Thierry Roland: Football commentator known for his faux pas

After insulting a Tunisian referee, he apologised: ‘I’m no racist – my son’s babysitter is Tunisian,’ he said

The football commentator Thierry Roland was a colourful and popular figure in his native France, and covered 13 World Cups and nine European Championships. His partisan coverage of Les Bleus was legendary while his outbursts and off-the-cuff remarks attracted controversy but endeared him to armchair fans of the French national team.

Following his death last Saturday, French media and football fans gloried in the retelling and replaying of several of his most acerbic comments, often aimed at referees. These included “Mr. Foote, you are a bastard, there's no other word for it,” about Ian Foote, the Scottish referee who awarded a penalty to Bulgaria in a World Cup qualifier against France in October 1976.

A decade later, following Diego Maradona's infamous “Hand of God” goal against England in Mexico City, he quipped to his sidekick, the former midfielder Jean-Michel Larqué: “Honestly, Jean-Michel, don't you think they could have picked someone else rather than a Tunisian referee for such a big game?” He subsequently apologised to Ali Bennaceur, the Tunisian referee, yet came up with “I'm no racist, my son's babysitter is Tunisian,” a line of defence typical of a man mercilessly lampooned by Les Guignols De L'Info, the French equivalent of Spitting Image.

Even when commentating on France's greatest triumph, when Les Bleus won the World Cup at home by beating Brazil 3-0 in 1998, his orgiastic ad lib - “I believe that after witnessing this, one can die happy! As late in life as possible but happy. Superb! What a trip! I can't believe it” - contained an “Oh, putain!” interjection [Damn it!] which captured the mood of a jubilant nation yet was bleeped out in the many televisual tributes.

Born at Boulogne-Billancourt, a wealthy suburb west of Paris, in 1937, he was the son of a jeweller who died when he was 10 and a Russian mother. Partly educated in the UK, he joined the sports department of RTF, France's state-controlled media at 18 as an enthusiastic radio reporter. In 1960, he switched to television and covered basketball, boxing and athletics as well as the Rome Olympics. In 1966, when Strasbourg beat Nantes in the Coupe de France final, he asserted that “the Cup was leaving France,” prompting boos whenever he visited the Alsace region.

However, following the May 1968 protests, despite the fact that he held rather conservative views, Roland was a victim of President De Gaulle's clear-out of supposed “leftist” broadcasters. He engineered a swift return to the airwaves on the radio station France Inter in 1969 and eventually resumed his television career with Antenne 2 in 1975.

Four years later, Larqué joined Roland to add insight and technical nous and balance out his jingoistic tendencies. In 1984, they transferred to TF1, where they remained for the next two decades and also hosted the popular Sunday morning magazine Téléfoot. Roland engaged viewers as much as he infuriated them, and walked a thin line between bons mots - “These two are unlikely to go on holiday together” about a man-marking defender and his suffering target - and faux pas such as “all Korean players look alike, apart from the goalkeeper.”

He was criticised for his lack of gravitas reporting from the Heysel disaster in 1985 and the Furiani disaster in 1992, when a temporary stand collapsed before a Cup semi-final between Bastia and Olympique Marseille, causing the death of 18 spectators. Yet he was meticulous in his preparations and owned every single issue of France-Football magazine going back to the 1950s.

In 2003, Roland suffered a ruptured aneurysm, and struggled to reestablish himself as TF1's “Monsieur Football”. In June 2005, after covering the French Cup final between Auxerre and Sedan, he made a tearful exit from TF1, but re-emerged a few months later with its commercial television rival M6.

Having picked Frank Lebœuf, formerly of Chelsea and France, as his new sidekick, he covered the 2006 World Cup in Germany and became a regular pundit on M6's 100% Foot programme. Last September he enjoyed a reunion with Larqué for the Romania-France European Championship qualifier on M6, and remarked: “Old habits die hard. I'm still on the right and he is to my left.”

The archetype of a grumpy Frenchman, Roland often contributed to Les Grosses Têtes, a radio comedy panel show on RTL, France's number one commercial station. He also wrote several football books - including his autobiography Tout à fait Thierry [Of Course, Thierry, after one of Larqué's comebacks] - appeared as himself in three French films and even recorded a couple of singles, including “La Troisième Mi-Temps” under the name Carton Rouge [Red Card] in 1988.

Following a gallstone operation he had hoped to renew his partnership with Larqué and to cover this summer's European Football Championship but declared himself unable to travel two weeks ago. He died of a stroke a few hours after watching France's 2-0 victory over Ukraine last Friday.

Paying tribute, Larqué said: “In the commentary box, we held each other's hands. I am younger than him but I sometimes had to be a father to him. Thierry could be a big kid but you'd forgive him anything.”

Thierry Roland, sports commentator: born Boulogne-Billancourt 4 August 1937; married 2004 Françoise Boulain (one son); died Paris 16 June 2012.

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