Often down but never out, Djibril Cisse has suffered a long list of setbacks since his France career began in a 2-1 loss to Belgium on May 18, 2002. The blows would have sunk many a footballer, but the Arles native has always responded by rolling up his sleeves and summoning the physical and mental effort needed to fight his way back to the top.
With three weeks to go before Raymond Domenech announces his France squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Cisse is now a genuine candidate for a place in the travelling party. The striker originally unearthed by legendary former Auxerre coach Guy Roux may be a surprise contender, but he has more than earned the right to be considered.
If you judge me by my displays on the pitch alone, I’ve got every chance. I think I’ve done enough. If Domenech calls me up, I’ll do whatever he asks of me. He knows I’m hungry.
“Behind his star façade, he possesses impressive strength of character,” said Domenech during his spell as France Under-21 coach. “Djibril loves to win so much that he gives everything he has to do it.” Given the stunning ill fortune that has befallen him at key moments in his career, the 28-year-old has undoubtedly needed all that fortitude to stay positive.
Everything kicked off so smoothly for Cisse when he was called up for the 2002 FIFA World Cup as a 21-year-old freshly crowned top scorer in Ligue 1. The adventure quickly turned sour, however, as reigning champions France were sent packing after the group stage. Then, on the eve of UEFA EURO 2004, the young forward was sent off during an U-21 match against Portugal and picked up a three-game suspension, prompting Jacques Santini to leave him at home.
Lightning strikes twice
Disaster befell Cisse again later that year, a couple of months after his high-profile move to Liverpool. Having made a promising start to his time at Anfield, he suffered a double fracture in his left leg during a game against Blackburn Rovers on October 30, 2004, but he worked his way back to the top and finished leading scorer for Les Bleus in qualifying for Germany 2006. Sadly for him, another cruel twist of fate lay ahead.
As France were facing China PR in their final warm-up game on 7 June – a day before their trip to Germany, in fact – Cisse was struck down by a second double bone break, this time in his right leg. Halting images of the ill-starred striker writhing in pain were shown all around the globe. “The doctors think my bones aren’t flexible enough,” he said. “Instead of absorbing the shock, they break. It’s painful. I set alarms off when I go through airport metal detectors!”
Undaunted, Cisse again got back to work and returned to the limelight with Marseille, scoring around 20 goals per season to signal his new-found form. That earned him a berth in France’s initial long-list of players for EURO 2008, but his run of bad luck was far from over. A starter as Les Bleus took on Ecuador in a warm-up encounter on 27 May, he was replaced by Bafetimbi Gomis at half-time and watched as the debutant struck both goals in a 2-0 win. The following day, Cisse was named as one of seven players left out of the final squad and quietly departed France’s training camp.
Back on the sidelines once again, Cisse struggled to keep his head up for the first time. “It hurt to no longer be a part of Les Bleus,” he said later. “I let myself go a bit.” Frozen out by Eric Gerets at Marseille, that August he set sail for Sunderland on a loan deal, hoping to rediscover his thirst for victory.
Back in the Premier League for a second spell, the switch produced the desired effect and, after returning to OM the following summer, Cisse opted for Panathinaikos. Since then, he has taken Greece by storm. “Not many people rated my chances, but here I am today,” he said. “I’m happy with my choice.” Indeed, top scorer in the Greek elite for 2009/10, he can also point proudly to winner’s medals in both the league and cup, as well as a return of 29 goals in 47 outings.
“I’m a firm believer in my World Cup chances,” he explained, clearly backed up by his performances this term. “If you judge me by my displays on the pitch alone, I’ve got every chance. I think I’ve done enough. If Domenech calls me up, I’ll do whatever he asks of me. He knows I’m hungry. If I only get to play for five minutes, I’ll give absolutely everything for those five minutes. He knows as well that a striker needs confidence. You get it by scoring goals and that’s what I’ve done this season.”
Cisse’s hopes of making the cut were given a boost when he was called up at the last minute to face Spain on 3 March, his first selection in two years. With nine goals to his name from 38 caps, he also comes with the added bonus of being one of the few French marksmen to have genuinely shone at club level over the past year. Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema have both struggled for playing time, Nicolas Anelka has been shunted out on to the wing for Chelsea and Pierre-Andre Gignac has been hit with a string of injuries.
Luck could, of course, abandon Cisse at the last moment yet again, but luck can also be earned through sheer effort. And having overcome so many obstacles down the years, surely he now merits a sizeable serving of good fortune.