The triumph and heartache of Steve Savidan: how the former binman became a goalscoring light of Ligue 1

The triumph and heartache of Steve Savidan: how the former binman became a goalscoring light of Ligue 1

As La Marseillaise is sung by 79,000 voices inside the Stade de France, on the sidelines a cockerel stands proudly to attention on Steve Savidan’s tracksuit top. The FFF initials of the Fédération Française de Football that represent the bird’s terra firma are woven resplendent in gold. Fittingly for Savidan, such an acronym can be used to describe the three stages of his career: frustration, fairytale, foiled.

On 29 June 1978, Savidan was born in the north-western city of Angers, home of the royal House of Plantagenet that bore English King Richard III. In 1998 he broke into the first team of the city’s club Angers SCO, although failed to score in 14 Championnat National matches. The following season would, however, be his breakout year, as he hit 14 goals in 33 games to earn himself a move to Ligue 2 Châteauroux.

Unfortunately, attitude problems quickly led to exclusion by coach Thierry Froger. “It was my fault,” the player later told Eurosport. “I went out in the evenings and did not have the lifestyle of a top athlete.” Proof of such sentiment can be seen in how Savidan only scored three goals as Chateauroux finished eighth.

The summer of 2000 saw him shipped on loan to Ajaccio, although neither this nor a return to Angers the following season relit his fire. A third loan in as many years to Beauvais would appear demeaning, although worse was to come. In the 2002/03 season, Savidan failed to score a single goal in 24 attempts. The frustration had reached its peak.

Another loan, this time to third-tier Angoulême, would appear to be the definition of insanity, but it was here Savidan changed his approach. Standing at five-foot-seven, he invested hours studying footage of Jean-Pierre Papin and how he used his small stature to his advantage. In order to make ends meet, Savidan took on work in a bar, alongside the more frequently reported occupation of binman.

It was such attitude and graft that would pique the interest of Valenciennes manager Daniel Leclerq. Despite Angoulême being relegated, Savidan’s tally of 12 goals and 14 assists meant he was never likely to go down with them. In the end, he chose to accept Leclerq’s approach to poetically sign for Papin’s first team. 

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A historic club whose golden era came during the 1960s, nowadays Valenciennes are mostly renowned for scandal. In 1993, Marseille president Bernard Tapie paid several of their players to underperform in order to keep his team fresher for the upcoming Champions League final. As a consequence, Marseille were stripped of their 1992/93 title and relegated.

Not that this made much difference to Valenciennes. A poor season of their own meant their fate had been sealed on the pitch, perpetuating two further relegations that ended in a loss of professional status and bankruptcy in 1996. Fast-forwarding a decade and Les Athéniens were beginning to regroup in the National, with Savidan a massive part in the revival.

His first season at Stade Nungesser yielded 19 goals – more than Papin managed in his sole campaign with Valenciennes – and a league title. They would take Ligue 2 by storm in 2005/06 to make it back-to-back championships. For Savidan the fairytale was just beginning.

Whilst in keeping with his modest character, Savidan was quick to deflect praise onto his teammates and coach Antoine Kombouaré, it is not possible to overstate the impact the striker had. A league-best 16 goals, including six in the final six games, were crucial in firing Valenciennes back into Ligue 1.

The following season, at the age of 28, Savidan made his top-flight debut. Fitting the occasion, he opened the scoring in a 1-1 draw at Auxerre with a fine solo run. This was followed shortly after by a brace at Le Mans in a 3-2 loss, with such performances earning him the player of the month award for August.

Savidan’s crowning glory in his first elite-level season came some 90km west of his birthplace in Nantes. A 5-2 thrashing of Les Canaris featured four goals from the man fans now referred to as “Savigol”. The pick of these was the final finish, with Savidan playing a clever one-two with Thomas Dossevi before firing low past Fabien Barthez.

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Ending the season as Ligue 1’s second-highest scorer behind Pauleta, that summer rumours abounded of a move to champions Lyon or Marseille. The latter would be left ruing Savidan’s decision to remain with Valenciennes early in the 2007/08 season. Having scored earlier in a game locked at 1-1, with three minutes left, Savidan hit a laid-off free-kick into the top corner from 25 yards to avenge the demons of 1993.

Such variety in the goals scored by the number nine would continue to be pivotal, and with over half the season gone, Valenciennes were in fourth. Unfortunately, just three wins would come post-January to see the club drop back to 13th – still their highest league finish in 27 years. Naturally, Savidan would score in each of these victories, including a particularly stunning scissor kick off a corner against Bordeaux.

That summer, however, club and player would part ways. Valenciennes needed money to build a new stadium, and their prized asset was the number one attraction for circling clubs. Monaco and Saint-Étienne represented two such vultures, although the final destination would be the smaller bird of Caen. The Normandy club had funds after the departure of Yoann Gouffran to Bordeaux and paid VAFC’s €5m asking price.

A change in shirt colours did little to abate his form; Savidan just kept scoring. Ironically his first goal would come against Valenciennes, with the defences of Nantes, Marseille, Grenoble, Lille and Nice all breached shortly after. By mid-October, he was again Ligue 1’s top scorer. The rise was continuing, and then Savidan received a phone call.

Raymond Domenech had publicly encouraged Savidan to keep knocking on the national team door, and, on 13 November 2008, the hinges finally gave way. The other strikers called up for the squad were Jimmy Briand, Karim Benzema, Thierry Henry, and Nicolas Anelka. Not bad for a binman.

The headlines were predictable, but they totally misrepresented Savidan. Correct: he had collected litter for a living. True: he did once go an entire season without scoring. And all too understandably, he cried upon hearing the news. But this was now a prolific striker widely regarded as one of the best in Ligue 1. He had earned his place, not won a competition.

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“This is not Disneyland, this is something to be taken very seriously,” he told the press prior to the friendly with Uruguay. “I have no pressure on me. Playing football is not pressure – it’s a pleasure. That’s how I’ve always taken it and always will.”

Savidan came on for Anelka at half time, and despite failing to score in the goalless draw, impressed with a performance that included two overhead kicks which both flew narrowly wide. For Caen, he was only their third representative in the club’s then 96-year history. To mark the occasion, their entire team travelled to Paris to watch the match.

Back playing alongside them, Savidan continued to soar. In January 2009, it was widely reported Caen turned down an eight-figure bid from Lyon for the striker, alongside further interest from Atlético Madrid and Marseille. Unfortunately, his form was to drop slightly in the new year with just six goals. Feeling the pinch, Caen were relegated on the final day.

Leaving little doubt that Savidan would be moving on once more, his heart was set on a move to Monaco. The two clubs agreed a €5m fee, and, after finishing 11th, the club from the principality appeared to have acquired some much-needed firepower. That was until Savidan underwent his medical.

Club doctors discovered a severe defect with the player’s heart, advising Savidan retire immediately or face frighteningly real consequences. Given the spirit shown to reach the summit of French football, it was the cruellest twist of irony. On 31 July 2009, Savidan announced his departure from football. The fairytale was over, his talent foiled.

Retiring at 31 is unusual for a player enjoying the best years of their professional career. Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge it spared potential tragedy. Post-football Savidan has kept busy, opening a restaurant back in Angers and becoming a regular pundit on national TV. He has also undertaken several coaching roles at lower league clubs, most recently with National outfit Cholet.

Looking back, an international career that statistically reads 45 minutes played abd zero goals is nothing to celebrate. Just like the FFF acronym, though, when taken literally the stats hide the gripping tale of perseverance, triumph and heartache that is Steve Savidan.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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