A centre-back by trade, William Gallas made a name for himself at Marseille, elevated his play to a different level in England, and is a lynchpin of the French national team - a football journey not dissimilar to that of a certain Marcel Desailly. But contrary to his elder compatriot, the Arsenal defender has yet to lift football’s ultimate prize. There is no denying that he came very close in 2006, as part of the French side that lost out to Italy on penalties in the FIFA World Cup™ Final. Something else he shares with his predecessor is that he too did not receive international recognition until the age of 25, while other more precocious stars of his generation, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet for example, obtained their first caps much earlier.
Gallas has continued to make impressive progress, however, and is today one of the first names on the teamsheet for France, not only because of his experience, but also for his leadership qualities on the field, evident more through his actions than his words. A shy and discreet individual off the pitch, he transforms into a veritable rock from the moment the whistle signals the start of a match. Ever since his humble beginnings at second division Caen in 1995, his tackling strength, positional sense and anticipation have helped him to stand out from his peers. And these abilities were exactly what persuaded Marseille to sign him in 1997. Alongside the imperious Laurent Blanc, he learned every intricacy of his defensive role, excelling as his team reached the final of the UEFA Cup and achieved second place in the French Championship in 1999.
Gallas decided to try his luck in England in 2001 next, a decision he would not regret, as it was in the blue of Chelsea that he would win his first-ever medals, as part of their Premier League-winning sides of 2005 and 2006. His success at club level was rewarded in 2002 by the first of many international caps. Inheriting the retired Desailly’s place in France’s defence, Gallas formed a centre-back partnership with Lilian Thuram that would provide the foundations for France’s unexpected run to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final in Germany.
Post-tournament, he found himself moving across London to Chelsea’s rivals Arsenal in the closing minutes of the transfer window. A calming influence at the heart of the Gunners’ young defence, he was soon appointed captain ahead of the then vice-captain Gilberto Silva. Around about this time, observers of the French national team began to point to an astonishing statistic – that every time Gallas took the field for Les Bleus, France either won or drew. In fact, prior to a friendly loss to Spain in February 2008, Gallas had never tasted defeat when representing his country. This role of lucky mascot is another reason that Raymond Domenech now regards him as a cornerstone of France’s defence.
At UEFA Euro 2008, however, luck deserted Gallas, as well as all of his team-mates, as the French departed Austria and Switzerland with their tails between their legs, a goalless draw with Romania and two heavy defeats against the Netherlands and Italy putting paid to their hopes. Gallas’ next two seasons were spoiled slightly by niggling injuries, but when he is on top form, he is essential to club and country. It was fitting that he, of all players, should send France to the 2010 FIFA World Cup by scoring the equalising goal in extra-time of the return leg of the play-off against Republic of Ireland.