The night, undeniably, belonged to Kylian Mbappe. But it also belonged to Olivier Giroud. Years later, when one revisits the match, hymns would be sung in praise of Mbappe, his greatness reasserted. Giroud would then be a footnote, or an afterthought. But that has been Giroud’s fate. To be, literally and metaphorically, operating in the shadows.
Even the moment he went past Thierry Henry as France’s most prolific goalscorer would be forgotten. But that was perhaps the most emotional moment of the game, besides being its most definitive moment, in that it released the nervous tension that was simmering among the French.
Beside the corner flag, Giroud knelt for an eternity, gazing skywards and arms stretched. He waited for his teammates to shrug their embrace one after the other. Then when he was alone, under the shimmering floodlights of the Al Thumama Stadium, he clenched his fists and roared towards the crowd, chanting his name and blowing kisses his way. He soaked it all in and held his arms aloft in gratitude.
This was his moment of vindication. The moment when his under-appreciated genius gleamed. It was Giroud’s goal — though it was the vision of centre-back Dayton Upamecano, who whipped the ball 25 yards to Mbappe, and the latter’s delicious run-and-pass, that engineered it. But Giroud, his preternatural sense of goal shining brightly, kept his composure under pressure — it has to be said because he has had a propensity to fluff straightforward chances —and pasted a ball into the corner.
However, his record-breaking goal may be forgotten due to the impeccable night Mbappe enjoyed, two sumptuous goals, an assist, several supersonic runs, flicks and dribbles, stamping his greatness on another World Cup night.
Both of Mbappe’s goals won’t be forgotten — the first was a thunderbolt that left Wojciech Szczęsny ashen-faced while the second was a vicious curler into the far corner — but Giroud’s goal would be even before the match ended. Forgotten too would be his divine first touch in the build-up to Mbappe’s first goal. The tall striker was side-on as the ball was dropping. But he just dropped his left foot at the ball and it obediently fell onto his right foot, which promptly ferried it to Ousmane Dembele on the right. He does not set the pulse racing like Mbappe, he is not as ruthless as him, his oeuvre is not limitless, he is not as larger than life as him.
Lot of qualities
To fully appreciate him, one needs to track him when Upamecano receives the ball. Giroud had already begun his upfield run, a pattern of passing processing in his mind, in which he would be the final destination. These are the skills that made him, the instinct for goal, the quick thinking to figure out his perfect perch. When the mood seizes him, he could bicycle kick too, as he did on Sunday but was ruled out due to a foul inside the box, but those are outliers in his repertoire.
But when it comes to judging Giroud, his best virtues become anti-virtues. He is unspectacular. He is not ruthless. He is not fast. He slows the team down. The obvious point of comparison is Karim Benzema, whom Didier Deschamps had exiled for half a decade. Benzema himself had once mocked him, likening Giroud to a kart and calling himself a Formula One Car. Mbappe, in that sense, is a space shuttle.
Giroud’s goal-match ratio was projected as another evidence of mediocrity — 258 goals from 648 club games; 52 from 116 games. Modest stats, but he brings more to the table than goals.
People questioned why Deschamps persisted with him; he was caricatured in the French press, booed by fans during a friendly in 2016 because he had replaced the suspended Benzema; there was a wave of shock when he was drafted in the team. At one point in time, even Deschamps thought he should move on from him. He was 35, does not press vigorously – even though the French are not a press-obsessed side – and does not track back as efficiently as younger forwards. Besides, the coach had an uncontainable three upfront in a 4-3-3. where Mbappe is the focal point flanked by Dembele and Griezmann.
Theoretically it sounded good, but of late Mbappe had preferred playing as a left-sided forward and Griezmann as a playmaker behind the forwards. Giroud would solve both problems. But Deschamps wanted to see how good he still was, whether Father Time had taken its toll on him. So he flew to Italy to watch Giroud, who is with AC Milan. On his flight back, Deschamps had another rethink, to not discard him. Even in the modern game, men like Giroud, blessed neither with the ruthlessness of a No. 9 nor the ingenuity of a No. 10, have a place. “He is still very good, has a physical presence that could take out a couple of defenders and, though 35, does not slow the game down,” he would say.
Rising to the occasion
All that was evident against Poland. As if stopping Mbappe and Ousmane Dembélé was not difficult enough, they had to deal with a different type of forward, one who lurks in the dark, pounces from nowhere. He scattered the attention of the defenders — at one point, Mbappe had two defenders on him, but Giroud was immense, roaming into dangerous areas between the defensive lines, occupying the tiny spaces left behind by Poland’s defenders. “He gives perfection to our forward line, especially against teams that play with low blocks. His directness can trouble a lot of teams,” Deschamps had said the other day.
Poland did not employ a low block, but the French were finding it difficult to breach them. It frustrated them, disturbing them to such an extent that Poland grew in ascendancy after the first 20 minutes, and could have claimed the lead had Piotr Zielinski and Matty Cash made the best use of their chances.
It required Giroud to disrupt their rhythm. Though he should probably have scored off a sublime cut-back from Antoine Griezmann, but timed his slide a fraction late, it nipped Poland’s attacking threat. Soon after came the goal, the record-breaking Giroud goal. France, and Mbappe, carved the game open thereafter.
Poor Deschamps, before the game, he was for the zillionth time asked why Giroud is “under-appreciated”? He stared puzzlingly at the translator, wondering whether he heard a wrong word. When he was informed that what he heard was correct, he summoned his dry wit. “Under-appreciated? By the French? Lately, he’s been adored. Even by these (pointing to the French media), and plenty of them have criticised him in the past. But now? He’s a starter and that’s not open to debate. So France is delighted. Me, too. Olivier as well.”
And that Henry-equalling goal would have settled the debate of his understated greatness. That was his moment of vindication. His rare moment under the lights, though Mbappe, so often as he does, stole the limelight in the end. And in a not-so-distant future, he would obliterate Giroud’s goal-scoring record too.