Pitchside Europe

‘Big Mac’ Gignac bites back

André Pierre-Gignac is no stranger to ridicule. Opposition fans — particularly from Paris Saint-Germain — are fond of chanting 'Un Big Mac, pour Gignac!', while satirical television programme Les Guignols (France's answer to Spitting Image) used to make recurrent barbs about the striker's weight. One episode even portrayed him as the man responsible for the sudden death of Paul the Octopus after the 2010 World Cup, with a puppet version of Didier Deschamps solemnly explaining: "André-Pierre has acquired a taste for seafood."

It's not helped that he has belly-flopped spectacularly since joining Marseille from Toulouse in 2010. Prior to the start of the current campaign he had mustered just nine league goals in 51 appearances, but this season the worm finally seems to be turning. After three games, OM are unexpectedly top of the division, and it was thanks to Gignac's winning goal at champions Montpellier on Sunday that they got there. Injury to Loïc Rémy has afforded him a starting berth and, with two goals to his name, he has already surpassed his tally from last term.

A childhood Marseille fan from the Provençale town of Martigues, Gignac has had to endure a litany of disappointments since joining the club. Injuries mean he has been unable to claim a regular starting role and his early struggles at Stade Vélodrome prevented him from holding onto his place in the France squad after Laurent Blanc succeeded Raymond Domenech as coach of Les Bleus.

It might have been easier to bear had the on-pitch problems not been accompanied by off-pitch humiliation. His enforced enrolment in a weight-loss programme in the Italian spa town of Merano last year was not exactly conducive to shaking off the 'Big Mac' tag. The final day of the 2011 summer transfer window, meanwhile, found him loitering in west London with his agent, hoping to join Fulham on loan, only to be recalled to France at the 11th hour (quite literally) after Marseille failed to unearth the big-name striker destined to be his replacement.

Gignac admitted that the experience had left a "bitter taste" and vowed to come back "10 times stronger", but he reached rock-bottom in his Marseille career last November when a training-ground row with Deschamps saw him dropped from the squad and forced to train with the reserves. Even Marseille's extraordinary run of 12 games without a win in all competitions was not enough for Gignac to break into the first team and he had to wait until May to score his one and only goal of the campaign.

He refused to be deterred, however — even tweeting a link to a picture that made light of his infamous nickname — and with a full pre-season behind him, he has emerged as the unlikely inspiration behind Marseille's revival under new coach Elie Baup. His £250,000-a-month salary makes him OM's most handsomely remunerated player, but where he was once an emblem of the club's ill-considered excesses, he has come to symbolise their hopes of renewal. The cost of renovating the Vélodrome and the drop in earnings caused by last season's 10th-place finish means that Marseille have been able to sign just one player — 23-year-old forward Florian Raspentino, from Nantes — and their chances of success this season will depend on their thin squad digging deep and following Gignac's example.

"To be successful, you need a bit of luck. I've not had much. The tide is turning, and it feels good," he told fan website lephoceen.fr after Sunday's game at Stade de la Mosson.
"The most important thing is that we have nine points. Even if it's just anecdotal, we're on top of the table. We have to take things match by match, not asking ourselves too many questions and not looking too far forwards. That's our strength at the moment."

The question now is how long Gignac can keep hold of his place in the first team. The 26-year-old is fit, and lean, and scoring, but Rémy has recovered from his thigh injury and Gignac may not remain in the starting XI unless his team-mate is sold before the transfer window closes.

For now, at least, he's even keeping Zlatan Ibrahimović in the shade. And for once, that's not a joke about his size.

Based in Paris and working for Agence France-Presse, Tom Williams will be blogging for us on all matters Ligue 1 throughout the season.