The voice of French football
As a kid growing up in France, you might imagine certain things stand out from my childhood. The Eiffel Tower, Paris, even the amazing baked goods. While some of those are true, my Sunday mornings definitely belong on such a list. As my interest in football blossomed in the early 2000s, you could find me glued to the TV every Sunday morning watching Telefoot, France's number one football show on free-to-air TV. Broadcast on TF1 and still going to this day, it features interviews with players, features on current events and of course the highlights from the weekend's games. In my day, it also had possibly the best intro song ever and was presented by the person I will always remember as the voice of French football.
It was somewhat ironic, then, that Thierry Gilardi was always more of a rugby man at heart. Rugby was his sport growing up, he said he played every Sunday for his club until the age of 30, appearing in a number of second and third division games. He was president of his hometown team in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the early 90s, and became vice-president of fourteen time French champions Stade Francais in 1997. As he said himself: "Football is my job; rugby is my passion". But boy did he do his job well.
After joining French channel Canal+ in 1987 to cover Formula 1, he soon moved up through the ranks, and participated in the channel’s coverage of the Olympics in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. Switching to TF1 in 2004, he jumped in to the Telefoot hot seat in 2005. There he also began commentating Champions League and French national team games alongside Jean-Michel Larque, the former St Etienne great turned legendary commentator.
Gifted with an infectious voice that soundtracked the game for so many viewers, he became a fixture for French fans on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and whenever Les Bleus took to the field. However his defining moment came at the 2006 World Cup, when France, led by a recently unretired Zidane, made a run to the Final, defeating Brazil and Spain along the way.
“Vas-y mon petit!”
Franck Ribery was already on a roll coming into the 2006 World Cup. After a successful season with Marseille where he had won the Young Player of the Year, he made his France debut in the warmup friendlies for the competition, coming on as a substitute for David Trezeguet against Mexico. Some more solid friendly performances earned him a place in the 23 man squad, at the expense of Robert Pires and Ludovic Giuly.
The Ribery bandwagon was gathering steam, especially after getting his first start for France in the opener against Switzerland, but it went into overdrive come the round of 16 and France’s match against Spain.
After Makelele recovered the ball in midfield, Ribery offloaded to Vieira, who got the ball out from under his feet and threaded a perfect ball through to the now onrushing Ribery. “Vas-y mon petit! [Come on my boy!]”, screamed Gilardi, instantly making Franck the son of a whole nation. With Casillas off his line, the young man from Boulogne-sur-Mer left him for dead, going round him and slotting home right in front the helpless Carles Puyol. “Il est génial le môme! [He’s so great, that kid!]”, Gilardi continued, as Ribery was mobbed by his teammates near the France bench.
It was the moment that truly launched Ribery’s career on the world stage, and after another successful season with Marseille, earned him the big money move to Bayern Munich. It was also arguably his defining moment as a footballer, especially with Les Bleus. The subsequent World Cup in South Africa was one of embarrassment for the whole French team, as players refused to train in protest against Nicolas Anelka being sent home for fighting with coach Raymond Domenech. Ribery was earmarked as one of the leaders of the revolt, and suspended for several games by the French Football Federation. After his eventual return to the squad, he missed the 2014 World Cup through injury and announced his retirement soon after, due to perceived lack of support over his injury.
“Pas ça Zinedine...”
If Gilardi helped launch the career of one of France’s then young stars, he almost poetically narrated the fall of its greatest ever legend.
The 2006 tournament was always going to be Zidane’s last hurrah, after retiring with Real Madrid at the end of 2006 season. He was seen at the time as France’s saviour, having come out of retirement to rescue a France team that was struggling to qualify for the World Cup early on.
France made it to the final against almost expectations, carried by his brilliance alongside Henry, Thuram and new star Ribery. Up against the Italy of Buffon, Del Piero and Totti, it was a tense game throughout. Zidane himself barely converted a penalty obtained by Malouda to open the scoring, before Materazzi headed in an equalizer shortly afterwards. However what seemed like a fairly predictable World Cup final was about to be remembered for entirely different reasons.
When play stopped at the 108th minute, everyone though it was Trezeguet. “What has happened here between Trezeguet and Materazzi?” Gilardi asked, with an undertones of concern in voice. An entire commentary team and an entire nation held its breath as it waited for the footage to be replayed. “The line judge doesn’t seem to be intervening”, co-commentator Arsene Wenger said in an attempt to break the tension.
The replay flashed up.
“Oh Zinedine, oh Zinedine. Pas ça Zinedine. Pas ça Zinedine. Oh non. Non pas ça. Pas aujourd’hui. Pas maintenant. Pas après tout ce que tu as fait. Aie aie aie. [Not that Zinedine. Not that. Not that. Oh no. No no that. Not today. Not now. Not after everything you’ve done]”
Total silence followed. Only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. A nation grappling with a sense of disbelief, Gilardi’s words ringing in its ears. At home, nobody had to say anything. Gilardi had said what everyone was thinking, word for word, sentence for sentence.
The referee brandished the red card.
“C’est épouvantable, c’est pas possible. On ne peut pas contester. Zinedine ne doit pas répondre, ne doit pas mettre ce coup de tete. C’est pas vrai. C’est pas possible. [It’s disgraceful, it’s not possible. You can’t argue with it. Zidane should respond, should not headbutt. It can’t be true. It’s not possible.]”
A tone of incredulity and resignation tinged Gilardi’s words. Almost like a parent who gets a call from school because their child has started a fight. It was the mood of a whole nation, perfectly expressed at that tragic moment in time.
In the days and weeks that followed, Gilardi’s commentary would be replayed around the world, accompanying the downfall of arguably France’s greatest ever player. A moment that for an entire nation will forever be associated with his words, as was the case with Ribery’s goal only days before.
“A heart of gold”
When Thierry Gilardi passed away aged 49 on the 25th of March 2008, French football lost its voice. It left the sports world in shock, not sure where to go next. He had been due to commentate the France-England friendly, the day after his death. As Franck Ribery scored his penalty that night and took off his shirt, he displayed a message for the man who had narrated his rise to superstardom two years earlier.
“A heart of gold”, was how journalist Alain Azhar described him. Authentic, both inside and outside the commentary box. Just over twelve years on from his passing, Thierry Gilardi will always be my voice of football.