“We’re capable of doing better than last year,” said Saint-Etienne’s Max-Alain Gradel in a confident tone, responding to a question about his club’s league position.
The 2011/12 season, the Ivorian international’s first in France, saw his new employers finish seventh in Ligue 1. It was a step in the right direction for a side that have been gradually re-establishing themselves in French football’s top flight and are now eager to experience the European adventures that previously shaped their history.
Gradel is both delighted and proud to be able to pull on Les Verts’ famous green jersey every week. “The club is absolutely legendary! Right now, Saint-Etienne have a solid plan, lots of ambition and a team with a rosy future ahead of them,” he told FIFA.com.
The renowned Rhone-Alpes outfit currently sit in ninth spot, but their ambitious, attacking style of play has not accrued as many points at it might have done. Often denied by the woodwork and some outstanding goalkeeping displays, their strikeforce has also been guilty of profligacy on occasion. “There’s so much effort put in at training, that it’ll eventually all fall into place,” said the 24-year-old.
Having left his homeland for England at the age of 19, the Abidjan native served a football apprenticeship in the lower leagues, right up to his final season, 2010/11, which he spent with Leeds United in the Championship, the country’s second tier. Eighteen league goals saw Gradel named Player of the Year by the Elland Road faithful, who were greatly saddened by his departure for France.
But at Stade Geoffroy Guichard, the winger/forward has swapped one set of loyal supporters for another, and it has not taken him long to win them over. “I always try to score, make the right pass and attempt lots of different things. Even though it doesn’t always work out, I give 100 per cent, come what may. I think that the fans appreciate that kind of attitude, as they’re always encouraging me to do even better,” said Gradel modestly.
Aware of the young man’s talents, former Côte d’Ivoire coach Francois Zahoui originally called up the attack-minded player while he was still battling for promotion to the Premier League with Leeds. Gradel has since found his feet with Les Eléphants, starting some matches and entering others as an impact substitute, but he is always ready and willing to listen to the team-mates he refers to as ‘big brothers’.
“There are a lot of experienced heads in the team, like Kolo and Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora, Kader Keita, and so many others. You can always count on them, and their advice is very valuable,” he explained.
And then there is the team’s talismanic captain, Didier Drogba. “I’ve been following his career since I was a little boy, and I’d already started watching his matches when he was still at Guingamp. Playing alongside him in the national side is really a dream come true for me. I try to savour every moment,” said Gradel.
He also looks forward to every international, where he can join up with the compatriots he compares to a surrogate family. It has not been an easy year to be a member of the Côte d’Ivoire squad, however, following the loss in the final of the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations on penalties to Zambia, an episode that was painful for all concerned. Gradel has nevertheless attempted to focus on the positives.
“Personally, I really learned a lot during the Cup of Nations, right up to the final. It helped me to grow and mature as a player, and to improve my mental strength. It was actually a good experience for me,” said the former Leicester City man.
Strong favourites after an exemplary march to the showpiece duel, the Ivoirians must have felt they were on the verge of securing a continental crown that has eluded them since 1992. “We didn’t concede a single goal, from the start of the event until the end of extra time in the final. We did everything well, and we just lacked a bit of luck,” he recalled.
Having qualified for the 2013 tournament last weekend at the expense of Senegal, Drogba and Co. will likely bear those feelings of last-gasp disappointment in mind as they embark on another mission to reassert their continental dominance, this time under the command of a new coach.
Former Parma and Marseille star Sabri Lamouchi, appointed to the helm of the Ivoirian national team in May, made a strong impression on Gradel and his team-mates with a heartfelt opening speech. “He came across as very approachable and fair,” said the Saint-Etienne No9.
“He shared his desire for us to accomplish something big together. He stressed that you never win anything by yourself. He emphasised the importance of playing as a team, and his words really affected us. We’ve got bags of individual talent, but the most important thing is to combine our strengths to exceed the expectations of our fans back home,” he continued.
And if things come together as planned, those fans may well have some exciting and entertaining moments ahead of them. “The next couple of years could provide us with a magnificent chance to truly achieve great things. First, there’s the Cup of Nations in 2013, something we’re very keen on winning, and then there’s Brazil 2014, which we’re pretty hopeful of qualifying for,” concluded Gradel, who would doubtless be confident of being included in any future FIFA World Cup™ squad.
“We’re just desperate to do better than in our two previous appearances, in 2006 and 2010, when we went out in the first round.”