The messages are still coming through on his phone. Two full days after reaching two milestones in one game against Ukraine — his 100th cap for France, and his 41st and 42nd goals that took him above Michel Platini in the top scorers ranking for the French men’s national team — Olivier Giroud is still going through texts of congratulations. It’s not just that he is one of the most popular players in France; it’s more that everybody likes him and is genuinely happy for him.
Inside the squad, his teammates and all the technical staff celebrated with him after Wednesday’s 7-1 friendly win. He got a shirt with the number 100 at the back under his name. Every player had a nice word for him, from one of his best friends, Hugo Lloris, to the latest and youngest addition to Les Bleus, 17-year-old midfielder Eduardo Camavinga.
Giroud also got to wear the armband on his special day. “Can you imagine? Me, captaining France, my country, on my 100th cap, at the Stade de France, in front of my family,” he told ESPN. He’s still on cloud nine about it.
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Outside the Clairefontaine bubble, there was a lot of respect and recognition for his achievement — not that he gives a lot of importance to what people other than his peers and close friends and family think. There has always been a debate surrounding Giroud; there seemingly always will be. But Wednesday’s achievement is another counter-argument for those who have doubted and criticized him along the way.
It’s a date he will never forget. Oct. 7, 2020 — only a week after his 34th birthday, and just a few weeks before the birth of his fourth child. It was the day he entered the highest pantheon of French football. He tried to prepare himself. To the friends who told him on Wednesday afternoon, before the match against Ukraine, that he would score a brace to overtake Platini, he responded with just a couple of prayer hand emojis. Family, faith, football, in this order — three F’s that perfectly encapsulate the striker’s life and career.
What was Giroud thinking, at the outset of his 15-year pro career, when no one believed in him? How did he feel when he started in the third tier of French football, slowly making his way to the top of the ladder? He never gave up, never lost his hopes and his motivation. It was almost as if he knew what his destiny was. “Maybe there was a good star looking out for me.”
One of the things that made him really happy as well on Wednesday was the presence of Andriy Shevchenko as Ukraine head coach. Sheva was Giroud’s idol growing up. They know each other, appreciate one another. “To score that first goal [a superb, top corner curler from outside the box] in front of him on my 100th is like in a dream.”
In an exclusive interview with ESPN about his dreams and aspirations ahead of France’s Nations League games against Portugal and Croatia, it’s immediately clear Giroud still has plenty. One, in particular, stands out: catching Thierry Henry‘s record of 51 goals, just nine ahead. “Nothing is impossible,” Giroud always says about everything. He really believes it. And if you look at his career, the way he defied the odds and achieved what he did, you would believe it too.
ESPN: How did you feel when you heard la Marseillaise [French national anthem] for the 100th time?
Giroud: I felt a huge sense of pride and achievement. An honour. To be part of the “100 Club” is incredible. When I look at the list of players [to get there] — Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry, Hugo Lloris, Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane — they are all incredible players. I feel really privileged to be among them.
To make it even more special, Didier Deschamps had a surprise in store for you.
It was an even more special and unforgettable night because I was wearing the captain’s armband. The coach told me the night before that I would be captain. I could not believe it. I had been captain once at Arsenal before, in a cup game, and I felt really proud then. This time, it was even more powerful. Being France’s captain for my 100th cap, at the Stade de France, was exceptional. I would have loved it more if fans had been there. Nevertheless, it was exceptional.
Do you think that Ukraine is your favourite opponent?
You were there in the stadium seven years ago when we turned around the 2014 World Cup playoff, winning the second leg 3-0 after losing the first leg 2-0 in Kiev. That was a special night, and it feels like every time I play Ukraine, it is special!
The other great thing about Wednesday night is that Andrei Shevchenko was on the Ukraine bench. It must have been even more special.
As a kid, he was my hero. He was my player. I saw it as a sign, as my destiny, to reach 100 caps and overtake the great Michel Platini against Sheva’s team. We got to know each other a bit [over time] as he sometimes comes by the Chelsea training ground. I took a photo with him after the game on Wednesday, and I will cherish it forever.
From one legend to another in Michel Platini. How does it feel to have scored more goals than him for France?
He is an immense player with so many titles, three Ballons d’Or. He represents so much. When I received my first international cap, in November 2011 against the USA, I never thought I could overtake him. You actually don’t overtake him. I can’t be compared to him. We don’t have the same history or career. Each of us has his era and his mark, and I’m leaving my mark my own way. I am trying to write my own history with the national team and do the best I can.
Is your objective now to beat Thierry Henry’s record?
It’s the same as [it was for] Platini. I can’t be compared to him. But I am there, nine goals behind his record. [Editor’s note: Henry has scored 51 goals for France in 123 caps.] I would lie if I said that my objective is not to reach his tally. It is my goal. I dream of overtaking him.
If there’s one thing I have learned through my career, it’s that nothing is impossible in football. I go step by step, but I don’t set myself any limit. Along the way, I became aware of what I could achieve as a player. I don’t want to stop at 100 caps and 42 goals. I can get higher. I still have some time ahead of me. I am 34 but I feel good, in confidence. It is my ultimate dream.
What are you the most proud of in your football career?
I learned that little by little, with a lot of hard work and determination, you could reach all your goals.
When I was in the French third division [at Istres in 2007], I set myself the goal of playing in the second division. When I was in the second division [at Tours in 2008], my aim became to play in the top flight.
Once I got there, with Montpellier in 2010, and achieved what looked impossible with the league title in 2012, it was to go and play in England because that was the dream I had as a kid. Then it was to be a regular for France; then, to win trophies with France. Then, when I got to 70 caps, my objective became the 100-cap mark. I made my debut with the national team at 25, and it has been the thread through my career ever since.
What do you remember from your first cap?
Nov. 11, 2011, against the United States. I can still remember all the emotions I felt when I heard la Marseillaise at the Stade de France and when I came on with the blue shirt on my shoulders. It was incredible. I came on in the 59th minute for Kevin Gameiro. We won 1-0 and Loic Remy scored. It was also my friend Laurent Koscielny‘s debut that day. I never thought I would go on and achieve so much.
What about your first goal?
I gave Mathieu Debuchy a big kiss for the perfect cross he gave me [to set up] my goal after 21 minutes. It was my first start, my third cap. What a moment!
What will you remember the most from your 100 caps?
The biggest moment, of course, is the 2018 World Cup final, lifting the trophy and all the emotions we experienced during the competition. It was amazing. You know me: I like the human side of things. I have loved meeting and getting to know all the nice people I’ve met during these nine years and 100 games with France. All the friends and brothers I have made. All the deep discussions late at night. The sad moments, the great ones. I love when the cohesion is great in a squad.
Of your 100 caps, 91 have come under Didier Deschamps as head coach. [Laurent Blanc was in charge for the first nine from 2011 to 2012.] How would you sum up your relationship?
I have a great relationship with him. We trust each other. He knows what to expect from me. He knows I will always give everything. I owe him a lot, and I have always tried to pay back his trust and faith in me.
You have also had great providers wherever you played.
I am a team player, and something I’m really proud of is the connection I have and I have had with teammates. They have helped me shine; I have helped them shine. I am thinking of Younes Belhanda at Montpellier, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal, Eden Hazard at Chelsea, Ribéry with France before and now Antoine Griezmann. There have been others, of course, but with them there was an instant understanding.
Your family has also always been a big part in your success.
Without a strong support from my family, my parents, my brothers and sisters, my close friends, you cannot achieve great things in your life. They are my strength.
You are out of contract at Chelsea next June. You’ve not played much so far this season. How do you feel about this season?
The manager Frank Lampard knows he can count on me. He gave me a chance in the second part of last season and I took it. I paid him back for his confidence. Of course, I want to play as much as possible. And he knows I will never give up and will always fight for the team.
You turned 34 last month. What is next for you?
I have always said that one day, I would like to play in MLS. It has always been my desire. It could have happened a few months ago, but it was far too early. I will think about it. Coming back to France is not my priority. I don’t close the door on anything, but if I have to move, I would be more keen to stay abroad for a new adventure. I almost joined Inter Milan [in January]. I know Italian teams like experienced players. We will see what opportunities I have in the future.