Football: Ginola's home fires still burn

Simon Turnbull says the French prodigal has a strong incentive this week
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The Independent Online
It was against Metz that David Ginola announced himself on the first-class football stage in France, as a sublimely talented teenage substitute for Toulon 11 years ago. Metz provide the opposition for him again on Tuesday night when the prodigal son of French football returns to home soil. His mission, ostensibly, is to help Newcastle United build a healthy first-leg lead in the Uefa Cup third-round tie. The hidden agenda - of his forgiveness - will be much harder to achieve.

The French have not forgotten 17 November, 1993, when Emil Kostadinov scored the last-kick goal at the Parc des Princes which sent Bulgaria, rather than France, to the World Cup finals. Possession came courtesy of Ginola, whose attempted cross failed to reach Eric Cantona. No Pizza Hut adverts followed, only the sharp edge of national retribution as Ginola's head was placed on Mme Guillotine.

He switched on his television set the next morning just as Gerard Houllier, the French team coach, was delivering his "J'Accuse" address to the nation. "David Ginola is a criminal," Houllier said. "I repeat: he is a criminal." Half the French squad, Cantona among them, did not disagree. The French public made their feelings clear three days later when Ginola played for Paris St Germain at Toulouse. His every touch was jeered, a fate he endured in away matches before his pounds 2.5m move to Newcastle in the summer of 1995. The derision continued when he returned to play his most recent international for France, against Azerbaijan in Auxerre 14 months ago, and will no doubt be evident in Metz.

It was the stunner of a volley Ginola scored against Ferencvaros that in effect secured a French test in the last 16 for Newcastle and their legionnaire from St Maxime, near St Tropez. Following a similarly spectacular finish in Newcastle's 5-0 demolition of Manchester United, it seemed, on this side of La Manche at least, that the man the PSG fans called "magique" might have conjured a place back in the French squad. Instead, he was obliged to settle for a midfield slot in the monthly merit team selected by the association of European Soccer Magazines.

Ginola has won 16 caps since his boyhood hero, Michel Platini, called him up for a European Championship qualifier against Albania six years ago. But the friendly France played in Copenhagen last weekend was the 16th successive international for which his services were not required. Denmark won 1-0, inflicting the first defeat the French had suffered from open play since the fateful Bulgaria game. Aime Jacquet, Houllier's successor, was pilloried for making Les Bleus "as colourless as his own image", as L'Equipe put it. Yet there have been no calls for Ginola's restoration.

According to Jean-Philippe Le Claire of L'Equipe: "There has been no debate here since before the European Championships. Even then it was always focused on Cantona rather than Ginola. The fact is people in France do not have a good opinion of English football. They like the passion of St James' Park and Old Trafford but they have a better opinion of the French players who are in Italy.

"Cantona could win four, five, six titles in England but it means nothing here. People just say he has done nothing in Europe yet with Manchester United. It is the same with Ginola. No one will care if he wins the title with Newcastle. If Newcastle beat Metz, Ginola scores a hat-trick, and Newcastle do well in the Uefa Cup, the debate might start again. But as long as English clubs do poorly in Europe no one will care what the French players do there.

"In Ginola's case, in terms of his public image in France, he is still recovering from that Bulgaria match. He is also seen, because he has a beautiful face and because he is on television in fashion shows and advertisements, as more of a pop-star figure - like someone out of Take That - than a footballer. It is unfair because he has come through some hard times. He does not get the credit for that."

Ginola will be 30 in January. He knows time is running out as he strives to turn public opinion in his homeland. "It is difficult when you are appreciated in every country except your own," was the wounded response to his latest international rejection. Such comments have not endeared him to Jacquet, who is grooming Robert Pires - the brilliant 23-year-old Newcastle will encounter in Metz - as the man to assume the left-side midfield role he took from Ginola and handed to Reynauld Pedros.

Ginola would prefer to play, for club let alone country, in the central attacking support role he fulfilled behind George Weah is PSG's European Cup semi-final team two years ago. He also makes no secret of his lingering desire to join Barcelona, his first- choice destination before Newcastle came in with a firm offer last summer and who were linked with him again this week.

"That would be a good move for everybody," Le Claire said. "It would be the ultimate, maybe the last, challenge for Ginola. If he succeeded there, it would be easier for him to get into the French team." And what a story that would be: if the man who paid the price for France's failure to reach the last World Cup finals lined up for the hosts the summer after next.