“You can’t win titles without a great goalkeeper.” It was a phrase used by legendary Germany shot-stopper Oliver Kahn when he was interviewed by FIFA in 2010, hailing the importance of each team’s last line of defence. They are the ones who must reassure the backline, who must be constantly aware of the play and the placement of their team-mates. And when they are the captain of their side, they are all the more important, as is the case with Hugo Lloris for France.
On Sunday, the Tottenham star will become France's most-capped skipper, beating the previous record of present head coach Didier Deschamps, who achieved 55 matches in this role.
The Nice-born goalkeeper has an important function in harmonising the dressing room. He is the eyes and ears of the coach without compromising the confidence of the group; such is the job of the captain.
“He’s a man of great humility, of great respect,” FFF president Noel Le Graet told the press on Wednesday. “He’s someone who always performs, is courteous, behaves in an exemplary manner and is high in the estimation of the FA, the staff, but most importantly the players. He doesn’t speak for the sake of it, but when he must. He’s always reflecting. He’s not an exuberant person. He’s at ease in his role.”
If his captaincy of the side has often been question, his record points to the contrary. The former Lyon ace, who will revisit the city on Sunday, prefers to keep his words for the squad.
“I have confidence in Didier Deschamps to speak to the press,” Jeremie Janot, who played against Lloris in Ligue 1 with Saint-Etienne, explained. “Frankly, he has been a captain all his life, so he knows the role and the qualities he must give to the team.”
Nice academy director Alain Wathelet was one of those who helped to launch Lloris’ career and is not surprised by the trajectory his ascent has taken. “He’s a leader in the dressing room,” he said. “He did not speak much when he was young, but when he did, everyone listened, even if he was not the captain here. He was wise, but he could yell when he needed to.”
For Lionel Letizi, who was displaced as Nice No.1 by the young goalkeeper, he thinks Lloris’ captaincy can be explained by his qualities on the field, too. “I believe he’s at his maximum,” the former Rangers man said. “I think he’s going to stay as an international for a very long time, a little like Buffon. This would have been in a corner of his mind since he played with the Under-21s.
“There are two kinds of goalkeeper: those who are proactive and those who suffer,” Janot said. “Hugo is in the first bracket. He doesn’t hesitate to leave his line for the penalty spot.”
It’s a style that was constructed at Nice, where his brother Gautier, a centre-back, still plays, never far from his banker father but without a mother who died in 2008.
“The first time I saw Hugo, it was at Cedac de Cimiez,” Wathelet said. “I went to see the match because there was a player I had to watch. He came to us at Under-15 level but was then very quickly moved up to U17.”
Starting in the academy was an unusual experience for a player who hadn’t taken a conventional route into football.
“His schooling was a little strange because there was no possibility of completing his baccalaureate through the academy at that time,” Wathelet continued. “So he went to the high school that faced the training centre. He trained alone in the evenings as a result. It was difficult because he couldn’t work specifically. He might have been even better otherwise.
“I would take two poles and I would shoot at him, so we started like that.”
Some characteristics of his game have been retained. Lloris is not a “technically perfect goalkeeper”, his saves are not the most beautiful, but he is undeniably effective.
“With the U-19s we went for an entire season unbeaten and it was thanks to him,” Wathelet smiled. “I was afraid that he might not be able to make it as a professional because of his lack of technique. I defended him and said that this guy could become an international. When he was in a match, he was he was invincible. He would take two or three goals a season because of his weaknesses, but he would save his team 10 times a game.” At this time, Lloris kept very close threads who he visited when he had time off, but particularly Marine, who would become his wife.
Wathelet was right. In 2005, Lloris took his first steps as a professional against Chateauroux in the Coupe de la Ligue playing for Nice. It was at this stage of his career he met Letizi, another graduate of the academy, but one who had returned to the side to retire.
“I came back from Rangers in 2007 and discovered a gentle guy, who got on well with people,” he said. “He had everything he required to have a great career. Thereafter in Lyon, he worked hard with the ball at his feet, and that allowed him to continue his progression. In England, he has again developed thanks to playing in the Premier League, which has made him become a little more physical.”
Lloris has never made the headlines in a newspaper because of non-sporting reasons. Calm in front of the media, calm in his way of life, he takes on another persona in the dressing room. For the goalkeeper, the squad in which he plays represents his family, which he would never compromise.
Now 29, Lloris might have chosen the path of a more illustrious career - that is for certain.
“His list of titles does not represent his quality,” Wathelet argued. “That’s logical because Tottenham are not a club that plays at the highest level each year.”
Jeremie Janot added: “I always took former back-up at Barcelona, Jose Pinto, as an example. His list of honours was huge, but he doesn’t have as much talent as Lloris has in his toe.”
France cannot ask for more at the moment. On July 10, in the Euro 2016 final, his talents could make the difference. If he had that trophy under his belt, no longer would people criticise his lack of titles.