Football is known as ‘the beautiful game’ by all of its devotees, but there are elements of the sport that are, in some contexts and to some people, wholeheartedly terrifying. During his prime years, Djibril Cissé was one of those elements, fused by a repertoire of attributes that left opposing fans and defenders equally helpless, equally useless, equally frightened at the prospect of facing him.
Be it the sharpness of his hair and beard combination, the exasperation in almost every facial expression or the cannon in his right foot, everything about the Frenchman’s on-pitch demeanour emanated fury. And still, his composure in front of goal was of a calibre that few possessed, right from his days of footballing juvenescence.
Upon Cissé’s arrival in Auxerre at the age of 15, Les Diplomates’ emblematic coach Guy Roux was entering his 35th season in charge, and yet, it’s safe to say he had never witnessed anything quite like the explosive centre forward in his ranks.
After monitoring his progress in the youth team that won the Coupe Gambardella in 1999, Roux gave his soon-to-be attacking protege his first taste of senior football aged 17, though it was apparent that Cissé wasn’t yet ready to become a first-team regular. Instead, his debut against Paris Saint-Germain was followed by 18 months of gradual, methodical development which proved to be a fruitful strategy for all concerned with the club, particularly the Arles-born attacker.
The 2000/01 season began in bizarre fashion for many at the club, who were accustomed to seeing one man occupying the dugout. Following Roux’s momentary retirement to a sporting director role, it was Daniel Rolland, whom Cissé had worked closely with during his ascent through the youth ranks, who granted him a first significant senior stint. A decision that soon paid prolific dividends. Along with strike partner Stéphane Guivarc’h, Auxerre’s new front two contributed 19 of the side’s 31 league goals, with Cissé netting eight in a largely mundane campaign that cried out for the return of Roux.
Photo: RMC Sport
Having played with the club from 1954 to 1957, before working as a player-manager from 1961 until hanging up his boots in 1970, Roux knew the club like the back of his hand. He was a man capable of not only fulfilling the team’s potential but doing so with a squad built from the top downwards with Cissé increasingly showing signs of becoming a well-refined, exceptionally sharp spearhead.
There is typically a distinct separation between the game plans seen in football fixtures to that of action film encounters. Take James Bond, for instance. Aided mostly by an anomalous arsenal of weaponry, a world-class talisman in his own field, so much so that he doesn’t need an Andrés Iniesta or a Trent Alexander-Arnold at his constant service.
Cissé was James Bond for Auxerre at times. Atypical in a footballing sense, but a worthy protagonist for Roux all on his own, on so many occasions throughout the years that followed. In the summer of 2001, Roux returned to his throne. For the most part of the 2001/02 season, he was accompanied by a renewed robustness, resemblant of his team that was crowned French league and cup champions in ‘96.
A year out appeared to be a healthy disruption from such a long-lasting routine, as the squad looked eager as ever to cement their place in Roux’s plans. Some failed to stake their claim whilst others showed glimpses of their value. Cissé, on the other hand, opened his account for the season in sumptuous fashion, making a mockery of the Stade Rennais defence on the opening day, scoring four in the process as they cruised to a 5-0 victory.
Just in case his not-so-new, new boss had any reason not to name him first in future elevens, a week later against PSG, he stood lurking in a packed-out penalty area. As ten or so others watched the ball carom off the crossbar, Cissé was already mid-flight, cocked back and ready to unleash a thunderous overhead kick past the flailing Lionel Letizi.
Although it was only enough to earn his side a point on the day, the audacity of his acrobatics and the ability shown in his first two displays under Roux were enough to cement a foreseeable first team spot comfortably.
After five goals in the opening two games, Cissé set the precedent for the rest of the team, leading Les Diplomates to a third-placed finish, scoring a staggering 22 league goals in 29 appearances at just 20 years of age, matched only by Bordeaux’s Pauleta.
Photo: AJ Auxerre
Irrespective of the curve of a delivery soaring in from 40 yards or the fizz of a five yard through ball, Cissé wielded a Sachin Tendulkar-esque bat on the end of his right leg; both poignantly powerful and alarmingly accurate in equal measure, leaving the opposition powerless to his poise and purpose in and around the box. This was illustrated not only by his ability to finish, but his ruthless, split-second decision making in the final third as a whole, and this was best demonstrated by that preposterous start to the season. It was the Rennes-Paris combination that once again provided the standout stint of Cissé’s next season.
After finishing behind Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League group, Auxerre were comfortably dispatched by Liverpool in the fourth round of the UEFA Cup. They finished sixth in the league, qualifying for next season’s UEFA Cup, and as a result, their only chance for silverware came in the Coupe de France.
Four rounds, three Cissé goals and zero top-flight opponents saw Roux and co. sail within one game of a trip to the Stade de France. Stade Rennais stood in their way, specifically Petr Čech from Cissé’s perspective, and it was two exceptional exhibits of athleticism that separated the two in the semi-final.
First was a test of speed and sangfroid as a slide rule pass sent Cissé racing through with Čech emerging. The Frenchman lofted the ball over the keeper with ease, but his work was far from complete as two defenders darted ahead of him with the ball trickling agonisingly slow and off course. But against all odds, it was the forward’s rangy leg that stretched furthest to steer his side ahead on the stroke of half-time.
Les Rouge et Noir equalised on the hour mark after Auxerre keeper Fabien Cool was anything but what his name might suggest, unless the weather in no man’s land was of stark contrast to the sun-stricken Stade de l’Abbe-Deschamps. And so it was down to the main man once more, left frustrated as chances went begging when Rennes were reduced to 10 men with 15 minutes to play.
As the game entered stoppage time, Benjani Mwaruwari’s deflected shot presented a scenario in which, again, Cissé had no right to prevail. Whilst the ball looped harmlessly into Čech’s clutches, from nowhere it seemed, the spring of the striker saw him somehow rise highest to nod home the winner past the dejected Czech.
Paris Saint-Germain were the only obstacle between Cissé and the first piece of silverware of his senior career. Though, on reflection, it was apparent that nothing or no one could stand in his way when he was at his best. Once again, it was the turn of Les Rouge et Bleu to commemorate a key moment in Cissé’s career, although a senior debut and an overhead kick would later appear insignificant in the wake of a Coupe de France final.
The game’s early stages saw PSG in complete control, with Auxerre’s most crucial take from the first half being that they were down by just a single goal. As the second half commenced, the Parisians looked more and more likely to double the deficit as the hour approached. But soon after, Roux’s men saw green in the red, held aloft of goalscorer Hugo Leal, and went full steam ahead to overturn the lead held by their 10-man opponents.
Ten minutes on from Leal’s dangerous high kick, a hopeful Johan Radet ball, innocuous at first glance, soon had Gabriel Heinze scrambling. As an acrobatic attempt from the Argentine missed by a whisker, and that outstretched Cissé right leg, so far extended, but still so in control, netted with trademark efficiency to put Auxerre level.
With fifteen left on the clock, nothing could separate two teams who had thrown down the gauntlet, sacrificing all strategy for stamina and desire to win as full-time neared. A golden opportunity for PSG’s Fabrice Fiorèse was squandered before a scramble in Les Rouge et Bleu’s box with a minute to go found Jean-Alain Boumsong in space with the goal, and the trophy in his grasp.
He made no mistake in crowning himself as the late hero, but it was Cissé’s strike that secured a momentum shift, and it was Cissé’s brilliance in the previous rounds that made another glorious chapter in Roux’s illustrious history possible.
Although this was the French forward’s only trophy at Auxerre, his moment in the sun from an outsider’s perspective, Cissé had achieved so much more during his three seasons as a first-team regular. The fact that, even in 2018, Roux continued to speak of Cissé’s incessant rise in relation to a certain Kylian Mbappé acknowledges the former’s greatness as much as the latter’s.
Roux admitted: “I often compare him [Mbappé] to Djibril. They are explosive, comfortable when they have spaces to devour and they finish well.” Considering the superior quality of Mbappé’s peers, even during his time in Monaco, using the Parisian phenom’s best attributes in comparison speaks volumes as to how good Cissé really was at Auxerre. That, of course, being without even mentioning his most prolific season at the club.
During his previous seasons in white and blue, the idea that a team largely made up of players with a UEFA Cup ceiling with a world-class talisman was arguable given the core strength of Roux’s side. From Philippe Mexès and Boumsong at the back to Olivier Kapo and Teemu Tainio in midfield, Auxerre possessed real quality throughout. However, for large parts of the 2003/04 season, it was clear that Cissé was a class above many of his associates.
His quality shone not only within the Auxerre team but within French football as a whole. In a campaign that saw Pauleta move to PSG at the peak of his powers and Didier Drogba emerge into the world-class bracket in his first and only season at Marseille, Cissé cruised to the golden boot award with 26 goals, followed closest by Alexander Frei’s 20 with Drogba and Pauleta scoring 19 and 18 respectively.
For some years prior, the unearthly power in Cissé’s right foot was known to many, but his ever-improving accuracy and composure was understated. The Auxerre all-time goalscoring record was earned emphatically by Cissé when he was just 23, as was his subsequent transfer to Liverpool, as he consistently obliterated French football over a three-year period. This was just the start for a boy with the potential and an on-pitch persona that was truly scary, and a long career at the top level, terrorising the world’s best defenders season after season was in the offing.
Unfortunately, he had to watch on through injury and inconsistency as Drogba collected the accolades, the worldwide scare factor, the career that was expected of the Cissé that will be forever etched in Auxerre folklore. At the time of his move from France; the titles, the glory, the legendary status that Drogba is now fondly remembered by, were all Cissé’s for the taking.
By: Brad Jones
Featured Image: @GabFoligno