Manuel Veth –
André-Pierre Gignac has been only a part-time performer at the European Championships in France so far. The French striker made three appearances for his country at the tournament—13 minutes against Albania, 90 minutes against Switzerland, 17 minutes against Ireland, and 30 minutes against Iceland.
France’s national team coach Didier Deschamps has primarily relied on Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud to spearhead the attack of the Les Bleus (as France’s national team is often called). Indeed, with three goals in four matches, the Arsenal striker quickly silenced those critics, who believed that the France Football Federation should have lifted the tournament suspension of Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema for his involvement in a sex-tape affair.
Hence, Giroud has proven that he has been a logical choice to start for France at the tournament. Gignac, however, is, for many, an exotic choice for the number one backup role up front, as Gignac doesn’t play in a European top league.
Gignac’s Move to Mexico Was Surprising
In the summer of 2015, Gignac was a free agent, and after scoring 21 goals in Ligue 1 had several offers from European clubs, including a serious offer from Inter Milan, but instead Gignac chose to leave, not only Olympique Marseille, but Europe altogether, in order to join the Monterey based club Tigres UANL in Mexico.
The Liga MX club, however, are considered one of Mexico’s richest clubs, and Gignac, who received €4.2 million per year, before taxes, at Marseille, received significantly more from Tigres than what he had earned in France, which according to Futbol Total makes him the best-paid player in Mexico.
Gignac’s contract was later published by Football Leaks, which showed that the striker makes €1 million, after taxes, for every half season played in Mexico. But for Tigres, which are administered by CEMEX—the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León officially owns the club, but has signed an administration agreement with CEMEX that makes the company the effective owner. The multi-billion dollar corperation, CEMEX, the world’s second largest building materials producer, had no problem offering Gignac the necessary pocket money to convince him to move to Mexico.
There Were Doubts Over Gignac’s Future in the National Team
Yet, while Gignac benefitted from the move financially, there were doubts as to whether the 30-year-old could continue his career for the French national team. Despite the full stadiums, and the fact that Mexican clubs dominate the CONCACAF Champions League, North America’s equivalent to the UEFA Champions League, and also take part in the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent to the UEFA Champions League, many Europeans feel that Liga MX can’t keep up with the big European leagues.
At the time of Gignac’s move to Mexico, the club was in the final stages of the Copa Libertadores. No Mexican club had ever won the competition, and the ownership hoped that Gignac could provide the necessary edge for the team to finally end the woes that Mexican clubs have experienced in the competition.
Tigres were in the semi-final stage of the tournament when Gignac joined. Facing the Brazilian club, Sport Club Internacional, from Porto Alegre, Gignac was able to help his team to reach the final. After a 2-1 loss in Brazil, Tigres faced Internacional in Monterrey. Within 17 Minutes Gignac had equalized the aggregate score to make it 1:0 for the Mexicans. An own goal by Geferson in the 40th minute, and a goal by Egidio Arévalo Ríos in the 55th minute sealed the deal for Tigres, as Lisandro’s goal in the 88th minute for Internacional came too late for the Brazilians to overturn the result.
Hence, Tigres would be facing River Plate from Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. Unlike the UEFA Champions League, the Copa Libertadores final is played over two legs, and the first leg was to be played in Tigres home stadium Estadio Universitario. But Tigres failed to score at home against the Argentinians, who wanted to add their third Copa Libertadores title to their collection.
Unlike Europe, where short flights, and the gentrification of football stadiums, has meant that there is very little home advantage left, South American teams still very much benefit from playing at home. Long distances, different climates, and inhospitable fans makes playing away very difficult.
In this case, for example, Tigres had to travel from the Mexican summer to the Argentinian winter, and play at the Estadio Monumental one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the world. This must have come as a culture shock for Gignac, who was kept scoreless in Argentina, as his club lost the title decider 3:0 to the Argentinians.
Gignac’s Return to the National Team
But, despite the fact that Gignac failed to help his club to win the oldest international club trophy, the Frenchman still made an instant impact with his new club. In the first five months after signing for Tigres UANL, Gignac showed that he was still a high performing striker—his ten league goals in first 14 matches made him Tigres’ top scorer in the league.
As a result, Didier Deschamps called Gignac up for the friendly matches against Germany, and England. Gignac was among the scorers in the France’s 2:0 victory against Germany, a match that was overshadowed by the terror attacks around the stadium and in the city centre.
When asked about being recalled to the team, Gignac answered at a press conference: “It shows that it wasn’t all that bad a decision to exile myself a bit, 10,000 kilometres away from France.” In fact, Gignac believes that Mexican football has been good for his game: “The Mexican league is one where at the back they’re very tough. There are stubborn players from Argentina, Colombia and Brazil. In midfield there are some lively smaller players and in attack there are some good goal scorers, whether they’re from Mexico, Brazil or Argentina. When you see the Mexican national team playing you say to yourself that the Mexican league is not all that bad. And I really think that too because, from what I’ve seen every weekend, they’re every bit as good as some Ligue 1 clubs.”
Deschamps, who was not always the biggest fan of Gignac while the two were working together at Olympique Marseille, seemed to like what he was seeing, for he invited the striker for the test match against Russia, which took place March 29 at the Stade de France. Once again, Gignac scored and, at this point, it seemed to be a real possibility that Gignac could make the squad for Euro 2016 despite the fact that he played 10,000 kilometres away in Mexico.
Exile in Mexico Did Wonders For Gignac
Indeed, the exile in Latin America seemed to have done wonders for the French striker, as Gignac kept on scoring in Liga MX. In 33 league games for Tigres, Gignac scored 28 goals—including in the championship playoffs. Furthermore, in the winter of 2015, he won his first league championship, as his club won the fall championship, better known as the Apertura 2015—Liga MX’s season is split into a fall and a spring championship.
The club also participated in the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League, where they achieved the feat of reaching the final of two different continental club championships within one year. This time, the opponents were the fellow Liga MX team Club América from Mexico City.
But, once again, Tigres failed to score at home and, even worse, conceded two goals in the first leg, which was played in Monterrey. The club then travelled to Mexico City to attempt the impossible, to overcome a two-goal difference in the legendary Azteca Stadium on April 27. Indeed, Tigres were on course in the first half, as Gignac made it 1:0 for his club. But in the second half, América took full advantage of Tigres’ aggressive offensive play by hitting them twice— Michael Arroyo 68th, and Osvaldo Martínez 88th.
Yet, with four goals, Gignac was the top striker for his club in the competition, and Deschamps must have also taken note of the striker’s form, as he included him in France’s Euro 2016 squad.
Happy End at Euro 2016
Now at the Euros, the national team has been undefeated but, at the same time, the semi-final will provide a different obstacle than France’s opponents Romania, Albania, Switzerland, Ireland, and Iceland. Indeed, the world champion has a reputation as a host killer—since losing to England in 1966 Germany has never lost to a host nation, and has eliminated nine hosts in the process.
Hence, while Giroud will most likely start the match on Thursday, Deschamps may have to look at the bench to bring on re-enforcements in what will surely be a tight encounter, and with Gignac scoring against Germany in November, the Tigres striker could likely feature at least for some time in the semi-final.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus