Tuesday, January 19, 2010
The story of Steve Savidan...
Let's be honest, football autobiographies have a terrible reputation. They may have moved a notch up the literary food chain since their '80s nadir, but still span a sea of turgidity interrupted only by the odd juicy revelation - Roy Keane's revenge missions against Alf Inge Haaland, Ashley Cole's sealing of his widely-held reputation as the archetypal greedy modern footballer or Jerome Rothen's smirking unveiling of William Gallas as "too thick" to get away with allegedly nicking a few euros from his team-mates as a young apprentice at Caen.
Yet one recent release in France promises a story worth telling, rather than the usual tawdry cash-in. Steve Savidan was one of Ligue 1's most colourful and loveable characters until he was forced to suddenly retire in the summer of 2009. Finally on the brink of making the big time by signing for Monaco in a €5 million deal, Savidan's medical showed up a recent cardiac anomaly, forcing the Principality club to abandon the signing. The striker broke the news himself in an emotional press conference, typically conducted with his own unique human touch.
Fans across the Hexagon genuinely felt for Savidan. In an age when French football supporters increasingly struggle to connect with the highly-paid, often foreign-based, stars that represent the national side - as shown by the hostile reception they frequently receive at the Stade de France - 'Savigol' was a breath of fresh air, flying the flag for the working man.
In his new tome, "Une balle en plein coeur" (a pun on the word 'ball' meaning "a bullet straight to the heart"), Savidan talks of his first transfer, joining Châteauroux from his hometown club Angers, and turning down Joël Bats' invitation to stick around and familiarise himself with the town after signing. Savidan started his job working as a binman early the following day, he explained to his incredulous new coach. He also worked behind a bar during his years at National (third-tier, but amateur) level. Stories like this distil Savidan's charm perfectly, and partly explain why he is regarded with such affection by fans of most French clubs.
Savidan carried himself in exactly the way most fans in his position hope they would, with the happy-go-lucky disposition of a lottery winner - knowing, yet joyful. When Savidan scored for Valenciennes and did a backflip, or gave a flash of his Superman Y-fronts, it could have been your mate Dave doing the same after bagging one on Sunday morning on Hackney Marshes, or the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
The striker struggled up the leagues, and it was only in National with Valenciennes in 2004-05 that his career really started to take off, after being signed by coach Daniel Leclerq, who had led the great Lens team of the late 1990s to the title. Savidan scored 19 times as Valenciennes were promoted. This was the first of successive promotions for the modest northern club, with Savidan again stepping up as Valenciennes captured the 2006 Ligue 2 title, notching 16 goals in a campaign that proved he could cut it at that level, having previously endured a couple of barren second-tier seasons with Ajaccio and Beauvais. Getting his first crack at the top flight at 28, he again adapted seamlessly under the tutelage of Leclerq's successor, Antoine Kombouaré.
Yet his popularity wasn't solely built on being a likeable bloke. The dichotomy of 'Savigol' is while he was in many ways the ultimate blue-collar footballer, there was no drudgery or routine about his game. He was an inventive, witty and street-smart footballer. Savidan scored every type of goal, from his stunning chip in a derby against Lens to his thunderous free kick which beat Marseille. It was with Valenciennes in Ligue 1 that Savidan properly tapped into the national consciousness, scoring four times past Fabien Barthez in one match at Nantes. After that game the respected Leclerq, who Savidan said "gave me my last chance to make it as a pro," said he had only ever seen three better centre forwards - Marseille icons Jean-Pierre Papin and Josip Skoblar and Saint Etienne's '70s star Salif Keita.
It said a lot for Savidan's strength as well as his resourcefulness that he played alone up front for the vast majority of his Ligue 1 career (one up top has been the overwhelming tactical trend in France for years). Despite only measuring 5' 7'', he could carry the role off with panache in middling teams.
After a move to Caen in 2008, his impressive form led Raymond Domenech to call him up to the France squad for the first time. In November he made a memorable first - and, as it turned out, last - appearance for the national side against Uruguay at the Stade de France. Savidan's half-hour cameo is pretty much the only thing worth remembering about the goalless draw, but it encapsulated everything he gave the game perfectly. A willing runner, he injected spirit, energy and enterprise into a torpid France, and narrowly missed out on a sensational winning goal, as his overhead kick flashed narrowly wide of the post.
One post-match anecdote from the book captures Savidan's modesty and continued grasp of his roots. Invited to dinner with some of the squad by Patrick Vieira, Savidan said he couldn't, as he had training the following morning. Vieira laughed, and told him he could skip one session, having just played for France. Savidan didn't, going to training as usual.
While the player himself felt he hadn't changed, some at Caen weren't so sure, believing his head was turned by his increasing profile, which led to winter transfer window interest from Marseille and Lyon. As Franck Dumas' side slid down the Ligue 1 table, Savidan was, as the team's most visible member, blamed in some quarters. He was clearly their most saleable asset following relegation, before the Monaco medical (on his 31st birthday, he ruefully grinned in that press conference) cruelly brought the curtain down on a fine career. At least that one November night wearing the blue of France gave Steve Savidan the chance to bookend a wonderful story in style.