Before the Sweden and France group game on Tuesday there will be a minutes silence to commerate the memory of Thierry Roland. A legend of French broadcasting he sadly died in the early hours of Saturday morning. Jonathan Ervine remembers the great man.
The day after France’s 2-0 win against Ukraine at the European Championships, the mood at the national team’s press conference was tinged with sadness following the news that legendary French football commentator Thierry Roland had passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning. Roland, whose career as a journalist began as an eighteen year-old in 1955, was 74 years old and died after suffering a stroke. Many tributes have been paid by people within sport and media in France to a man who has been described by many as its country’s ‘voice of football’.
That such a phrase is employed should come as little surprise given that Roland commentated on 13 World Cups and 9 European Championships. Indeed, the fact that many of these took place before the birth of Canal Plus and the more regular television broadcast of live football matches in France in part helps to explain how he became such a well-established figure. For approximately a quarter of a century, Roland formed a well-known television commentary duo alongside former Saint-Étienne and France midfielder Jean-Michel Larqué. Larqué’s often-repeated phrase “tout à fait, Thierry” (“exactly, Thierry”) became immortalised by the satirical latex puppets on Les Guignols, France’s equivalent of Spitting Image. Roland and Larqué’s commentaries often possessed a degree of warmth and familiarity almost akin to a conversation between two football fanatics in a café, and the nature of Roland’s enthusiasm – and tone of some of his comments – sometimes created controversy.
In articles in the French press following his death, certain well-known quotations have been frequently evoked. One of the most famous was “Mr. Foote, vous êtes un salaud” (“Mr. Foote, you are a bastard”) that was Roland’s televised live on air reaction to a Scottish referee awarding a penalty against France during a match away to Bulgaria in 1976. After the penalty was struck wide of France’s right-hand post, Roland was quick to herald the event as evidence that there was a God. Following Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ goal against England for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup quarter final in Mexico, Roland asked during his commentary why such an important match was being officiated by a Tunisian. He subsequently apologised to both the referee and the Tunisian people. In 2002, Roland caused further controversy during a match between France and South Korea when he pronounced the following words “Il n’y a rien qui ressemble plus à un Coréen qu’un autre Coréen, surtout habillés en footballeurs, d’autant qu’ils mesurent tous 1,70 m, qu’ils sont tous bruns, à part le gardien” (“Nothing looks like a Korean more than another Korean, in particular when dressed as footballers, especially as they are all 5 foot 7 tall and are all brown-haired, apart from the goalkeeper”).
Speculations as to where Roland’s political sympathies lay were further nourished by a 1997 interview that he gave to the far right newspaper Présent and in which he said of the Front National’s founder and long-time leader “C’est vrai que [Jean-Marie] Le Pen est un peu excessif, mais c’est vrai qu’il y a certains points sur lesquels je suis d’accord avec lui” (“It is true that [Jean-Marie] Le Pen is a bit excessive, but it is true that there are certain subjects concerning which I agree with him”).
The fact that Roland, who claimed that the interview with Présent had been a set-up, had such longevity in the commentary box first with French radio and then television meant that many saw him as an authoritative reference point on French football. His partnership with Jean-Michel Larqué, a member of Saint-Étienne’s legendary team of the 1970s, helped to enhance the sense of tradition and nostalgia that his presence evoked.
When France won the World Cup in 1998, Roland proclaimed live on air that event mean that it would be possible to die happy. The fact that he has now passed away has left many fans, players and fellow journalists feeling a sense of loss and many have referred to him as a significant figure who has marked their careers. Louis Saha has said on Twitter that “sports lovers will always live with the memories of his commentaries” and Samir Nasri similarly paid tribute to a man whose commentaries had been a defining part of his childhood. For Laurent Blanc, French football has now lost “an encyclopedia” a man “who knew everything”. Roland, who wrote many books about football, will doubtlessly remain a major reference point for those who grew up listening to his broadcasts.