Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne. The Englishman receives the ball inside the opposition half and embarks on a purposeful run towards the goal in front of the Tribune Charles Paret. He is with new company in unfamiliar surroundings but, with the ball at his feet, he is reassured to find that the sensations are the same. Defenders disappear in his slipstream before a body-swerve takes him past another opponent and into the penalty area. With one sweep of his right foot, a new chapter in his life begins.
Michael Owen, 1998. Joe Cole, 2011. Two English players have experienced life-changing moments at Le Chaudron, home of Saint-Etienne. For Owen it was that goal against Argentina; for Cole, a dazzling dribble culminating in an assist for Ludovic Obraniak on his Lille debut in September.
If the comparison is apt, the context is very different. Owen was 18 when he left the Argentine defence for dead, but he was on the threshold of a career that, though sprinkled with trophies, never quite hit the giddy heights to which it aspired. Cole’s career appeared to be stagnating too but at 29, his move to France has revitalised him. If Owen’s goal represented the beginning of his professional life, Cole’s Geoffroy-Guichard moment was a re-birth.
While Owen is content to sit on the bench at Manchester United, insistent that last year’s Premier League title represented the “pinnacle” of his career, Cole – two years Owen’s junior – has put his reputation on the line by turning his back on the comfort of the domestic scene. Lille president Michel Seydoux confessed his surprise at his club’s success in luring a star from the Premier League, admitting that “seen from England, French football is a bit like the Third World”. Cole, though, had long been intrigued by the challenge of pitching himself into a foreign championship. “Sometimes I feel if I’d been born in a Latin country I may have been coached better to play as a number 10,” he once told Champions magazine.
He has already encountered fresh challenges in Ligue 1, which is the lowest-scoring championship of Europe’s five major leagues. The notorious parsimoniousness of defences in the French top flight means that that Cole and his Lille team-mates are frequently confronted by well-organised sides content to defend the edge of their own penalty area in the hope of snatching a point against the reigning champions. “The tempo of the game doesn’t change in the final third, the urgent part of the pitch where defenders still shut you down,” Cole told The Guardian last month. “But, sometimes, teams drop off and we get to be a bit more patient in our build-up. You have to be cleverer with your movement.”
Such freshly acquired cleverness can only bolster Cole’s chances of an international recall. The Premier League may be enjoying an unprecedented goalscoring boom at the moment but the fêted cut and thrust of the English elite is far from ideal preparation for the cagey cautiousness of international tournament football. England’s biggest problem at recent World Cups has been a persistent inability to sow disarray in the defences of lesser teams (see Algeria, Slovenia in 2010, Trinidad and Tobago in 2006), but that is scarcely surprising when all of England’s players play in a league that defends and attacks with such abandon.
Cole has yet to be granted the classic number 10 role that he covets but despite being deployed as a nominal wide midfielder in Lille’s customary 4-3-3, he tends to spend most of his time patrolling the inside-right and inside-left channels. With Eden Hazard operating in similar fashion on the opposite flank, it has nudged Lille’s shape towards a 4-3-2-1 and the two creative players have quickly established a rapport. Both men look for each other more than any of their other team-mates and their understanding was evident in the 3-1 win at Auxerre last month, when Cole, on as a second-half substitute, created the breakthrough goal for Ireneusz Jeleń following a slick double one-two with Hazard.
It is no surprise that a country that has produced such artisans as Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane should prize technical ability in a footballer above anything else, but what has really charmed France’s football-watching public has been Cole’s eagerness to throw himself into the French way of life. He agreed to interview himself in French on the Lille website two weeks ago and gamely attempted to conduct a post-match interview in the language of Molière after the recent 3-1 win at home to Lyon, telling Canal+’s pitchside reporter, former Saint-Etienne forward Laurent Paganelli: “Bon match pour… my team – mon équipe – et… I’m very happy!”
Cole’s struggles at Liverpool prompted some uncharitable sneering in the UK, as if it was somehow his fault for having had the temerity to aspire to impose himself as a playmaker at one of the world’s grandest clubs. He has found nothing but approval in France, however, where the fans are simply pleased to see a reversal in their one-way relationship with a country that has been cherry-picking their finest players for the past 20 years. In nine games, Cole has scored three goals, including two in his last three appearances, and standing ovations have become par for the course whenever he is substituted at Stade Villeneuve d’Ascq.
That Cole’s first significant contribution in Lille red was a pass to a Polish international seems appropriate, given that it was partly his ambition to secure a ticket to Poland and Ukraine next summer that encouraged him to take the plunge across the Channel. Only Fabio Capello knows how much closer Cole’s sojourn in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais has pushed him to regaining a place in the England squad, but in any case, his career is already richer for it.