A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Sat in the corner of a bar, watching the game, Ludovic Giuly stood up and started to undo his shirt one button at a time. It wasn’t long before the above mentioned item of clothing was being swung over his head; the famous hips that had fooled one top-class defender after another in France, Spain and Italy were now writhing away in saucy abandon.
This wasn't a last tango in Paris, rather an impromptu striptease. Someone shouted “allez.” No one shouted “encore.” Everyone simply felt awkward. Giuly could certainly forget about finding any notes tucked into the waistband of his white boxers.
Admittedly, it’s not uncommon for footballers to give away one of their shirts. This, however, was neither the time nor the place. Fans of Roma saw glimmers of Giuly the dancer during his one season in Serie A, namely a goal celebration called the Tecktonik, a kind of Sharpey shuffle on speed. Is it any wonder Luciano Spalletti decided to sell him?
Judging by this performance, the 34-year-old was now finished as a footballer. The days when Giuly inspired Monaco to the Champions League final and later won the competition with Barcelona seemed very much in the past. Throughout the previous season, the tricky winger had argued with Paris Saint-Germain’s cantankerous coach Antoine Kombouaré. At a pre-season training camp in the United States, Giuly was even told he could leave. Bad times.
A place on the bench looked like the best he could hope for, but the colourful little character stayed on at the Parc des Princes regardless. The signing from Monaco of Nenê, the naturally left-sided player that PSG had long been missing, meant that Stéphane Sessegnon could finally return to his preferred place on the right flank, the flank where Giuly played.
Now aged 26, the mercurial Benin international had played all last season out of position and his form had suffered accordingly. Though it was hard to shine in an unbalanced team that finished in 13th place amid great unrest both in and around the club, Sessegnon looked a shadow of the player who had joined PSG from Le Mans in a transfer worth €8.5m two and a half years ago. “Stéphane wasn’t good and he knows it,” Kombouaré said.
The explosive and instinctive football Sessegnon demonstrated during his first six months at the Parc, such as when he memorably dribbled into the corner flag during a League Cup quarter-final against Lens and bunny-hopped past three defenders, had drawn knee-jerk comparisons with another iconic PSG No 10 from Africa: the richly talented Nigerian Jay-Jay Okocha.
France’s appetite had been whet. Back then Sessegnon deservedly featured in the Ligue 1 Team of the Season. Now he had to recapture that form – and the early indications were promising. Two step-overs done at pace during a friendly against Sporting Lisbon in July left Leandro Grimi with a severe case of twisted blood. The Argentine full-back fell so awkwardly it was initially feared that Sessegnon had somehow induced a leg break.
He would dazzle effervescently in PSG’s Ligue 1 opener too, inspiring a tub-thumping 3-1 win at home to Saint-Étienne which sent the Parisians top of the table just weeks after the club’s 40th birthday. Sessegnon was a constant menace and could lay claim to having scored his side’s second goal, hitting a stunning scissor kick from the edge of the box which hit the post, bounced out, then struck the diving Jérémie Janot’s hand and went in.
Since then, however, it has been downhill for the player. Sessegnon suffered an injury while on international duty with Benin in September and lost his place to Giuly. Try as he may, there was no getting back in the starting XI as PSG went on an eight-match and then a 13-match unbeaten run. They climbed to second in Ligue 1 and were conceding fewer goals without him in the side. Sessegnon’s teammates were surprised. “Often when a player is missing, another takes his place and you don’t see the difference,” Christophe Jallet said.
By December, Sessegnon had started just four times. He had played a miserable 559 minutes and warming the bench was evidently becoming too much to bear for a player who had attracted significant interest from a string of Premier League clubs during the summer. So on the eve of PSG’s trip to Nancy on December 22, Sessegnon and his agent Rudy Raba decided to meet Kombouaré to request a transfer. Interviewed in L’Équipe the following day, he recalled his extraordinary version of events.
“I told him that I would like to leave. He responded that I would not be leaving, that I was important to his group. I stayed calm. I understood his position, but he didn’t understand mine. He got angry, and it went beyond the simple scenario of a manager not wanting to let a player go. He hurt me through what he said and how he behaved.
"Basically, the coach insulted me. I don’t think it’s right for a coach to call one of his players a f**ker, a s**t player, as he did with me. That's what he said to me, I’m not going to hide it. In these conditions it seems impossible to me to keep playing in Paris. Impossible… It’s gone too far. I had so much respect for him. What he said to me profoundly hurt me.”
Much like Hatem Ben Arfa did at Marseille in the summer, Sessegnon effectively went on strike. He didn’t report for training at Camp des Loges, nor did he join PSG in Marrakech for a winter break. It was a stand-off, and it would prove lengthy.
“I won’t talk about the absentees... who are still wrong,” Kombouaré sneered. He had earlier denied the allegations that lay at his door. Things were showing no sign of improving. “I am a victim,” Sessegnon cried. Yes, a victim reportedly earning nearly €5,000 a day during the whole affair.
“We can’t say that we haven’t spoken about it between ourselves,” said PSG defender Sylvain Armand. “We have asked him to come back. He’s a lad who we all appreciate a lot in the group, who brings his joie de vivre, and we need him to play on all fronts.” Veteran goalkeeper Grégory Coupet agreed. “We are just sad not to see Stéphane. We have bombarded him with texts telling him to come back.”
In the meantime, Sunderland had tabled an offer said to be worth €5m while Everton apparently asked to have the player on loan. Both were branded “ridiculous”, partly because PSG stood to make a loss on their original investment. The club didn’t want to sell. Colony Capital, PSG’s majority shareholder, had claimed that there would be no departures and no arrivals. Club president Robin Leproux told reporters: “Stéphane is part of the family. Giuly can’t do 90 minutes like he did against Sochaux. We are not working on the hypothesis of his exit. He will be with us on January 31.”
It was time for rapprochement. PSG’s general manager Philippe Boindrieux and their head of recruitment Alain Roche held clear-the-air talks, but to no avail. Then, without warning, a little before 10.45am last Thursday, Sessegnon returned to training. The strike had lasted a little less than a month.
“I learned that he was here on my arrival this morning,” Kombouaré said. “It is very good news. But no one has won. He is here. He is happy to train. It works for me. Stéphane is back to work. When you have a written and ethical contract, you see it through right until the end.”
The suspicion, however, was that Sessegnon’s return had been strategic. L’Équipe wondered whether Sunderland could have suggested it in concert with his agent to appease PSG. What happened next only fueled the conspiracy theories.
Sessegnon was sent to the Pitié-Salpêtriére hospital with club doctor Éric Rolland for some tests. “It turns out he is suffering from a fever which needs at least three days' treatment and rest,” Kombouaré said. When asked to reveal the exact nature of the fever, he replied: “It’s confidential.”
Sessegnon’s entourage was surprised. The player’s team-mates had also noted how “sharp” he was after a 30-day hiatus. After all, it wasn’t as if Sessegnon was out of shape. He had been training regularly with the coach of Olympic hurdler Ladji Doucouré. Needless to say, you didn’t have to be Hamlet to see that something was still rotten in the city of Paris.
The plot twisted once more this week. Sessegnon was absent from training on Wednesday and then Thursday. Le Parisien were sure he was in the north-east of England negotiating a three-and-a-half-year deal with Sunderland. The Black Cats’ made another offer yesterday, thought to be around €5.8m. It was rebuffed. But PSG are now resigned to losing Sessegnon and the club will apparently listen to offers. A deal is expected by the weekend.
“I am very happy and looking forward to my Premier League career,” Sessegnon told Sky Sports. “It is a dream come true and I want to show my value to Sunderland.” Meanwhile, Kombouaré and Leproux have lost face in front of PSG’s supporters and this morning’s L’Équipe makes embarrassing reading for the pair. “Sessegnon wins his battle,” it claims. Who, though, will win the war?
PSG’s title challenge could rest on what they do in the next five days. They have been linked with Saint-Étienne star Dimitri Payet, Nancy’s Marama Vahirua and Anderlecht’s Jonathan Legear. Only one thing is certain, though, and that’s fireworks. The more likely outcome, however, especially for a club with just two top five finishes in the last decade, is implosion.
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