A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Imagine playing each game as if it might well be your last. This is the life Nice goalkeeper Lionel Letizi has chosen for himself.
The 37-year-old, who made his professional debut back in 1992, finally plans to hang up his gloves at the end of the season. “I made the decision in October,” Letizi told France Football. “I have been thinking about it for four years. Each season, I ask myself about it. This time I felt that I wasn’t alright, that my body was making hard work of recovering from pre-season training.”
Nonetheless, his former protégé Hugo Lloris continues to find it remarkable that he is still around. “My grandfather brought me to Nice when I was 10,” the Lyon No.1 told L’Équipe. “Dominque Baratelli, the goalkeeper coach, was there and he said: ‘We’ll take him.’ Letizi was in the first team. It’s bizarre that today I am 23 and he is still the goalkeeper at Nice.” To put that into even greater perspective, Letizi made his debut for France against South Africa on October 11, 1997, the same evening as Thierry Henry.
The old man of the Stade du Ray follows a great tradition of Niçois goalkeepers, from Baratelli – another former France international – and Jérôme Alonzo to Damien Grégorini and of course Lloris. He is by now second choice to David Ospina and unless the cat-like Colombian international is injured, Letizi’s playing time is limited specifically to the Coupe de France. By extension, his retirement date has taken on the quality of a sudden death match.
Letizi - so old he played against Peter Beardsley...
“The more the season progresses, the more my time is running out,” Letizi explained. “When we started out in the Coupe de France back in January against Créteil, there were still five months of the competition left. Now there’s only a month to go. If we lose, it will all be over.” Fortunately, Letizi has a reputation as a cup specialist. As a relatively sprightly 26-year-old he made it to the Coupe de la Ligue final with Metz in 1999, only to lose 1-0 to a Lens side who were at the time in their pomp.
Success came a short while afterwards, however, with Paris Saint-Germain. Letizi lifted the Coupe de France twice in 2004 and 2006, and considering his former club are still very much in this year’s competition there has only been one thing on his mind. “To come full circle with a victory in the Cup against PSG. That would be fantastic.”
Knocking out Lyon in the last 16 underlined Nice’s credentials for an upset. “We are obliged to think about winning it even if we know that the obstacles will be tough,” Letizi smiled. “But after our match against Lyon we have a lot to be hopeful about.” Fatalistically, he started to imagine the scenes at the Stade de France on May 14. “I would like all my family to be in the stands – a final is rare… above all for Nice.”
League leaders Lille stood in the way of Letizi’s dream of bringing the Coupe de France back to Nice for the first time since 1997. But a shock defeat to Monaco and a draw at home to Bordeaux indicated that the nerves were beginning to get to Rudi Garcia’s side. Lille needed penalties to get past Nantes and Lorient in the earlier rounds, prompting some to question the Mastiffs’ pedigree in cup competitions.
Between 1945 and 1955, Lille reached seven finals and won five. Those were the club’s glory days under the mythical André Cheuva who shares the record for victories in the Coupe de France with Guy Roux.
Since then, however, they have only made the semi-finals twice, the last such occasion coming in 1985. Florent Balmont, the Lille midfielder who spent four years on the Côte d’Azur with the Eagles, wasn’t expecting an easy ride before Tuesday night’s game, not with his former team unbeaten in eight matches.
“I can confirm that it will be intense,” he said. “They have been waiting for this match for 15 days or so. We expect to get kicked a bit, but the referee will be there to do his job.” Balmont went off injured in the 33rd minute with a thigh ligament strain. Ironically, it proved the turning point. Garcia brought on Eden Hazard, the two-time young player of the year, who had single-handedly dismantled Nice at the Stade du Ray back in January when he provided Moussa Sow and Gervinho with assists in a 2-0 win.
It didn’t take long for the highly regarded Belgian starlet to make an impact. He exchanged a neat one-two with Ludovic Obraniak on the edge of the box, raced through on goal and fired a shot under Letizi’s crossbar just before the interval to deflate Nice and their veteran `keeper. Minutes after the break, the visitors ruthlessly struck again, this time with Gervinho beating a high-defensive line before taking the ball around Letizi to score his 15th goal of the season. At 2-0, it was game, set and match.
Nonetheless, Nice’s ultras - no doubt buoyed by the first full house at the Stade du Ray since 1990 - remained in full voice and sang songs in tribute of their idol. It was a wonderful gesture and Letizi was clearly moved, as barring injury to Ospina it looks likely to have been his last game in front of the home support.
“I would have loved to have retired at the Stade de France, but Nice’s journey in the Cup was interesting and I really loved it,” Letizi said after the match. “For me, the page has turned. Now I retain the hope of perhaps being able to play in the Championnat. If the team were to ensure its survival quickly and ask me to pull on the gloves again it would be a pleasure.
“I would like to thank my teammates again for having allowed me to experience this beautiful adventure and the fans for the reception they gave me this evening and for the ovation I got at the final whistle. It touched me.”
But as one dream ends another begins. PSG or Angers await Lille in their first Coupe de France final for 56 years. “I think that we are living a historic moment,” Garcia said. “It will be magic.” And if he manages to conjure a league and cup double it just might be the greatest trick in Lille’s history.
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