France out to make Euro history
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.” — theguardian.com
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.