It may not have been a beautiful goal but it was exactly what Didier Deschamps intended when he selected Olivier Giroud to be his leading striker. Flighting a long ball out of defence, Adil Rami found Giroud pulling two Ireland centre-backs to the right-hand edge of the box. Antoine Griezmann, who had levelled the score moments earlier, was rushing into the space in the centre. He was found perfectly by his team-mate’s deft header, taking a touch to steady himself, then firing a low, left-footed drive into the corner of Darren Randolph’s goal. There was no way back for Ireland now.
As the Parc Olympique Lyonnais roared in celebration at the final whistle, Giroud could be forgiven for allowing himself a wry smile. Only a month before he was jeered by the crowd in Nantes as France toiled to victory in a warm-up match against Cameroon. Despite getting on the scoresheet that night, expertly dispatching Paul Pogba’s exquisite assist, Giroud’s evening followed a pattern similar to that we have seen at Euro 2016. Dimitri Payet scored a stunning last-minute winner, and the striker’s contribution was soon forgotten.
Paul Pogba pulled out the assist of the year with this ridiculous ball to Olivier Giroud against Cameroon last night pic.twitter.com/0gTUKJ5O1P
— EveryFan (@EveryFan) May 31, 2016
The criticism has affected Giroud in the past, says French football journalist Alexis Sandre, who knows the Arsenal forward from his roots in Grenoble. “He stopped Facebook and Twitter for the last five or six years. He has a Twitter account but he has an agent to manage it,” says Sandre. “He doesn’t want to see it because it’s not interesting, people are only criticising. In France some people criticise him a lot because they prefer to remember his bad performances. When the group of 23 players was decided by Deschamps, some asked ‘Why’s he here?'”
One of the main reasons is Karim Benzema’s international exile. Following the Real Madrid striker’s involvement in the Mathieu Valbuena sex tape scandal, it was decided he should be left out of the squad. Giroud won the battle with André-Pierre Gignac for the No.9 shirt, scoring a brace against Scotland in France’s final pre-tournament friendly, and suddenly the booing stopped. “After the two matches, people began to change their minds,” says Sandre. “He scored three goals, so he’s the number one striker. Now everyone is behind the team.”
Another goal against Romania in France’s opening day victory ensured the nation’s goodwill would continue. Now it was Pogba and Griezmann who were under the spotlight, dropped by Deschamps for the second game against Albania before returning to the starting line-up in the next two matches. Griezmann, known as the chouchou of this French team, has gradually begun to find his best form, scoring a crucial late opener after coming on as a substitute against Albania and hitting a brace to seal a spot in the quarter-finals at Ireland’s expense.
GOAL!! Griezmann scores a second in quick succession to put #FRA ahead https://t.co/YFLA64Grpy
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 26, 2016
Giroud is yet to add to his goal against Romania. It isn’t often that the starting centre-forward is left to play such a supporting role, but it isn’t the first time it has happened for France when hosting a major tournament. Stéphane Guivarc’h, now a swimming pool salesman, played in all but one match at the 1998 World Cup – starting in the final against Brazil – but failed to find the net once. Deschamps, who captained that famous side, will remember his team-mate’s selfless work on the pitch and a character manager Aimé Jacquet saw as an important contrast to the larger egos in the dressing room.
It is a role Giroud is fulfilling 18 years later as France search for a third major tournament victory on home soil. “He has always been determined but he is also humble,” says Sandre. “He respects the manager’s decision and only hopes to give everything for the team.”
Sandre paints the picture of a family man who is happy for others to take the headlines. On the eve of the tournament, he put together a double-page spread in the Grenoble newspaper with good luck messages from Giroud’s family and friends, as well as his former youth coach. “He read it on the Friday morning before the game and told me he was very happy. He feels strong,” says Sandre.
“He’s got two brothers and a sister and they are very close. His sister told me when he was a child he was always playing with a football in the house. He’s close to his family, he never changes. Often during the season they go to see him in London and watch Arsenal. And when Olivier’s on holiday he likes to come to Grenoble to see his family. People ask him for pictures and autographs in the street and he always says ‘no problem’.”
Un jovencísimo Olivier Giroud en el Grenoble Foot 38. pic.twitter.com/lASxfraNle
— Un Valencianista Más (@UValencianistaM) February 14, 2016
Giroud’s circuitous route to the top of the game has no doubt played a part in his humility. Despite an impressive season on loan at Istres as a 21-year-old, he was told he no longer had a future at Grenoble – then a Ligue 1 side – and was sold to Tours. “He finished as the top striker in the second division with Tours,” says Sandre. “That was when all the country began to know him as a very good player. Now everybody in Grenoble asks why the coach didn’t want him.”
The theme of being unloved, despite most supporters respecting his qualities, has followed Giroud to Arsenal as well as the national team. He is used to it, moulded by it. Giroud is not looking for the spotlight; he has not set a target for the number of goals he hoped to score at Euro 2016. “I don’t have a number, I just know that if I score I help my team and my country,” he told Sandre.
As his vital role in France’s victory over Ireland underlined, Giroud is doing exactly that. The quiet man in attack has silenced the doubters and, if France reach the final, they will owe a great deal to a forward who has allowed others to enjoy the plaudits.