Olivier Giroud: The amiable everyman of French football makes history at Qatar World Cup

Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring against Australia  (AFP via Getty Images)
Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring against Australia (AFP via Getty Images)

Didier Deschamps was off his feet, fists pumping in celebration. France did not need a fourth goal against Australia, but this was much more than a case of inflating a scoreline. It was a moment of French footballing history and, as player and manager, Deschamps has witnessed and created more than most.

He was a team-mate of Thierry Henry when he debuted, serving as his captain in the 1998 World Cup- and Euro 2000-winning sides. By the time he retired, Henry was establishing himself as one of the great forwards of his generation. Olivier Giroud does not have the same status but a man who has followed Henry into the Arsenal and France forward lines has equalled him in another respect. When Kylian Mbappe, who bears more similarities as a player with Henry, crossed and Giroud supplied the target man’s trademark header, it took him to 51 goals for France. He is level with Henry, behind no one; not Zinedine Zidane or Just Fontaine or Michel Platini or Mbappe.

It is a stunning achievement. Mbappe’s joy was evident, stemming in part from the way Giroud belongs to the breed of forward who are content to serve in the supporting cast. Those 51 goals have often come when either Mbappe or Antoine Griezmann has been Les Bleus’ resident Galactico. Giroud has figured at the top of the formation, but not the top of the bill.

His most celebrated feat involved not scoring; not even having a shot on target. He played 546 minutes in the 2018 World Cup without troubling an opposition goalkeeper but allowing Griezmann and Mbappe to score more frequently, including in the final. His reward came with the most prestigious medal of all; his first World Cup goals since 2014 seemed a belated prize. The first was gifted by Adrien Rabiot, teeing him up for a tap-in after a delectable backheel by Mbappe. The Paris Saint-Germain player was the immediate supplier for his second. Favours were returned. Karim Benzema was not missed as France adjusted to life without the reigning Ballon d’Or winner.

The shame, perhaps, was that the record-equalling moment did not come from Giroud’s most spectacular contribution. He has always been an outstanding volleyer of a ball and connected beautifully with a bicycle kick that flew narrowly wide. It was a reminder that, obvious as his aerial ability is, he has always had a wonderful left foot.

He has long possessed the awareness and technique to team up with more flamboyant figures. Mesut Ozil’s finest Arsenal form came courtesy of his understanding with Giroud. Mbappe is a very different talent, but he likes to play off a conventional No 9. Christophe Galtier has admitted Mbappe is afforded more freedom with France than at Paris Saint-Germain, when he is restricted by leading the line. That is courtesy of Giroud.

Mbappe’s return to the World Cup was as a devastatingly quick left winger. Deschamps, scarcely one of football’s natural cavaliers, had sprung a surprise by overloading with attackers and picking four forwards. Deschamps’ decision brought rich vindication when the Ousmane Dembele crossed for Mbappe to head in. Each started wide and looked capable of sprinting at twice the speed of their respective markers when they turned the afterburners on.

Not that Giroud would have fared well in a race against them, either. Speed has never been his strength and now he can plead age in mitigation. At 36, he became the oldest player to represent France in the World Cup; he was born a couple of months after the 1986 tournament, Mbappe after Deschamps captained France to victory in 1998.

Lilian Thuram is the only older outfield player to play for them since the 1950s. Extend his international career beyond this tournament and Giroud may yet find new ways to make history. Yet the dual distinctions of World Cup winner and France’s record scorer, whether joint or on his own, are signs he has far outstripped any realistic expectation for a player whose Ligue Un debut came a few weeks before his 24th birthday.

Now he may yet go down as a double World Cup winner. Just as in 2018, France began with victory over Australia. Now, as then, Mbappe, Dembele and Griezmann began in attack. But a difference is that Giroud was benched then. Deschamps soon realised the error of his ways and parachuted Giroud back into the team. And if it took Benzema, the best player in the world in the last 12 months, to displace him, now Giroud is back, alongside Griezmann and Mbappe in the forward line, next to Henry in the scoring charts, the amiable everyman of French football deservedly in the company of the legends.