The board was hoisted on the hour with the giddy celebrations for France’s fifth goal against Iceland still in full swing.
A month ago the summons might have been a source of dread, a signal for that all too familiar chorus of boos and poisonous jeers to sweep around the arena, but that was then. These days Olivier Giroud appears finally to have found acceptance.
There were slaps on the back from team-mates, hand claps with the coaching staff and a wave to his family up in the stand as the Stade de France rose to acclaim a departing hero. A player doubted by so many would end up being paraded before the media as Uefa’s man of the match and, 10 hours later, would face up to the press again back at Clairefontaine as Les Bleus’ champion of the moment at Euro 2016. “It’s nice to be cheered but I’ll always have a good attitude on the pitch,” Giroud said. “It’s never been a case of seeking revenge or trying to ‘prove people wrong’ for what happened in the past. Never. I always give everything for my team.”
Five years and 20 goals into the striker’s 53-cap international career France is belatedly waking up to his quality. The “past” to which he referred is recent and in effect a legacy of Karim Benzema’s omission from Didier Deschamps’ squad while the Real Madrid striker’s involvement in an alleged plot to blackmail another France forward, Mathieu Valbuena, is investigated. Benzema has denied wrongoing.
A vocal minority will never forgive the regime for leaving out Benzema, a player recognised as a world-class talent with 27 goals from 81 caps. Before and during a pre-tournament win over Cameroon in Nantes at the end of May they had targeted their scapegoat. There were whistles when Giroud’s name was announced over the public address pre-match, his goal just before the interval prompting relatively subdued celebrations, and boos for the departing Arsenal forward when he was substituted for André-Pierre Gignac just after the hour.
A few days later, while warming up at Metz’s Stade Saint-Symphorien for a friendly against Scotland, he was subjected to similar abuse during shooting practice. There are echoes of the scepticism that has blighted his club career, from his early days at Montpellier to the constant battle he faces to convince Arsenal’s support he should be leading their team’s line.
A tally of 82 goals in 187 appearances is hardly disastrous, with 24 in 53 last season despite a 15-match scoreless run in the league and two periods, in October and March, when he found himself relegated to the bench. “But whenever he is criticised, he takes it on head first,” said Garry Bocaly, a team-mate in the Montpellier team who won Ligue 1 in 2012.
As if to prove that point, Giroud ended up scoring twice against Scotland, as well as the opening goal of the tournament against Romania six days later. And yet, even after 10 goals in 11 games for his country, it took the performance against Iceland on Sunday to convince the majority this is a player who is key.
The Benzema issue has been the unspoken problem for the French throughout these finals, a topic that has flared up whenever the team have laboured. Comparisons with the quality offered by the Real Madrid striker are inevitable. “But I’m not interested in turning this into anything personal,” Giroud said. “Karim plays for France, he will be back and I don’t have any problems with him. I don’t want any misunderstanding or words taken out of context. I’m just enjoying the competition with the France team and trying to help us achieve our objective. Full stop.” That was an attempt to draw a line under the issue, though the 29-year-old knows his own standards must be maintained to silence the debate.
His form is buoyant. “Olive” is the selfless performer around whom Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet buzz so menacingly, a player who has led the line effectively and scored with three of his four shots on target at Euro 2016. The trio have contributed 10 goals between them, with Giroud talking glowingly of the “chemistry” that exists across an incisive frontline.
France’s route into a semi-final with Germany has been relatively straightforward – Romania, Albania, Switzerland, Republic of Ireland and Iceland – and Thursday’s meeting at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille will provide a truer test of the forward’s ability. France have not beaten these opponents in a competitive fixture since 1958. Yet Giroud’s record against them is exemplary: he scored his first goal at this level against them in a 2-1 friendly success in 2012 and registered the first in the 2-0 win in November on an occasion overshadowed by the terrorist atrocities which swept across Saint-Denis and Paris that night.
“Look, that night last November was difficult for everyone,” the forward said. “We were all shaken up, in both teams. But in terms of our victory, of course we have to use that [as inspiration]. It showed we could cause them problems, even if Thursday will be totally different against the world champions. They are our bogey side. We remember the two games in the 1980s [a defeat on penalties in Seville in 1982 and 2-0 in Guadalajara four years later] and the tight game we had against them in Brazil two years ago. That was very tense and, in the end, frustrating. They are the best in the world, a giant, but there’s a lot of hope for us. I believe in our ability and we all want to reverse the trend.”
The striker has done just that with his own reputation in this team. Now the side must follow suit against the reigning world champions.
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