CHAMPIONSGATE, United States â€” Think of a European player at Toronto FC. Now think of swerving free kicks, long-range rockets and deft touches that leave defenders gasping for air before the goalkeeper picks the ball out of the net.
Sebastian Giovinco, right?
Try veteran French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou, whose gilt-edged resume sometimes gets forgotten on this side of the Atlantic. For anyone needing a reminder, check out his montage of Olympique Marseille goals on YouTube.
There is the beauty against Bordeaux when Cheyrou chests down a ball at the edge of the six-yard box, angles his body back to make room and then lashes the ball home with a left foot as he falls to the ground. He goes one better against Paris Saint-Germain, taking a header just inside the penalty box, using his left foot to nutmeg a defender before beating the goalkeeper with his right.
Watching the video, the 35-year-old Cheyrou jokes that most of his highlights came before YouTube â€” in the era of black-and-white TV.
“It’s not my job actually to score,” said Cheyrou. “Sometimes the team needs it, I try to help. But it’s not my job.”
These days the Frenchman is elegant cover for Toronto captain Michael Bradley, with the intelligence to break up plays and the vision to launch attacks. But he can still produce a goal when his team needs it.
He did it in style in the 96th minute of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against Montreal, just two minutes after coming on for a cramping Giovinco with the series tied 5-5 on aggregate.
It’s a goal worth revisiting. Bradley finds Jozy Altidore who, closed down by a Montreal player, contorts his brawny body to send the ball out to Steven Beitashour on the right flank. Beitashour uses some fancy footwork to create space from his defender and send a perfect left-footed cross that a diving Cheyrou â€” with a defender draped all over him â€” heads into the net.
“One of my greatest moments, for sure,” Cheyrou said.
He turned heads again with fewer watching recently in a 6-1 pre-season win over Miami. Playing defensive midfielder, he saw a crease in the opposition ranks and surged forward. As the ball came to him, he took a touch and shifted his body weight to get the ‘keeper leaning before beating him with a left-footed flick to the back post.
“The goalkeeper has no idea what’s going on,” marvelled Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
Cheyrou moves with grace, his feet like feathers. He reads the game beautifully. And he can deposit a pass on a dime 50 yards down the field.
Cheyrou’s value is not only felt on game days, however. Vanney credits the Frenchman for driving and organizing the so-called scout team at practice as it drills the starting 11, forcing Bradley and company to excel.
Cheyrou comes from Colombes, a northwest suburb of Paris. Several generations of Cheyrous played soccer for the venerable Racing Club de Paris and Benoit, growing up 500 metres from its stadium, was no different.
He learned his football there, as well as a dislike for rival PSG.
He was with the club from six to 16 before moving to Lille’s academy. He graduated to the senior side at 18, spending five years in the north of France.
Cheyrou has fond memories of Lille. It was his start as a pro and he helped the club win promotion to the French top-flight. A year later, the club qualified for the Champions League.
“It was a very quick learning,” he said. “So intense.”
Cheyrou left for Auxerre when Lille coach Claude Puel, now in charge of England’s Southampton, told him he was no longer needed. A month later he got a call from Guy Roux, the legendary coach of Auxerre, saying he had an opening due to injury.
He spent “three amazing years” at Auxerre, confirming he belonged at the highest level. With Cheyrou, Auxerre won the French Cup in 2005, Roux’s 44th and last year at Auxerre’s helm.
Cheyrou moved to Marseille in 2007 in a five-million-euro (C$7 million) deal that sent a player the other way.
Founded in 1899, Olympique Marseille has history. And the fans who come to the 67,000-capacity Orange Velodrome have high expectations.
“Marseille is a special place for players,” Cheyrou said. “You can grow up fast (there). But you can be destroyed by the environment there â€” (There’s) a lot of pressure.”
Players are under the microscope. Unlike many other teams at the time, OM games were always available on TV. There is no hiding wearing the blue-and-white Marseille jersey.
His older brother Bruno spent 2004-05 there on loan from Liverpool. It did not go that well.
“I was confident because I knew my quality and what I was able to do,” said Benoit Cheyrou. “For me it was a success because I’m not a guy who speaks a lot in the media. i want to be judged on what I’m doing on the pitch. And it was a perfect place for that.”
There was Champions League football and the team won the French title in 2009-10, ending an 18-year drought. Cheyrou still gets goose bumps recalling the victory parade through the city.
The city has become Cheyrou’s French home. His son was born there, his daughter grew up there and his parents moved there upon retirement. He has favourite haunts like Chez Jo, a restaurant owned by a good friend.
Football players are always in the spotlight there. But Cheyrou said he was treated well and understood it was not a big sacrifice to make a fan happy by posing for a photo.
Bruno Cheyrou, three years older than Benoit, was dubbed “the new Zidane” by Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier. While he did not live up to that gaudy praise, he did enjoy a long club career and won three caps for France.
Benoit said the two were not that competitive growing up. “Not really. He was more talented, more gifted than me.”
Bruno was a great example, however. Benoit said he wanted to be like him and regularly relied on his brother’s counsel.
“He has always been the best adviser. All (the) steps I did, he did it before,” said Benoit. “Every time I wanted to ask him something, he was able to have the answer.”
Bruno is now a TV commentator for Bein Sports France.
Benoit represented France at the under-19, U-20, and U-21 levels, winning the UEFA U-19 championship in 2000. He earned a call-up to the senior side in 2010 but didn’t earn a cap.
He has no regrets, saying he can only do his best on the pitch and accept the manager’s decision.
After seven seasons in Marseille, Benoit Cheyrou was told in 2014 by new coach Marcelo Bielsa that he was no longer needed.
He spent three months without a club, admitting that while he enjoyed time with his family he was getting restless as the weeks wore on. He had offers in France and elsewhere in Europe “but I wanted something different.”
Toronto FC, with its plentiful resources and heartfelt quest for a title, fit the bill. Cheyrou played 46 regular and post-season games in his first two MLS seasons and has served as a mentor to many of its young players.
“He knows so much tactically and technically,” said 25-year-old Toronto defender Clement Simonin, a fellow Frenchman. “It’s always good to learn from such a great player like him. He’s also a good friend off the field. We have a more-than-soccer relationship.”
The club considers the classy Cheyrou a home-run of an acquisition.
Signed to a new playing contract prior to this season, Cheyrou has also started taking his coaching license â€” an endeavour that has and will take him back to France for short periods. Toronto has said it hopes to keep him in the fold once he calls it quits.
But he is not ready to retire yet.
“Obviously I have less seasons in front of me than behind me, so I want to enjoy it,” Cheyrou said of his playing days. “I feel great on the pitch.”
Added Vanney: “He still has more to add and give to this team as we pursue another season.”
Cheyrou has no regrets about a storied resume that includes more than 400 Ligue 1 appearances in France and has a chapter or two still to be authored in North America.
“I’m proud of my career … when I was six at Racing Club de Paris, I wouldn’t expect that career.”
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press