Is Olivier Giroud really still under appreciated?


It seemed to take a while for Olivier Giroud, still wincing after his awkward landing, to register what he had achieved.

Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann picked him up from the turf and were all smiles, ruffling that pristine quiff. Benjamin Pavard and Adrien Rabiot gave him congratulatory slaps on the back of his head.

Theo Hernandez and Kylian Mbappe, the most glittering of providers, wrapped their arms around him before the rest of the team trotted over to bury France’s joint record scorer in a joyous huddle.

Didier Deschamps reserved his own congratulations for the touchline as Giroud departed a minute from time, his bear hug of the holders’ elder statesman an indication of the striker’s status. “To play at the top level for as long as he has is exceptional – respect,” said Pavard. “When no one believed in Olivier, he always stood up and proved them wrong. He is selfless and gives so much to the team. I hope he goes on and makes the record his own.”

At some point over the next week, or beyond, Giroud will have that chance to edge clear of Thierry Henry by scoring his 52nd goal for his country. The 36-year-old will probably count that as his greatest achievement – he rattled up his tally in the same number of games as Henry – though there is some competition.

This, after all, is a player who was playing on loan at Istres in the French third tier at 21 but, in the years since, has been cherished and championed by Arsene Wenger, and has won Ligue 1 with unfashionable Montpellier and Serie A with Milan.

He is now playing for his country at his sixth major finals having claimed the European Cup and Europa League at Chelsea and four FA Cups, three with Arsenal, over his 10-season stint in England. He has scored more than 250 goals for seven clubs in three countries. If anyone doubted whether he was still a force, he registered against Napoli and Inter Milan this term, as well as in three Champions League group games.

In that context, it is hard to reconcile how a player so decorated and valued by his team-mates can still be considered something of an anti-climax of an inclusion. Given his list of honours, how could there be any talk that he remains underrated? Yet, in reality, Giroud suffers in the eyes of many simply because he is not Karim Benzema.

On the eve of his team’s convincing dismissal of Australia, Deschamps had been confronted with the assertion, stated as fact, that Giroud remains under-appreciated back in France — a throwback, perhaps, to when the striker had been booed by home supporters during a friendly against Cameroon in Nantes just before Euro 2016. Back then, the nation had still been digesting the suspension of Benzema after he was implicated in a blackmail plot against his international team-mate, Mathieu Valbuena.

The head coach initially sought clarification from his non-French inquisitor, wondering if something had been lost in translation. “Under-appreciated? By the French?” he interjected, grimacing in mock disbelief. “Lately he’s been adored. Even by these (he pointed to the assembled media, who chuckled en masse), 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.”

Yet, even in the immediate aftermath of his exploits on Tuesday, the debate raged in some quarters back home over how the French will end up ruing the absence of Benzema, now through injury, rather than rejoicing in Giroud’s consistent contribution. Praise of the latter’s stickability at international level, even while he struggled to hold down a regular starting place with his club, was tempered with regret that France have ended up still so reliant upon him yet again.

“Didier decided to turn the page on Giroud at one point because he thought the time had come to make room for Benzema and Mbappe, and to play differently,” said Jerome Rothen, the former France, Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain winger in his role as a pundit working for RMC. “We won the Nations League (in 2021) playing like that. We have to stop saying France are good without Benzema. That it all works better without him. It’s bullshit.

“I’m convinced that, when we play the bigger nations in the knockout phase in Qatar, in the decisive matches, France would have been stronger with Benzema in the team than with Giroud.”

Rothen, even while seeking to be provocative for a radio show, may have a point.

Yes, this was only Australia, ranked 38 in the world. And, true, Benzema is a stellar name in the European game with whom any side would want to be equipped going into key knockout fixtures against more onerous opposition.

He is the holder of the Ballon d’Or, backed up by a weight of goals for Real Madrid and France, for whom he had scored 10 in his last 16 caps. The Real striker counts himself a better player, too, infamously insisting as much in an Instagram Live session back in March 2020. “We don’t confuse Formula One with go-karting, and I’m being kind,” he offered. “I know I am F1.”

Even Giroud, writing in his autobiography Always Believe, seemed to recognise Benzema was a cut above. He admitted saying to himself that, “If Karim comes back, you are toast,” and, when speaking to The Athletic after the disappointment of Euro 2020, accepted that if France were stronger without him, fair enough.

It is clear, too, that Deschamps had recognised the time might have come for change in the wake of France’s elimination to Switzerland in Bucharest at the European Championships last year, throughout which the French had been something of a tactical mishmash.

The priority was to find a way to assimilate Benzema into a team crammed with talent and egos aplenty, with Giroud only an option on the occasions the five-time Champions League winner was absent or injured. The early signs of the team’s evolution post-Euro 2020 were promising, as Rothen suggested. Mbappe and Benzema both scored in France’s defeat of Belgium in the Nations League semi-final in Turin, then repeated that feat in the final in San Siro as Spain were edged out 2-1. The sense was that Les Bleus had moved on.

Yet Giroud is nothing if not stubborn, with Deschamps now benefiting from the player’s refusal to recognise his time was up.

The striker was revived by a move to Milan, who he helped claim a first Scudetto in 11 years last season. Deschamps could not ignore his contribution. He was recalled for the March get-together when Benzema was injured and scored against Ivory Coast and South Africa. He was not required for the four Nations League fixtures in June and, instead, enjoyed a holiday with his family — “A good thing for a bad thing,” he said — but was back for the last two competitive fixtures of the autumn with Benzema crocked once again. Giroud duly scored against Austria.

France’s all-time top scorers


Olivier Giroud



Thierry Henry



Antoine Griezmann



Michel Platini



Karim Benzema



David Trezeguet



Zinedine Zidane



Just Fontaine



Jean-Pierre Papin



Kylian Mbappe



His performances in September at least convinced Deschamps that there was value in extending the veteran’s involvement through to Qatar, yet Giroud travelled to his third World Cup accepting of life as a backup to Benzema. Only last week he had been talking up his role as a “big brother” behind the scenes and explaining how he would retain focus as a super-sub, remaining professional and preparing “as if I was going to start the game — I’m there whenever the coach needs me”.

Then came confirmation that the thigh injury sustained by Benzema in training was sufficiently serious to rule him out of the tournament and, suddenly, that need was pressing.

Inevitably, there is reason to regret the loss of UEFA’s player of the year particularly given that, when winning the Nations League, France had offered evidence that they could harness his qualities alongside those of Mbappe et al having learned from the issues that had flared at the European Championships. Returning to a formation with Giroud as its tip, potentially placing more stress on a youthful and inexperienced midfield, felt retrograde. And risky.

Yet, just as in 2018, the veteran could prove the foil that allows more lavish talents to flourish.

He occupies centre-halves, pinning them shrewdly, and opens up space for Mbappe, Griezmann and Dembele — all spritelier players — to exploit. Benzema might have offered a different kind of threat but, having lost so many stalwarts to injury in the build-up, those within the French coaching staff are clinging to the hope that Giroud’s presence might strengthen the collective and replicate the team’s unity from Russia. “He’s been around for a long time,” said Deschamps. “We know his ability, the role he plays.

“He’s a striker who is so useful for the team even if he doesn’t score himself, and there have been periods when he hasn’t found the net. But, even then, he helps others to score.”

He retains a powerful aerial presence, as Australia learned to their cost. He works diligently and selflessly in the shadows, allowing others to enjoy the limelight. Mbappe spoke publicly in September about how he enjoys playing off such an intelligent frontman. The pair have had the odd issue in the past, but there is an understanding there that was forged in Russia. The elder man was scoreless at the tournament four years ago but still made a significant contribution. “I’m as enthusiastic playing at this World Cup as I was when I was a young man playing at my first,” he said. “I demand as much of myself now as I ever did. And I’ll never give up. Not until my body says ‘stop’.”

Yet Giroud is not merely a workhorse. He has a deft touch of his own, as demonstrated with that cute flick to liberate Mbappe into space just after the hour-mark on Monday or, rewinding all the way back to 2013, in the two touches he summoned in the build-up to Jack Wilshere’s jaw-dropping goal for Arsenal against Norwich all those years ago.

His movement is clever, his reading of the game forged by years of experience. Virgil van Dijk recently told Gary Neville on The Overlap that Giroud was his toughest opponent. “I feel like I’ve got him but, in some way, he always manages to score, whether it’s with Arsenal, Chelsea, France, he always scored against me,” he said. “When we won the league (with Liverpool) we won 5-2 and were 3-0 up or something, and he still scored. It was against the crossbar and fell down, a scrappy goal. But I said to him, ‘You scored again?’”

Amid the goals he has pilfered, he has his own back catalogue of more spectacular strikes: from the scorpion kick against Crystal Palace that won him FIFA’s Puskas Award in 2017 to his overhead kick for Chelsea at Atletico Madrid and that ridiculous left-foot volley that sank Spezia this month.

The striker describes them as his “Zlataneries”, a glorious collection to rival that of his Milan team-mate, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There was almost another on Tuesday as he leapt to meet Theo Hernandez’s cross early in the second half only to see his latest bicycle kick soar wide. “I’ve always liked those acrobatic goals,” he said. “Things are going well at the moment. I feel in form. The goals are coming. To be able to do this at 36, and to feel this good… well, that’s a gift.”

He is the oldest player ever to score for France. Only four players, including his team-mate Hugo Lloris, have played more times for Les Bleus and he will draw level with Marcel Desailly’s 116 caps on Saturday. Yet there are still things Giroud hopes to achieve. His goals at the World Cup have come against Switzerland in 2014 and Australia this time. He wants to inflict damage on one of the contenders and prove he is no flat-track bully. Hurting the Danes, a team who have embarrassed the French this year, would go some way towards achieving that aim. 

There is no doubting France’s defence of their trophy would have felt more threatening with Benzema in their number, but Giroud is the rarest kind of replacement: a player who has done this all before. “And I don’t intend to stop there,” he made clear before departing the Al Janoub stadium.

(Photo: FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)


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