Gypsy on the hunt for more goals and glory

 

2010 WORLD CUP QUALIFYING CAMPAIGN PLAY-OFF: MATTHEW SPIROon how Andre-Pierre Gignac, the striker who spearheads the French attack, believes his combative playing style is a consequence of his Gypsy origins

WITH TALENTS of the calibre of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, David Trezeguet and Karim Benzema at his disposal, Raymond Domenech will not be short of striking options in next month's World Cup play-off against the Republic of Ireland.

The France coach, however, is likely to opt for a far less celebrated name to lead his frontline at Croke Park on November 14th.

Andre-Pierre Gignac's rise from the Toulouse reserves to Les Bleus has been so sudden he remains largely unknown outside Ligue 1 circles.

Yet the powerful attacker, who finished top scorer in France last season with 24 goals, has taken an instant shine to international football. Indeed without him France's World Cup dream may already have ended.

Gignac set up the crucial winner for Franck Ribery against Lithuania on his debut in April, and has barely stopped scoring since.

Against the Faroe Islands earlier this month, the Toulouse striker rattled in France's first two goals, the second a wonderful solo effort that highlighted the 24-year-old's fearless approach and audacity. Four days later, he curled in another sublime strike against Austria to take his tally to four in eight internationals.

Gignac has been so effective he is now the spearhead in Domenech's 4-2-3-1 formation, leaving Henry and Anelka to fill deeper roles.

Not that the sudden success has gone to his head. Gignac, after all, is different to your average millionaire soccer star. When he is not banging in goals for club and country, he hangs out with his wife and son in the local Gypsy community.

To relax, he helps his mother-in-law sell second-hand clothes at the market or heads into the forest with his cousins to shoot rabbits.

Although he rarely talks about his private life, Gignac is fiercely proud of his Gypsy roots. "I come from a family of Spanish Gypsies," he confided to the French magazine So Foot. "But I've been adopted by the Manouches [the Gypsy population in France]. I grew up with them, my wife is Manouche so my son is automatically Manouche.

"My family live in caravans and work in the markets. When I get given clothes I pass them on to my mother-in-law so she can sell them. Sometimes I go with her and stand behind the stall."

Gignac was born in the south of France but unlike his soccer-playing cousin Jacques Abardonardo - who played for Marseille and Nice and is now at Valenciennes - he failed to attract the attention of local clubs.

Brittany outfit Lorient eventually gave the strong, barrel-chested forward his break, but their coach Christian Gourcuff - the father of France playmaker Yoann - had reservations about his physical condition.

Upon his arrival in western France, Gignac quickly integrated in to Lorient's Gypsy community, where he met his wife, and his lifestyle did not always correspond with that of a sportsman.

"Gypsies like big parties," he admitted. "They make enough food for 100, even if there are only 30 people. We eat and drink a lot, play games and go hunting.

"I had a fantastic time hunting for rabbits and deer," he continued. "I'm not sure you're allowed to do that anymore. The guys are amazing, though.

"They're like snipers. One of my wife's cousins took aim from 40 metres and this bird just dropped out of the sky."

Gourcuff's patience was tested further when Gignac broke his ankle twice in quick succession, yet the striker fought back to fitness, lost weight and began to find his shooting range on the pitch.

A successful loan spell with third-division Pau helped him force his way in to Lorient's first team for the start of the 2006/07 campaign. He scored a hat-trick on his top-flight debut against Nantes, added six further strikes, then signed for Toulouse for €5 million the following summer.

Again there was concern over his weight and his first year in the south-west was a major disappointment as he played second fiddle to Sweden international Johan Elmander, scoring only two goals.

Last season, however, after Elmander had joined Bolton, Gignac was a revelation. Playing up front on his own in a limited and ultra-defensive Toulouse team, Gignac posed endless problems to defences.

He fed off scraps, chased every lost cause and scored the majority of his 24 league goals through individual raids as Toulouse over-achieved by finishing fourth.

Not surprisingly, Gignac believes that his determined, combative playing style is a consequence of his Gypsy origins.

"A Gypsy who plays football is always like that," he said. "When you see my cousin Abardonardo, he's not very skilful but he's a fighter, he's a dog who never gives up. He chases everything and is ready to die on the pitch. I'm the same. We don't think too much, we just play hard."

Gignac's bustling, rough-and-ready approach contrasts sharply with the silky skills of France team-mates Henry and Anelka. While those two were groomed at the prestigious Clairefontaine academy before integrating club youth teams, Gignac received no formal training as a boy. He never worked on improving his left foot or his heading, and as a result is very reliant on his admittedly lethal right foot.

"I'm working hard on improving my left foot in training," he commented last season after ending a run of 18 right-footed strikes.

Those technical deficiencies are compensated for by his raw power, directness and obvious hunger for goals, as well as a big-match temperament. From the moment he entered the international fray, as a 69th-minute substitute against Lithuania, he has looked at home.

During those 21 minutes, the debutant managed three shots on target, laid on the winning goal, and set up another chance for Benzema.

"He only knows how to play one way," Henry said after the recent 5-0 win over the Faroe Islands. "Whether he is at the Stade de France of elsewhere, he just gives everything."

The Barcelona striker describes him as "an old-fashioned centre forward", citing Gignac's second goal against the Faroese - when he surged past three defenders before firing in from long range - as the perfect example of his no-nonsense approach.

"When he gets the ball he just looks for the goal," Henry added. "When he got possession [prior to scoring] I asked myself how he was going to escape from all those defenders. Well, we all saw how he managed it."

Strangely Gignac has scored twice as many goals this season for France as he has for Toulouse. At club level at least, defences appear to have worked out how to stop him. Toulouse, consequently, are languishing in 11th place.

Gignac had the chance to join Lyon in the summer, and there are murmurings that he is regretting his decision to stay put.

Yet the notion Gignac might be unhappy is hard to believe.

His outlook on life is simple and whatever fate doles out you get the feeling he would make the most of it. Even if he had failed in soccer, he feels sure he would have found contentment elsewhere.

"I'd probably have started working for the council or I'd have worked with my mum in the market," Gignac mused. "My cousins are dustbin men. They earn around €1,900 a month which isn't bad.

"They play football every Sunday, too. I could have done that. That would have been good."

"When he is not banging in goals for club and country, he hangs out with his wife and son in the local Gypsy community. To relax, he helps his mother-in-law sell second- hand clothes at the market or heads into the forest with his cousins to shoot rabbits.

Andre-Pierre Gignac

BORN on December 5th, 1985.

RAISED in the southern town of Martigues, Gignac is released by his local club aged 18, but joins Lorient in 2002.

HAMPERED by two broken ankles, he struggles to make an impact initially and is loaned to Pau, where he scores eight times in the third division in 2005/06.

BACK at Lorient, Gignac scores nine goals in 37 appearances during his first top-flight campaign, including a debut hat-trick against Nantes.

SIGNS A PRE-CONTRACT with Lille before performing an about turn in the summer of 2007, joining Toulouse for €5 million.

EARLY progress at Toulouse checked by Swedish striker Johan Elmander. He manages just two goals in 28 matches.

AFTER Elmander is sold to Bolton, Gignac enjoys a breakthrough year in 2008/09, scoring 24 times and helping Toulouse into Europe.

HIS 24 STRIKES wins him the golden boot in France and sees him nominate for the Ligue 1 player of the season award.

MAKES HIS France bow as a substitute against Lithuania in April of this year, setting up a winner for Franck Ribery.

ALTHOUGH he has scored just two goals in 10 matches for Toulouse this season, he has had more shots (58) than any player in France.