A couple of days ago the France squad posed for a photo in which each player returned to their roots by donning the shirt of their first amateur team. For Olivier Giroud, now France’s all-time male record goalscorer, it was the red of Froges Olympique Club, whose clubhouse 20km from Grenoble in south-east France is appropriately decorated for the World Cup. For Kylian Mbappé, the man who will surely overtake him, it was the green of AS Bondy, a team in a northern suburb of Paris. Even on Giroud’s big night, the masterful and electric Mbappé was able to muscle in on the headlines as France advanced to the quarter-finals.
For Mbappé, a superstar aged 23 and already a world champion, only another 20 goals to go. A poster of Giroud accompanied with the words Au Coeur Les Bleus – the Blues in the heart – is pinned beneath bunting and a tricolour scarf in the poky Froges clubhouse. Children gathered there to watch France beat Denmark, an evening that belonged to Mbappé, and although Mbappé got in on the act quite magnificently against Poland, this was an occasion Giroud will always cherish.
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Mbappé’s strikes veered into the audacious. Giroud’s goal on the verge of half-time was simple yet stunning. Giroud had a split-second or two to beat Wojciech Szczesny after quietly peeling off his marker, the centre-back Jakub Kiwior, and latching on to an incisive Mbappé through ball. Giroud controlled the pass with his first touch and then, without the slightest glance at goal, dug a left-footed shot into the far corner, leaving the ball to whirl around the Poland net as if in an arcade machine. It was his 52nd goal for France. He spelled out his achievement by raising five fingers on one hand and two on the other and then made a T with his hands, presumably in homage to Thierry Henry, whose record he eclipsed, before smiling and saluting towards the camera.
A memorable night could have been sensational for Giroud had his acrobatic overhead kick been allowed to stand approaching the hour. A grinning Giroud politely approached the referee, Jesús Valenzuela, in vain as Matty Cash lay grounded. Giroud had thumped the ball into the net after Szczesny punched clear above Cash and Raphaël Varane, who was sandwiched in between the Poland pair. Nine minutes later, not dispirited, Giroud went in search of another goal, flicking just wide at the front post from Jules Koundé’s cross.
Giroud soaked up the applause of a warm standing ovation from the France supporters and he was right to make the most of it, given the Mbappé brilliance that followed. Fresh from a 76-minute shift, the 36-year-old, surely the best-groomed man at this tournament, strolled towards the bench, still not a hair out of place. There was a warm embrace with Didier Deschamps before he made his way along the substitutes’ bench, high-fiving his teammates as he went.
“Gagner avec style” read a cardboard sign cradled by a France supporter in a striped, Breton-style T-shirt and it was hard to argue. Mbappé’s first goal was sumptuous, a zinger high into the net after Giroud’s decoy run occupied the Poland defence and afforded the Paris Saint-Germain forward time to pick his spot and lash in from the edge of the box. His second, from just inside the 18-yard box, was even more outrageous, inconceivably struck that little biteven harder into the top corner.
Remember Karim Benzema, who took home the Ballon d’Or in October, was supposed to be France’s leading striker at this tournament. But when Benzema broke down in his first training session in Qatar because of a thigh problem, opportunity presented itself to Giroud. It was Benzema, of course, who once referred to Giroud as a “go-kart” compared with his own Formula One car.
Giroud had nine first-half touches, the fewest of any player on the pitch, but they were sufficient to reannounce himself as a killer in front of goal. He scored twice against Australia in their Group D opener. Mbappé has quickly mastered the same art but has other qualities that are impossible to ignore. At one point the big screens flashed up that Mbappé’s top speed was 35km/h, quick enough to earn a fine in a city centre but slow enough to avoid a dreary speed awareness course. At one point he left Cash on all fours and Bartosz Bereszynski in a spin. Another time he hared off the pitch and back on in hot pursuit of a loose ball.
For so long Giroud was seen as the supporting cast, for club and country. Even as a key cog in the France team that won this competition four years ago, he was disparaged in some quarters for failing to post a shot on target, let alone score. But he is a world champion, a Champions League winner, a Serie A winner, a Ligue 1 winner, a three-times FA Cup winner, a European Championship runner-up, and now France’s male record goalscorer. Even in this most mouthwatering era of Mbappé, it is right to sit up and take notice.