked il­lu­sions of a united “black­blanc-beur” team and France needs football more than ever to unite an in­creas­ingly dis­af­fected so­ci­ety.

Giroud says he felt “a shiver down my spine” as he took to train­ing at Stade de France on the eve of the friendly against Rus­sia in March, his first visit there since 13 Novem­ber, when three sui­cide bombers blew them­selves up out­side the sta­dium dur­ing the friendly against Ger­many.

France are back at Stade de France on Fri­day to open a new chap­ter of their his­tory, writ­ten not with the free-flow­ing stream of con­scious­ness of their predecessors but the gritty style typ­i­cal of play­ers who carved their own tor­tu­ous path to suc­cess. They hope to in­spire a new gen­er­a­tion of football fans across the na­tion to get be­hind their team and coun­try and hope for a bet­ter fu­ture again.

Giroud says their coach’s in­flu­ence, far from an op­pres­sive re­minder of that past, ac­cen­tu­ates the pos­i­tives as they at­tempt to con­tinue the 16-year cy­cle that wit­nessed France win­ning the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship in 1984 and 2000. “Deschamps is shift­ing our fo­cus day by day to­wards our fi­nal ob­jec­tive, which is to win the tro­phy. It is our only am­bi­tion go­ing into the tour­na­ment.” — the­

IM­ME­DI­ATE FIX­TURES June 10: Group A- 8pm: France vs Ro­ma­nia. June 11: Group A- 2pm: Al­ba­nia vs Switzer­land; Group B- 5pm: Wales vs Slo­vakia; 8pm- Eng­land vs Rus­sia June 12: Group D- 2pm: Turkey vs Croa­tia; Group C- 5pm: Poland vs North­ern Ire­land; 8pm: Ger­many vs Ukraine.

France for­ward Olivier Giroud.

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