Football: Ginola finds love at the Lane

The Brian Viner Interview: `Last season I had to show that I could not just be good in a good situation, I could be good in a bad situation'
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AS EVEN Des Lynam might testify, it is hard to sit next to David Ginola and not feel distressingly uncool. He glides into an Italian restaurant near the Spurs training ground in unfashionable Chigwell, Essex, flirts briefly with waitress and greets me with a crushing handshake.

He orders a pizza quattro formaggi. I follow suit. Ginola eats his with his fingers, expertly, making a neat envelope of each gooey slice. I try to do the same. Pretty soon, my chin is a study in molten cheese. Ginola remains immaculate, naturellement.

He turns 32 next week yet is playing better than ever. Against Wimbledon on Saturday, nobody could touch him, although four times he claimed someone had, and four times was denied a penalty. The verdict on Match Of The Day was that Ginola - the divine David - suffers badly from the Sarah Bernhardts. Trevor Brooking even urged Des Lynam to have a word. And Ginola might even listen. "He is fantastic, on and off TV, a great lad, I really enjoy him," says Ginola of Lynam.

On the Internet, there is a Web page devoted purely to anagrams of David Ginola, and one of them, "O! A diving lad," might have been coined by the Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear. Just before Saturday's kick-off, Kinnear called to the referee, pointed at Ginola, and made a diving motion. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that burst of psychological warfare, it showed that Kinnear - like every other Premiership manager - is scared stiff of the Frenchman's ability to turn a match in one dazzling moment.

"But it is getting more difficult for me," Ginola, says. "It is no longer one player I have to scare off. Now there are two or three. So I must find a solution." He smiles. He wants me to know it is hard work being a genius.

"Some players, they receive the ball and on the first touch it goes one or two yards. So they have to fight to keep it, and people say "My God, he is working hard. My first touch and the ball stays at my feet. It looks simple. But I work 20 years to get the ball to stick at my feet."

Of course. But his father was a decent amateur player and young David had uncommon skill even before it was refined at Toulon, Racing Paris, Brest, Paris St-Germain, Newcastle and Tottenham. All the same, football very nearly lost out to his other boyhood passion, skiing. "When I was 14 I had to decide between them. I was a very good skier. Now, I am not allowed to do it. And anyway, we don't get a break in the winter. It is a shame. It is the best sort of family holiday."

Ah, the family. Ginola's agent, a stern Frenchwoman, has warned me practically on pain of castration not to ask any personal questions. Also, I am on no account to mention "ze Houllier episode," a reference to the present Liverpool manager who, as coach of the French national team, made Ginola a scapegoat for France's failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Against Bulgaria, you will recall, Ginola gifted the ball to Kostadinov, who scored the goal that put France out. As it happens, it is Ginola himself who brings up "ze Houllier episode". And he needs no encouragement to talk about his upbringing.

He grew up just outside St Tropez, where his grandmother was a close friend of Brigitte Bardot. The Ginolas were not particularly well off. Father worked in a factory making torpedoes, mother worked for France- Telecom. He misses the South of France terribly. "I miss the people. I miss the smell of the pine trees. I miss living outside. Here, you live inside. But it is my decision to come here. Nobody pushed me. My mother says to me, `how is the weather?' and I say `awful.' So she says, `David, you must always keep some sunshine in your mind. And we are waiting for you.' They are all waiting for me. For the little prince to return to his village."

If the White Hart Lane faithful have their way, it will be a lengthy wait. Judging by the roar that greets his name when the team is announced, Ginola is every inch the favourite that Klinsmann, Gascoigne and Hoddle were. "That's true," says NI7's blue-eyed boy. "But at first they were asking a lot of questions. I have had to build the love of the fans. Last season I had to show that I could not just be good in a good situation, I could also be good in a bad situation."

The bad situation has retreated now that George Graham has returned to north London, and Ginola is keen to stress how much he and the manager respect each other. When Graham's appointment was unveiled, some said Ginola would soon be waving adieu. Ginola gives a contemptuous, very Gallic "pah." The first thing Graham told him, he says, was to ignore such speculation.

"And now he tells me that in the last 30 yards I can do whatever I want. But he also teaches me this." Ginola clenches a fist. "To be strong. To have force. It is important for me to know a manager can take me to the top. He can. Christian Gross was not strong enough. Also, he was alone. He needed people with him from his own country. Look at Arsene Wenger. He has French people everywhere at Highbury."

Ginola is on good terms with most of Arsenal's French contingent - lunch is interrupted while he takes a call on his mobile phone from Emmanuel Petit's wife. But like other sublimely gifted footballers, he has few soulmates in the game. Conversely, there are plenty with whom he does not see eye to eye. His enmity with Arsenal's Lee Dixon dates back to his days at Paris St-Germain. And, as he euphemistically puts it, "I do not share the same point of view with Alan Shearer."

When Spurs played Newcastle and Shearer fouled Ginola, "I got up and told him he was too great a player to have to do that." Needless to say, the backhanded compliment was not graciously received. "Alan gets very frustrated when he doesn't score, when he doesn't get so many balls," adds Ginola. "He will kick out. It wasn't me on purpose."

Ginola, of course, was once the toast of St James' Park himself, and his sweetest footballing memory remains Newcastle's 5-0 Premiership demolition of Manchester United. But it might never have happened if Johan Cruyff had taken him from PSG to Barcelona. "I talked to Cruyff at his home after a game of golf with him. Imagine. When I was a boy Cruyff, with Platini, was my idol. And he said he wanted me in his squad, but he asked me to wait until Hagi was sold. I waited and waited and waited. Then Newcastle came in and Eric [Cantona] had told me it was fantastic playing in England, so..."

So Ginola went to Tyneside, but felt betrayed when Kevin Keegan left shortly after persuading him to reject another approach from Barcelona, this time from Bobby Robson. "I have always had this dream of Barcelona, but Keegan said `don't go' and now he was leaving." He did not hit it off with Keegan's successor, Kenny Dalglish - "I need to be loved, I need affection, Dalglish did not even talk to me" - and in July 1997 was sold. Absurd as it seem now, only Gerry Francis at Spurs was prepared to meet Newcastle's pounds 2m asking price.

This season, Ginola has been playing so well he is an early contender for the Player of the Year award. And yet he dismisses his chances of getting back into the French team. "It is a young team. I don't think so." Obviously he was overjoyed, I say, when France won the World Cup, but was his happiness tempered with regret that he was not part of the team? That, at any rate, is my intended question, but Ginola interrupts.

"What? Overjoyed? No, it was awful. Awful. They stole my dream. After the game, I was at the top of the stadium with Gary Lineker and Ally McCoist, and I was very quiet. They said there was a BBC party, but I went back to my hotel and stayed there. Everyone was outside enjoying themselves. I was in my room watching TV. It was awful. Why? WHY?"

I have no answer to the considerable conundrum of why Ginola and before him Eric Cantona were ditched by France, and I dare not bring up ze Houllier episode. Instead, I ask whether he will stay in football when he retires as a player. He has, after all, other job options, as an anti-landmines campaigner, a model for L'Oreal shampoo, not to mention broadcasting. There is a long pause, "I don't know. I don't think I will be a manager. I don't think I will be able to compromise with players. But you never know. I have had some film scripts. I have had one from [the great Spanish director] Almodovar. So maybe I will try that.

"You know, my boy is seven. He is not bad at football but he is better at golf. I will encourage him to be in an individual sport. That way, you win as yourself, you lose as yourself. With my mentality, it would have been better for me." Ginola shrugs. "In France against Bulgaria, there were 11 of us playing, but it was my fault." I say that I was told not to mention France v Bulgaria. He smiles. "It is OK now," he says.