Football: Sylvain heads for high ground

Tim Collings studies the rise of a new French goalscoring hero
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EVEN IF he was not the most deadly goalscorer in France, Sylvain Wiltord would still be one of the most noticeable. Blessed with extraordinary pace, a Michael Owen-like ability to carry the ball with him at close quarters and unerringly find the net, the 25-year-old Bordeaux player has bleached-blond hair, a fondness for rap (and the odd late night) and an empathy with every awkward immigrant kid on every dark street corner in Paris and Marseilles.

Like his striking partner in the French national team, Nicolas Anelka, and the world's top player, Zinedine Zidane, Wiltord has roots more in common with back-street cafes, burger bars and unemployment than nouvelle or haute cuisine and high fashion.

This season, however, he has blossomed, in the way French players do, after years of nurturing in a system which allows talent to take its time. In an explosive finish to the French championship last weekend, he delivered two more goals as Bordeaux beat Paris Saint-Germain, at the Parc des Princes, to steal the title from beneath the noses of Marseilles' helpless players at Nantes, where they had won by the only goal. To make it worse for the runners-up, they stood and watched on a giant television screen as the drama unfolded in the capital.

Wiltord, a mesmerising bundle of blond hair and perpetual motion with the dusky skin to be expected of one of eight children of Martinique parentage, was the man who made the difference. His total of 22 goals for the season made him the First Division's top scorer, while Marseilles' top marksman was Florian Maurice on 14. Wiltord's national elevation has been a natural reward. Last night, he was back in action in Paris, this time at the Stade de France - where his 54th minute strike could not prevent the world champions losing 3-2 to Russia in a European Championship qualifier - in partnership with Anelka.

The French national coach Roger Lemerre certainly believes in Wiltord, just as much as Elie Baup, his manager at Bordeaux. "He is a player with natural pace, great attacking skill and a lot of movement and verve who, I think, can become a very important factor in our attacking play in the future. We are delighted for him and with him, for he has achieved it all himself through his own work," said Lemerre, his comments flying in the face of much of the transfer hype surrounding other higher-profile members of his squad.

"Transfer fees do not bother me, not at all," said Wiltord, who has admitted a move to England or Spain appeals to him if, or when, his Champions' League-bound adventures with Bordeaux are over. "I am just happy to play and be successful. When I left Paris to go to Rennes, early in my career, I did not believe I was good enough to turn professional. When I scored goals for Rennes, I did not believe it would last. When I signed for Bordeaux, I never took anything for granted. I have always worked hard."

Wiltord was born in Neuilly-sur-Marne, near the site of EuroDisney in the eastern suburbs of greater Paris. His mother raised her eight children alone, following her husband's early departure, and Sylvain soon became self-reliant, yet selfless and sympathetic to his people, his family and his neighbourhood. "I have never changed when I am at home with these people," he said. "I know, in their eyes, I am a success. That is good. I want to help them believe they can also move out of the suburbs, find a life and express themselves. When I went to Rennes, I only went because I wanted to escape."

Now, Wiltord is a frequent visitor to Paris and his family. And they often visit Bordeaux. It is an exchange which has worked on both sides and which will see the boy from Neuilly displaying his talents in the Champions' League next winter and, with luck, in the Euro 2000 finals next summer.