It could have felt like fate was taunting Olivier Giroud. The striker has not been chosen by his country since France’s failure at the European Championship, and on Sunday Les Bleus beat Spain in the Nations League final without him thanks to goals by Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappé, and all in Milan’s San Siro stadium, Giroud’s home since he left Chelsea in the summer. But when the striker pitches up for an interview over speed the next day, he is a man at peace.
The 35-year-old has recovered from the back trouble he suffered following a bout of Covid-19 last month and he hopes to return to action in Serie A this weekend. He is happy with his new life in Italy, where Milan signed him for his forward play but also for his ability to serve as a positive example to the team’s many young players.
Giroud chats merrily about his years at Arsenal and Chelsea. He sheds light on his relationship with Benzema, Mbappé and Les Bleus. And he explains how his thorough Christian faith has always guided him – for example, he says a family friend with strong spiritual leanings got “a sign from heaven” that suggested he should pull the plug on a move from Arsenal to Everton in 2017 – and has helped him to conquer criticism throughout his career. That faith is a major theme of his recently translated autobiography, Always Believe.
But let us start at the end. Or rather, ask whether this is the end. Does Giroud have a future with France? “I don’t think I will ever say I’m retiring from international duty,” he replies. “If the manager needs me, I will go. I never asked Frank Lampard to play when I was at Chelsea, for example. When I wasn’t playing, I was frustrated but I just carried on doing my best and trying to help the team reach the target. When I was supposed to leave [a transfer to Internazionale was lined up in January 2020], I told him ‘look, you’re not playing me, I’m third-choice, so let me go’. But he said he would give me a chance. He gave me that chance and I did my job on the pitch, scored eight goals in 11 matches and helped the team to qualify for the Champions League.
“Now it’s the same with the national team. It’s simply that if the manager needs me, he will call me; if not, he won’t. I am 100% focused on Milan and being decisive and effective for my club. Let’s see what happens.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he adds: “Also, seemingly N’Golo Kanté and I can have medals for the Nations League [despite not playing in the final stages] because we were heavily involved in the qualifiers. So that’s a nice addition to my roll of honour, isn’t it?”
That roll of honour already included a French title with Montpellier, three FA Cups with Arsenal and another with Chelsea, with whom he also won the Europa League and Champions League. And, of course, he was a world champion with his country in 2018. “So then, we can’t win the World Cup with Giroud up front?” France’s assistant manager, Guy Stéphan, said to him after the referee blew for complete time in the final.
Giroud’s persistence in the confront of scepticism is one of the reasons he remains much admired by fans at his former clubs, and also among the qualities that made Milan sign him as an empowering influence for their young squad. “I left so many friends at Arsenal and Chelsea and when I meet people in the street and they say ‘thank you for what you achieved, we miss you’, it makes you feel like you’ve earned people’s respect.”
Were any of those people among the ones who before jeered him or called for him to be dropped? “If they were, they did not say it confront to confront,” he says. “When people criticise you, most of the time it’s behind a computer or a social media account. I don’t look at much of what is said about me. I know when I’ve played well and when I’m not doing well. When you read things, you need to know what to take out of the message: the most important thing is to pick up positive things you can do, not to pay too much attention to the negative.”
Sometimes the criticism is impossible to ignore. Like the time in May 2016 when he was booed by France fans as he came off the pitch despite scoring in a friendly win over Cameroon. Nothing Giroud could do that day, or on other occasions, could satisfy fans who disliked him for occupying a place they felt belonged to Benzema, whom Didier Deschamps did not call up for five years for disciplinary reasons. “All my career in the national team they opposed me to him, pitting one against the other,” says Giroud. “You had the pro-Benzema and the pro-Giroud. I always said I don’t have any problem with him and I loved playing with him but it was a media thing to make out that we were always fighting each other. It was never true.”
He says he took the same attitude last year when Benzema responded to an invitation to compare the two strikers by saying he was a Formula One car and Giroud a insignificant go-kart. “That made me laugh,” says Giroud. “clearly when you are chatting on a live social media thing and you are asked who is better – Benzema or Giroud – and you know he’s your fan, he had to say something like that. I thought it was quite funny. Afterwards people on social media were sending me so many pictures of him in a Formula One car and me in a go-kart with the World Cup, saying it was a bit of jealousy or at any rate. But I didn’t say anything like that. I just took it all with a smile.”
He also rubbishes talk of a feud with Mbappé, insisting the PSG forward’s displeasure with a comment made by Giroud during the warm-ups for Euro 2020 – seemingly suggesting that Mbappé did not pass to him enough – had nothing to do with the team’s failure to perform during the tournament. “That was such a small thing,” he says. “He was a bit upset for a associate of days already though I explained to him that I wasn’t pointing the finger at him. I hadn’t meant to be harsh on anyone. I had just answered a question where a journalist said to me after the game ‘oh, you were very discreet but you scored two goals’. It’s always like they’re trying to piss me off. I just replied ‘yeah, maybe we could have found each other in a different way.’ That’s it. The media tried to make it bigger and say that ruined the air among the team. But come on! We had a conversation between adults and it wasn’t a problem.”
So what happened to France at the Euros? “Ah, what happened?” says Giroud wistfully. “We really wanted to win, especially after losing the Euro 2016 final at home to Portugal, which was very painful. We had the strongest team on paper. We just lacked maybe a little bit of a cool head against Switzerland [in the quarter-finals]. I don’t really know but when you are leading 3-1 with 10 minutes to go it cannot happen that you concede two goals and lose on penalties. But then, that’s the beauty of football, everyone can beat the best team in the world. Nothing is written in improvement.”
Or is it? When asked to expound on the influence of his faith on his career, Giroud is not shy about holding forth. “I believe in the story of Jesus in the Bible and that it is to bring us more humility,” he says. “experiencing is a basic part of life. It builds your personality as a human being. That is where my mental strength comes from. I always have had to confront difficulties, like everyone in life. Nothing is easy in life, you have to grab it and get out of your comfort zone. My faith helped me every single day, particularly when I had to make big decisions. For example, you can understand from my book why I didn’t go to Everton and why I stayed at Chelsea instead of signing for Inter. One thing I will tell you is God has got a plan for every single person on Earth. We make our path and the Lord sets the speed.”
In his book he details how he decided not to go to Everton or Inter after one of his mother’s friends, named Nicole, got in touch both times to tell him about predictive dreams she had had, warning that the moves would not give the striker the satisfaction he sought. Each time, later events suggested the advice had been good. Giroud values Nicole’s visions.
So has she had any other tips for him recently? “Well, this is a little bit of a scoop,” he says. “She said ‘you will have to trust God regarding your future’ and there was a kind of prediction that I would not get into the national team this time. So many things that turned out to be true, I believe those are signs from God in heaven.”
Always Believe by Olivier Giroud, out now from Pitch Publishing, priced £19.99.
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