Gignac at Tigres: The Mexican adventure that’s turned him into a god

In the summer of 2015, Andre-Pierre Gignac had a choice to make. After a brilliant season under Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille, his fifth and last at l’OM, Gignac’s contract was up.

Gignac was 29 and, despite being out of French national team picture, in the form of his life. He had just netted 21 goals in Ligue 1, finishing behind only Alexandre Lacazette in the goalscoring charts.

There were plenty of options to continue in a strong European league. Inter Milan wanted him to lead the line at the San Siro. Napoli tried to bring him in, as did Galatasaray. Lyon also made their interest clear. If it was money he wanted, an offer from Saudi Arabia was on the table.

Then came the reports. Gignac was not staying in Europe, nor moving to western Asia. Instead, he was set sign for Tigres UANL.

Tigres UANL? In Mexico? What?

It is easy for us, in our western European footballing bubble, to cast aspersions, to look down our noses when players make choices that are not deemed the ‘right’ ones. The contract at Tigres was a healthy one, but not more than he’d make elsewhere.

So here was Gignac at his peak, the apex of his footballing and earning powers, foregoing money and the limelight to play in a league that we don’t know, we don’t watch and, frankly, most of us don’t care about.

Was he running away from the pressure, away from the bright glare of the very top level? Given that he had been left out of the France World Cup squad a year prior, rejected by Didier Deschamps – who had once referred to him as a “dead weight” – for Les Bleus, there were plenty who made that assumption.

But that would be to do a disservice to Gignac’s intentions.

“We’re going to do big things,” he wrote on Twitter upon his arrival in the city of San Nicolas de los Garza, where Tigres are based. “I’m very happy, I’ve come to win the league and the Libertadores,” he added upon his presentation.

Gignac was serious. He could already speak Spanish and he’d brushed up on Liga MX – which is stronger than you might think. He was genuinely interested in his new surroundings, unfazed by the stereotypes of the country found in films and on TV.

He was there to stay, he was there to score, and he was there to succeed.

Now into his sixth season with the club, Gignac has 147 goals in 246 appearances, he’s lifted eight domestic trophies and one continental crown – though not the Libertadores, we’ll come to why soon – and on Thursday night in Doha he will have the chance to make Tigres champions of the world.

Having beaten Ulsan Hyundai 2-1 in the quarter-final and Palmeiras 1-0 in the semi – Gignac scoring all three of his side’s goals, of course – the Mexicans will face all-conquering Bayern Munich in the Club World Cup final. Already an eternal idol in San Nicolas, he could become a god.

If Tigres do win, it would be a fitting closing chapter in a love story that has been intense form the start.

When Gignac first arrived in Mexico, he was not given time to settle gently. Instead, as his interview upon his presentation suggested, Tigres were at the business end of a Copa Libertadores campaign.

Los Felinos had built a strong squad for their long-serving Brazilian coach Tuca Ferretti – money from cement manufacturers Cemex attracting South American internationals like Rafael Sobis, Nahuel Guzman, Guido Pizarro and Egidio Arevalo Rios – and battled their way through to the last four. Gignac’s debut came in the most difficult of games, away to Brazil’s Internacional in the first leg of the semi-final.

Tigres lost 2-1, but they still stood a good chance of progressing. And in front of a packed Estadio Universitario a week later, Gignac delivered. After 17 minutes, he rose highest in the area to meet a looping cross and head powerfully past a 22-year-old Alisson.

Tigres were two up by half-time and went on to win 3-1, putting them into the final against River Plate. That proved one step too far for the Mexicans, Marcelo Gallardo’s River ending Tigres Libertadores hopes with a 3-0 aggregate win. Yet it was just the start of a brilliant, emotional spell of successes and near misses.

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READ: The magic of Marcelo Gallardo: Loved by Pep, Barca links, so why still River?

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In the Mexican league, Gignac hit the ground running like he had in the Libertadores, scoring a hat-trick against Jaguares de Chiapas in August and the second of Tigres’ three in the Clasico de Regiomontano against local rivals Monterrey.

By December, he had won his first Mexican title, the 2015 Apertura. He followed that up by winning the Campeon dos Campeones trophy in 2016 as well as the Bola D’Oro awarded to the best player in Mexico.

Deschamps could no longer ignore him. Despite his previous comments, the boss called him up as France prepared for the Euros in 2016.

In the lead up to the tournament, Gignac told France Football: “There is no animosity between us. [Deschamps] is a man of integrity… He showed it when he asked me back into the French national team.”

France, despite going in as favourites, lost to Portugal in the final – and Gignac was reserve to Olivier Giroud. But he did play in six of France’s games and on a personal level, it must have felt like redemption after the rejection that came before and justification of his decision to move to Tigres.

Back at his club, where Gignac was already becoming a favourite of the impassioned fanbase, there were more accolades to come, both individual and collective. They won the Apertura in 2016 and 2017 and the Clausura in 2019. All the time, he was finding the net. Thirty-three in his first season, then 26, 21 and 24.

Finally, in August 2019, Gignac broke the all-time Tigres goalscoring record with his 105th for the club. To honour the occasion, club directors announced they would build a statue of him outside the ground.

Before kick-off in the next game, fans displayed a French flag mosaic and he was serenaded by a 105-person strong mariachi band on the pitch, who played a number called ‘El Rey’ – ‘The King’. Gignac repaid the love shown to him by banging in a hat-trick in the opening 23 minutes.

Mixed in among the success, though, was some frustration. Tigres were desperate for a continental crown to go alongside their domestic titles, but it would not come. The Libertadores was no longer a possibility – Mexican teams withdrew following a reformulation of the competition in 2017 – and the CONCACAF Champions League was not a happy hunting ground.

In 2016 and 2017, Tigres lost successive Champions League finals to domestic opposition in America and Pachuca. In 2018, they went out on away goals to Toronto FC and in 2019 lost another final to Monterrey, after which Gignac said he would not retire until he won “that damn trophy”.

2020 would finally prove his year. It started well, Gignac scoring a stunning Puskas contender in March that reminded the rest of the world of his continued brilliance.

And as the months passed, Tigres progressed through the Champions League again, crushing New York City FC in the quarters and Olimpia of Honduras in the semis to set up a final with Carlos Vela’s LAFC.

Gignac was an injury doubt, but he wasn’t going to miss this for anything. He did not put in his best performance, but he battled through and, six minutes from time, slotted home expertly from 19 yards to win the game.

Afterwards, he shouted: “Por fin ganamos esa pinche copa muchachos!” Finally, we’ve won this fucking cup, lads!

It clearly meant the world.

And it is that win that booked their ticket to the Club World Cup, where, aged 35, Gignac can now top off his magnificent Mexican adventure.

A move to Tigres was not what was expected of him, but he clearly doesn’t care for expectations. Indeed, by the standards, of modern football, he is an unconventional star. He doesn’t particularly care for the high life, which may well be down to his upbringing.

“I come from a family of Spanish Gypsies,” he told So Foot in 2009. “But I’ve been adopted by the Manouches [French Romani people]. I grew up with them, my wife is Manouche so my son is automatically Manouche.

“My family live in caravans and work in the markets. When I get given clothes, I pass them on to my mother-in-law so she can sell them. Sometimes I go with her and stand behind the stall.

“Gypsies like big parties. They make enough food for 100, even if there are only 30 people. We eat and drink a lot, play games and go hunting.”

On the pitch, he is atypical, too. He doesn’t have the most athletic physique, perhaps owing to those parties. He is a centre-forward, but then again he isn’t. Not really.

He roams and drifts, getting involved and spraying passing long, raking passes to the wingers. He is a great goalscorer, a scorer of great goals and he can control a game in the way you’d expect a silken-touched central midfielder to.

For all of those things, Tigres’ fanatical following love him. And by choosing to follow the path less trodden, he has found glory, adoration and most importantly, happiness.

Bayern might have the current best player in the world in Robert Lewandowski. But Tigres have their very own talismanic striker.

And on Thursday night in Qatar’s Education City Stadium, the German champion’s defence will have a job on their hands as they look to hold him at bay.

By Joshua Law

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