More than fifty years after covering his first World Cup in 1962 in Chile, French journalist Thierry Roland passed away on Saturday at the age of 74 prompting tributes from the highest spheres of France's political scene, starting with President François Hollande, all the way down to the French players in Ukraine from Gael Clichy to Samir Nasri.
Perhaps the only football-related figure that was more appreciated than Zinedine Zidane in France, Thierry Roland was one of these people which you would be forgiven to think they were immortal. After beginning his career as a football journalist as an 18-year-old in 1955, first on the radio before making the big move to live television, Roland went on to commentate thirteen World Cups and nine European Championships, spearheading more than 1300 football games in total for France's foremost TV channels, ORTF from 1955 to 1968, Antenne 2 from 1975 to 1984, TF1 from 1984 and 2004, M6 from 2005 till yesterday.
He was not just the voice of this generation, the one lucky enough to see France win its first World Cup in 1998 and its second European Championship in 2000, but Roland was the voice of the childhood of several successive generations of French football fans, from the youngest today to the likes of Laurent Blanc, who paid him a tribute on Saturday calling him a "football encyclopaedia".
Together with former Saint-Etienne player Jean-Michel Larqué, with whom he commentated over 820 matches in thirty years, Roland's voice entered homes at the same speed as television devices progressively made their way into the French households, becoming perhaps the most famous duo in the French audiovisual landscape. He had colloquial ways to pass on his enormous knowledge of the game, with trademark idioms - "these two won't spend their holidays together" whenever a defender would go for a challenge with a little too much desire, "he went in the zig and the ball in the zag" when a player would make a bad run - becoming engraved in the landscape of French football. His encouragement of defensive midfielder Luis Fernandez, shooting a penalty that would send France to the semi-final of the 1986 World Cup after beating Brazil, saying "Come on my little fellow!" also remained in collective memory.
He always had the same two words when a team scored a goal, whether it was France or its opponent, whether a deserved strike or an unfair one. These words were " ...And goal!". Everything was brought to a sudden end as a player clinched his fists in celebration, the essence of football springing to the fore with Roland illustrating it with his childlike spontaneity.
Whatever the circumstances, were they Zidane's brace in the 1998 World Cup final or an anonymous lower-league player getting one over a Ligue 1 top dog in the French Cup, whether the goal had been the product of an incredible display of flair and technicality or merely sheer opportunism, Roland would always buoyantly utter these simple words "...and goal!". These two words and the way they were pronounced became so common you would almost utter them by yourself when seeing a goal either live or on another channel, making Thierry Roland's voice, hence the man behind it himself, synonymous with the utmost joy and despair one experiences when watching football and your team scores or concedes a goal.
Roland attended football stadiums in five different continents, commentating ten of the last fourteen World Cup finals in the flesh as well as every Champions' League final from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. He was present in the Heysel stadium on May 29th, 1985 when the rioting of some fans caused 39 deaths, and also in the Armand Césari stadium on May 5th, 1992 when stands collapsed and killed 18 fans from the Corsican outfit Bastia.
He was, also and foremost, in the Stade de France stadium when France convincingly beat Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 World Cup final, at the end of which he uttered a sentence that stayed in the minds of every single spectator watching Zidane and his team-mates ecstatically celebrate: "After seeing this, we can die in peace".
Roland suffered a cerebral aneurysm in 2003, putting a momentary spoke in his journalistic wheels but came back the following year. His passion for football was such he accepted to take on commentating duties for a much lesser channel, M6 after having been made redundant by TF1 in 2004 where he had been employed for more than twenty years.
The last game he commentated live was the Europa League final between Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid. Tuning in to hear his ethereal voice, you would almost think nothing had changed in the twenty or twenty-five years since you first heard him enthusiastically depicting the motion of football players. He was as impassioned for a lower division contest between two amateur French sides as he was for a Champions' League final and would never adopt a haughty approach to comment on a team or an individual whenever the spectacle on show wasn't quite up to par.
The only recipient to his ire would sometimes be the referee, especially when France was playing and his chauvinism underneath filtered through the wavelengths. Commentating on a Bulgaria-France World Cup qualifying match in 1976 in Sofia, he called Scottish referee Ian Foote a 'bastard' live on French TV after he disallowed a valid Michel Platini goal and allowed an offside Bulgaria goal on the immediate break, later awarding the home side an imaginary penalty.
He was expected in Ukraine earlier this week to reform his famous duo with Jean-Michel Larqué and comment on his tenth European Championships. It was Roland himself who insisted for Larqué to join him there, but he had to call it off due to the side effects of his latest chirurgical intervention on Monday which left him weakened and unable to travel by plane. Larqué, left on his own yesterday to comment on France's game against Ukraine, had a few words for him at the start of the France-Ukraine game, wishing him well. An impressive storm suddenly flooded Donetsk and delayed the game by almost an hour, as Thierry Roland, sitting in front of his TV in his Paris flat for what was to be the last football game he would ever watch, recalled the good and the bad times this national team provided him throughout the years.
Delighted with France's victory, he went to bed and suffered a stroke in his sleep at 3AM, leaving French football fans from the 1960s till today aggrieved by the loss of the voice of their childhood.
You can find Igor on Twitter @Mladenovic_.