Le Tigre: André-Pierre Gignac and a Mexican revolución

Le Tigre: André-Pierre Gignac and a Mexican revolución

Football is nothing without its mavericks. Unfathomable men and women whose exploits on and off the pitch keep opponents and teammates alike guessing. Players whose downright unpredictability forces fans to fall in love with them.

In 2015, coming off the back of an impressive 21-goal haul for Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille, André-Pierre Gignac rejected El Loco’s offer to prolong his time on the French Riviera and did something thoroughly unexpected, moving 6,000 miles west to Monterrey, Mexico.

Narrative is a powerful thing. Gignac had plenty of options, most notably from Italian giants Inter and Napoli, but offers from the two Serie A sides, as well as opportunities from Saudi Arabia, were rejected out of hand in favour of a move to North America. Turning down such offers ensured that Gignac had carved his name into the heart of every Tigers fan before he even kicked a ball.

Gignac was swarmed by fans as he touched down in Mexico. This was the first time a top European player had chosen a Liga MX side since Pep Guardiola, but this had a different feel to it. While Guardiola was joining in the autumn of his career, Gignac, a player best described as a big man up top, decided to join at the peak of his powers. Here was a man who had left his comfort zone with the aim of taking a wildly different footballing culture by storm.

Europeans, more specifically, Central Europeans, have a habit of looking down their noses at leagues outside the traditional big five. While it’s fair to say that these nations boast the best players and an incredible amount of financial clout, it’s unfair to suggest that they are the be-all and end-all.

Mexico lives and breathes football. Luchador masks with club and national team colours, oversized sombreros, and full-back tattoos are often seen in the stands. It’s a nation that takes the beautiful game very seriously.

The Frenchman arrived with ambition. “I’m very happy. I’ve come to win the league and the Libertadores.” Gignac’s arrival was as seamless as he could have hoped; he knew the language, he had studied his teammates and opposition. The forward meant business – and the desired opportunity to prove himself came right on cue.

Tigres had drawn tough Brazilian opposition in Internacional in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. Unfortunately, the team from Porto Alegre proved too strong in their home fixture, winning the game 2-1 and denting the Mexican club’s hope of reaching the final.

In the second leg, Tigres and Gignac only had one thing on their minds: revenge. It took just 18 minutes for the forward to score his first goal for the club. A well-timed jump and a powerful header caught out current Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson, Gignac wheeling away, cupping his ears before jumping and punching the air. He had arrived.

The comeback was secured by a freak Gefferson own goal, and a diving header from midfielder Egidio Arévalo cemented their spot in the final. Gignac was within touching distance of his first piece of silverware with his new club already.

The final saw them come up against Argentine behemoths, River Plate. Like most finals in Central and South America, The Copa Libertadores final is played over two legs, with Tigres playing at home first. The game was a 0-0 bore draw. Tigres failed to take advantage of their home support, but underestimate the plucky Mexicans at your peril; after all, stranger things have happened than Tigres heading to Argentina and getting a smash and grab victory.

The Estadio Monumental: one of the world’s great footballing arenas, a hot, steaming bowl of fire and passion. The ground has seen the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Enzo Francescoli, and Pablo Aimar grace its hallowed turf. Tigres were undoubtedly the underdogs so they needed to start well and keep their heads at all costs.

Unfortunately, everything went to pot as soon as River’s first goal nestled in the onion bag. It came at the perfect moment, just as the whistle was about to be blown for half-time. The Tigres players drudged off for the interval, heads hanging; you could tell that the goal had well and truly taken the wind from their sails.

River’s second was another gut punch. A soft penalty decision, which drew a sarcastic clap and laughs from Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzmán, was deftly slotted away by Uruguayan midfielder Carlos Sánchez. River were 2-0 up and cruising. Just four minutes later came the final nail. Centre-back Ramiro Funes Mori jumped well above everyone else to nod in a forlorn corner and finally put Gignac and Tigres out of their misery.

Back on Mexican soil, Gignac was finding his feet nicely. Forty-four goals in his first 18 months, many of which were worldies, earned him nicknames like El Más Chingón (The Most Awesome).

The Liga MX season is split into two halves, the Apertura and the Clausura. By December, Gignac had repaid the fans’ faith by leading his team to his first and the club’s fourth Mexican title, the 2015 Apertura. He then followed that up by helping lift the Campeón de Campeones trophy in 2016, earning himself the Bola d’Oro, an individual prize awarded to the best player in Mexico.

Didier Deschamps could no longer ignore him. While in Europe, Gignac had been constantly overlooked for the national team, but as France was about to embark on their Euro 2016 campaign, Deschamps was in need of a deputy for Olivier Giroud. Kevin Gamerio’s form had dropped off a cliff and Karim Benzema’s scandalous exile saw him miss out meaning Gignac was the man to take on the mantle. “There is no animosity between us. [Deschamps] is a man of integrity. He showed it when he asked me back into the national team,” said Gignac.

In the end, France lost out to Portugal in the final, but, on a personal level, Gignac must have been delighted. While he was no doubt playing second fiddle to Giroud, he did manage to make six appearances during the tournament, including the final, a game in which he nearly scored.

In the 93rd minute, as the game was in the balance, Gignac received the ball on the left-hand side of the six-yard box, turned Pepe inside out and got a shot off. He’d beaten Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio at his near post but the ball bounced off the woodwork and Antoine Greizmann was unable to latch onto the rebound. Gignac was inches away from becoming the first player since the tournament’s inception based outside of Europe to score the winner in the final.

The striker returned to Mexico feeling fully vindicated. The closure he received from his time with the national team showed on the pitch for his club. While he couldn’t get his hands on the Euro 2016 trophy, he couldn’t stop winning with Tigres, lifting the Apertura in 2016 and 2017 and the Clausura in 2019.

Finally, in August 2019, Gignac’s name went down in history, his 105th goal making him Tigres’ record goalscorer. Before the game, a large French flag tifo was unveiled by the fans and Gignac thanked them the only way he knew how: scoring a hat-trick in the opening 23 minutes. The Tigres board also announced they had commissioned a statue of Mexican football’s greatest modern import.

While everything domestically was peachy, there was a rather large elephant in the room: Tigres couldn’t seem to do it in the CONCACAF Champions League. Mexican sides no longer compete in the Copa Libertadores following a reshuffling of the competition in 2017, meaning Gignac will never get the chance to scratch it off his list. Three final defeats in four years had given Tigres the reputation of perennial bridesmaids, with each defeat coming from domestic rivals. It must have felt as if they were cursed.

At the age of 34, it was beginning to feel like 2020 would be his last opportunity. As usual, progression to the final was relatively straightforward. Comfortable wins against New York City FC in the quarters and Olimpia of Honduras in the semis set up a final against LAFC and Mexican national treasure, Carlos Vela. Gignac was initially an injury doubt for the final, but there was no chance he was going to miss this.

COVID-19 meant the final had to be played in an empty stadium, but the Frenchman didn’t take his foot off the gas. Diego Rossi put the American outfit ahead on the hour mark with a deft lob in the six-yard box that Guzmán could do nothing about. Tigres were in that all too familiar position once again.

Unlike the finals of the past, after conceding Tigres rallied. Eleven minutes later, they got the equaliser they deserved via a header from centre-back Hugo Ayala. At 1-1 the impetus was with the Mexicans; what they needed was an experienced head to lead them to victory.

Up stepped Gignac and, in the 84th minute, the man of the moment got his goal. Standing on the edge of the D, the ball was laid off to him, and he casually slotted the ball past Kenneth Vermeer in the LAFC goal before any defenders had the chance to close him down.

He may have made the goal look easy but there was nothing casual about his celebration, bobbing and weaving through his teammates as they made desperate attempts to honour their talismanic forward. You could tell from the look on his face that this goal, out of all of them, meant the most.

Gignac’s Mexican adventure culminated in February 2021 with a Club World Cup final against Bayern Munich. The credentials of the tournament are debated in Europe, with many seeing it as little more than an inconvenience, but this was an opportunity for Gignac to show the European elite that they are not the Alpha and the Omega. Unfortunately, and rather predictably, the Germans won without really breaking a sweat, Benjamin Pavard with the only goal.

In a corporate world where football has become commodified, it’s hard to find truly romantic stories. André-Pierre Gignac made a move that baffled many but his success and willingness to bring a different culture so close to his heart is one of the beautiful game’s greatest current narratives.

By Alex Roberts @APRoberts123

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