The end of every season sees a number of players hang their boots up for good. The conclusion of the 2016/17 campaign was no exception, with a clutch of players who have enjoyed outstanding careers deciding to call it a day, most notably Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Martin Demichelis, Frank Lampard, Francesco Totti and Gael Angoula. Yes, you read that right: Gael Angoula.
While the former defender, who had stints with Nimes, Angers and Bastia, may not have won as much silverware as the aforementioned stars, his life story has been no less extraordinary than their careers.
A Thai boxer in his youth, Angoula spent time in prison in 2003 before making a relatively late start to his football career. It was one that eventually took him to the top, when he made his Ligue 1 debut in 2012. After announcing his retirement in May 2017, he took the unusual step – for a player, at least – of becoming a referee, the sixth chapter in a life story with many a twist and turn.
1. Thai boxer
Born in Le Havre in 1982, Angoula grew up in a tough neighbourhood. Though he liked football and played it occasionally, it was as a Thai boxer that he initially showed his sporting prowess. “I had to give it up in the end because I kept injuring my shinbone,” he told FIFA.com. “To begin with I had no desire to become a professional footballer, even though I’d always liked the sport. I played street football with my mates from the neighbourhood, but it wasn’t until later, when circumstances conspired, that I wanted to become a player.”
2. Behind bars
It took a spell in prison before Angoula, who is of Cameroonian extraction, took control of his own destiny. “There was a time when I was very easily influenced. I hit rock bottom,” he said when asked why he went to jail. “I’d rather talk about coming out of prison than going in. It was a fresh start for me. That was when I realised that football was a possible escape route.”
3. A second chance
It was Jacky Colinet, the head of a small club in the French fifth tier (known at the time as CFA2), who gave Angoula the chance to leave his neighbourhood behind on being released from prison. As well as carrying out a wide range of duties at the club, from secretarial work to coaching youngsters and picking up litter after matches, Angoula also played, and he did so rather well.
“I had a trial with Auxerre in my second year in the CFA,” he explained. “They had a European Cup match and I trained with the players who hadn’t been called up for it and the reserves. It was a different level altogether, and though I didn’t make the grade, I didn’t feel I’d made a fool of myself. I told myself that if I wanted it badly enough, I could be just as good as those kids one day. It pushed me on and from that point on I got better and better, changed clubs and climbed up through the divisions, until I turned pro with Bastia in the National (the French third tier).”
4. The big time
Angoula continued his ascent to the summit of French football with the Corsicans, helping them win promotion to Ligue 2 and, the very next season, to Ligue 1, where he faced Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and the like. “It was unbelievable. My happiest memory, though, was my first Ligue 1 match against Sochaux. It felt so weird to be there in L1. That’s when I realised just how far I had come.” Between 2013 and 2016, Angoula made 64 appearances in the French top flight for Bastia and then Angers.
5. A new trade
After bringing an end to his career at the age of 35, while playing Ligue 2 football with Nimes Olympique, Angoula embarked on another adventure: refereeing. “I’d got to an age where I had to start thinking about doing something else, even though I was still under contract with Nimes,” he said. “I met an international referee while I was there. I asked him a lot of questions and it seemed interesting to me.
“In Ligue 1 and 2 I was seen as a temperamental player, and referees treated me in a different way, which I liked. As players, we tend to see referees as people who just direct the game, but I could see that there was more to it than that. There was a real psychological side to it as well. Then there was the pre-match preparation and all the team work, etc. I wanted to know more about it and I had the good fortune to meet Sandryk Biton (a French referee), who gave me a lot of help and showed me what refereeing was all about.”
6. New horizons
With the help of Eric Borghini, the president of the CFA, and Pascal Garibian, the president of France’s National Referees Board, Angoula took charge of his first match, at U-17 level, and passed his theory exam, in June. “I’m thoroughly enjoying it,” he said. “There’s a whole new world to discover. I don’t set myself any specific objectives. There’s as big a gap between the amateur and professional world for referees as there is for footballers. I’m embarking on another obstacle course but there’s no reason why I can’t reach for the top. Life’s a challenge.”