The Burial of the Exotic
André-Pierre Gignac plays in Mexico but could be France’s key striker at the European Championship
Footballers come in many shapes and sizes; dwarves, elves and orcs. Then there is André-Pierre Gignac, who belongs to a previously unknown species of which it’s difficult to think another specimen can be found. He’s huge, but not a giant a la Jan Koller, Stefan Maierhofer or Nikola Žigić. With a weight which oscillates (and visibly so) between 84 and 90 kilos, a career in professional football should have been beyond him. He was, he is, too big and, let’s be frank, too fat, something which fans never tired of reminding him of in Ligue 1, including those of his own clubs, despite the almost universal affection in which he’s held at all of them. Dédé, you see, is fond of the good things in life, eating in particular.
It’s safe to presume that there’s no NutriBullet in the Gignac home in Monterrey; but you’ll probably find the Mexican version of chorizo in his cupboards, as well as a few imported delicacies such as the Southern French charcuteries Gignac loved to nibble after training while his teammates lay down for the customary siesta1 . Olympique de Marseille, whom he joined in 2010 from Toulouse for a surprisingly high transfer fee2, were concerned enough to send their centre-forward to the famous Merano health farm, a favourite of Zinedine Zidane, Arsène Wenger and Johnny Halliday. It didn’t work out as hoped; on his return, Gignac swore he’d changed his habits and cut down on the daily slices of saucisson, but scored a single goal in the 21 league games he played in the ensuing season (2011-12). Perhaps the Montpellier chairman ‘Loulou’ Nicollin, whose own personal circumference defies calculation, was right when he said: “I’ve no idea what Gignac was doing there. Merano is hell. For dinner, they give you a couple of carrots under a silver bell, because it’s so expensive. Carlos Valderrama went there and was as thick as a piece of string when we got him back. His translator, Néstor Combin, thought they’d sent us his brother – Carlos couldn’t move at all. When I came back myself, I couldn’t get a hard-on.”
Marseille perhaps needn’t have been that concerned about Gignac’s lifestyle. “He’s a proper club player,” Nicollin had also said in the same interview. “Give him a club he loves, and, believe me, he’s going to score a few.” And Gignac loved OM3, with whom his goal-scoring record improved year after year, ending with 21 in 37 matches in his last season at the club. Marcelo Bielsa was the Phocéens manager then and that as demanding a coach as the Argentinian included the ‘overweight’ striker in every OM league game but one in 2014-15 should suffice to show that Gignac was no dilettante where and when it mattered, even if he sometimes looked like an aberration. But that’s quite enough about Dédé’s diet and bulk. There is far more to this player than XXL jerseys.
His background, to start with. The England rugby union prop Joe Marler called Welsh forward Samson Lee “gypsy boy” and was fined £20,000 by the RFU earlier this year. Gignac wouldn’t have reported the insult. He’d have taken it as a compliment. A Gypsy he is, at least through his mother Corinne, and would never use more politically correct terms than gitan when talking about a heritage he shares with Andrea Pirlo, Hristo Stoichkov and Gheorghe Hagi. The young André-Pierre lived the traditional life of travellers, working on the family stall in village markets. The older Gignac fights what homesickness he might feel in Monterrey by listening to gypsy songs on his way to La Cueva, ‘the Cave’, north of the capital of Nuevo Léon, where he trains with his teammates at Tigres UANL. “It is hard to describe,” his father Gérald answers when asked about the ‘gypsyness’ of his son. “I can feel it in his behaviour, his attitude. It’s pride and reluctance to make much about your worries in public.” There is much to be proud of, for the father as well as for the son, for the player’s family as well for all of the French gitan community. André-Pierre’s cousin Jacques Abardonado, known as ‘Pancho’, was the first French Gypsy to become a football professional in the top division, with Olympique de Marseille4; another relative, Yohan Mollo, now with Krylia Sovetov in the Russian Premier League, was the second, with Saint-Étienne; but Dédé is the only one to have played for France.
The first call came in the spring of 2009, when Gignac’s hammer of a right foot had taken him to the top of Ligue 1’s goal scoring charts, where he would remain until the end of the season. Johan Elmander had left for Bolton Wanderers at the beginning of the campaign and Toulouse FC had gambled on the 23 year old to lead their attack despite a mediocre return of two goals in twenty-nine games in the previous season. No one thought of him as an international-to-be at the time; Lorient, where he’d signed his first pro contract after coming through the ranks of the club’s academy, had even shipped him to an amateur club, Pau, for most of the 2005-06 season. The best Gignac could hope for, it was believed, was a moderate career in an average club. He had no left foot to speak of, unless it was to deride it. As to his physique, we’ve already dealt with that; that he could cut it in the top division was enough of an achievement in itself.
Gignac’s ‘explosion’ in his second season at Toulouse5 was, therefore, a surprise to all but the most fervent members of his appreciation society. That such a supposedly one-dimensional striker could thrive in a team that had just escaped from relegation – and be called to wear the blue jersey as a result – was beyond most people’s comprehension. Gignac didn’t disappoint, however. Without the three goals he scored in France’s two games against the Faroe Islands it is not at all certain that Domenech’s team would have qualified for the 2010 World Cup. Still, he was still seen as a last resort, a willing performer you could rely on (but only to an extent) when the top names were unavailable; Karim Benzema, for example. But the very idea that Dédé, not Karim, could start Euro 2016 as a member of Deschamps’s eleven wouldn’t have crossed anybody’s mind then and troubles many today. The doubters might have to revise their opinion.
Outside La Cueva stands a solitary fan wearing a replica of Gignac’s French shirt. “He’s a god to us,” he tells the France Football reporter who’s been chasing the striker for an interview for several months now. Gignac himself will not appear – not yet. It’s not that LigaMX’s Footballer of the Year is playing hard to get for the sake of it. He does live in a luxury compound, in the wealthy city of San Pedro, but he regularly meets up with the Tigres fans, almost none of whom could hope to get past the security guards who patrol the area. He’s been spotted buying skateboards for his children at the Mercado Fundadores, a covered market which is a haunt for a variety of Monterrey urban tribes, death metal fans, would-be rastas, drug pushers. The shop where he stopped – Paranoïa – has now become a shrine to the man they call el bomboro6.
The ultras of the UANL barra Libres y Lokos have become used to his visits at their HQ, which is also situated in the Fundadores. One of the barra’s leaders, Sam Reyes, had the surprise of seeing Gignac step out on the mall’s parking lot to take part in a charity tournament the barra had organised to raise funds for drug addicts. He’d been invited as a guest of honour, but insisted on playing, scoring a highly symbolic goal. This was not a PR exercise, but another illustration of the unique bond the player established with the fans as soon as he set foot on Mexican soil and which he’s nurtured ever since, not just by finishing as the club’s top goalscorer in their league-winning season, but also by adopting the Libres y Lokos trademark sign, fingers spread to make a double “L” shape. This is how he celebrated his goal in France’s 2-0 win over Germany in November of last year. “Not even a player who’d come from the club’s academy would’ve thought of that,” says Jonathan Llanes, the barra’s figurehead. “Something very special has happened between him and us, from the very first day.” No doubt it was so, but that it ever had a chance to happen at all defied common sense to start with.
Back at the beginning of June 2015, as Gignac’s contract with OM had only a couple of weeks to run, nobody had the least idea that the 29 year old might cross the Atlantic to pursue his career – and what’s more, for LigaMX, not MLS, which has at least a measure of recognition in France since Youri Djorkaeff and Thierry Henry had chosen to taste the high life in New York City. But Monterrey? Check the US Department of State’s latest security report on Mexico’s third-largest city; it isn’t pretty. Homicide rate: high. Rate of drugs-related crimes: high. Kidnappings: frequent, numbers rising. That report concluded: “Due to drug-related violence associated to Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO), U.S. government personnel are not permitted to drive between Monterrey and the US border.” Just stay away, folks!
It’s not that Gignac wanted for proposals. He was at the peak of his career, he was ‘free’, he’d scored more goals in Ligue 1 than Zlatan Ibrahimović and Edinson Cavani over the previous twelve months. He was back in the French team, and scoring, after having endured a five-year goal drought with Les Bleus. Internazionale were interested and so too were, and in a big way, Olympique Lyonnais. It was still being reported on 15 June 2015, three days before Tigres announced they’d got their man, that the Saudi champions Al-Nasr had offered him a king’s ransom, guaranteeing a tax-free €4.5m salary per year over three seasons, plus a considerable signing-on fee. West Ham and Sunderland were also rumoured to have had a sniff. Then, bang, it was Mexico. Some columnists predicted that Gignac would never be called to the France national team again, as he’d clearly chosen to “bury himself alive” in a league that most French football fans didn’t even know existed. Gignac was accused of many things: laziness, lack of ambition, greed – charges which have more than a faint hint of the absurd today.
Laziness. Not a word used by the L&Ls when they talk about their hero, who has scored 33 goals in 48 games in his first Mexican season. Lack of ambition. Gignac has been crowned a national champion for the first time in his career. Tigres have reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, having seen off Internacional in the semis (when Gignac scored); no French player had ever gone as far in Conmebol’s premier competition7. They also played in the final of the Concacaf Champions League, which they lost to Club América, but not without another goal by el bomboro. Greed. Ha, greed.
It is true that Gignac has listened to the song of money in the past – albeit on one occasion only. That was almost 10 years ago, when a decent season with Lorient had encouraged Lille to offer him €40k per month, a proposal to which he’d given his verbal agreement. Lille, bizarrely, went completely silent after this and Toulouse entered the fray, putting twice as much money on the table. Gignac came back on his word and signed in favour of the Southern club. That hardly constitutes a capital crime, but the culprit never forgave himself. “I’d made them a promise,” he said several years later. “I didn’t keep it. I swear, I am not a mercenary. But I had just had my first child. [Lille’s manager] Claude Puel never called me. Their plan of building a new stadium was stalling… but I really regretted my decision.”
Such a man would not have sacrificed his future with the national team for money alone; in fact, contrary to rumours of a fantastically generous deal with Tigres – whose owners have very deep pockets, it is true8 – Gignac earns far less than what he would have commanded in Serie A, the Premier League, at Al-Nasr – or in Ligue 1. His pay is €1m per year after tax, which works out at slightly over £19,000 a week. Even accounting for significant bonuses, this is far less than what Lyon, for example, would have had to pay him had their repeated approaches been successful. They were not, something that their chairman Jean-Michel Aulas has never been able to accept, to judge by a bizarre tweet he wrote in April of this year, after seeing his young team beat Toulouse 3-2 away from home. If his message almost defies translation9, its meaning was clear to Gignac. “What a game from our OL!” Aulas said. “I am convinced that the France national team cannot do without our Lyonnais. They’re better than the exotics (sic).” Take the final ‘s’ off. There was only one exotique that Aulas had in mind – the player he’d courted so assiduously over the last few months of the 2014-15 season that Gignac called this courtship “bullying”. “When he couldn’t get through to my agent,” he recalled when France Football finally got him to talk in May, “he was sending me text messages which read like novels.”
“I have to reassure him,” l’exotique went on. “Mexico is a great football country, perhaps more powerful, more competitive than France. The LigaMX has nothing to be jealous of compared to Ligue 1.” These words caused some merriment in France, where Aulas, for all his remarkable qualities, is used to have his own way a bit too often to be an object of unanimous esteem. Gignac, in any case, had more important things to say than settling accounts with his jilted suitor. To him, choosing Mexico, choosing Monterrey, choosing Tigres had not been “gambles” or “challenges”. “It was only a ‘challenge’ for those who criticised my choice,” he says. “To me, it is the most wonderful human and sporting experience of my life, in personal and collective terms, something I could only have known in Europe if I had played for Real [Madrid], Barça or Bayern. People are kind here, respectful and helpful. I am lucky to live in such a country.”
When the lucky Gignac was visited by members of his family in February, there was no question as to where they would watch him play from: not from a VIP box, but from the terrace where the L&Ls assemble, the hottest part of the Volcano, as everyone refers to Tigres’ home ground, the Estado Universitario. The whole Gignac clan got together at Dédé’s house afterwards, a few Ultras in tow, as well as one César Ritual, one of the barra’s favourite tattooists and a bit of a celebrity himself among Mexican footballers. This is how Gérald, Dédé’s father, left Mexico with the logo of Tigres tattooed on his back, while his brother Alexis offered his chest to the body artist. This was not André-Pierre’s idea, by the way . “I want to keep my body clean,” he explains. “I don’t want to look like anybody else [in football]”. As if there was a chance.