Unsung Heroes #7: Sylvain Wiltord
Two gold shirts fly down the pitch at Old Trafford. The man on the ball, Sylvain Wiltord, plays in Freddie Ljungberg who has made a tireless run across the field. Ljungberg beats his man and fires a low shot across Fabian Barthez’ goal. The goalkeeper manages to push it away, only to see his compatriot ready to pounce. Barthez does his best to get back up and stop the rebound but the Arsenal striker makes no mistake, sidefooting it into the back of the net.
As he wheels away, millions of Arsenal fans across the globe celebrate what has surely secured the Premier League title and a famous double for The Arsenal.
It’s hard to believe that a decade after that famous goal, the man was still playing football at the ripe old age of 38. The fact that he only chose to retire early this week is a testament to his drive. Fitting that he should do it in the middle of the 2012 European Championships because it all started 12 years ago.
Bordeaux was where Wiltord really came to light, winning a Ligue 1 scoring title and catching the eye of many, the most important of which, Arsène Wenger. Wiltord was also a part of the French squad at Euro 2000 but understandably found himself playing a small part in a team filled with superstars. The lack of playing time during the tournament did nothing to discourage him though. By then, Wiltord had grown tired of Bordeaux and the tournament would be the stage on which to make his name.
He was brought on late in the final with the cup almost surely going back to Italy. Deep into injury time, a hopeful punt up the field turned into a golden opportunity. Wiltord controlled the ball with his chest, bringing it down onto his left foot. He fired under Francesco Toldo to send the match into extra time with France eventually lifting the trophy after a David Trezeguet golden goal.
That summer, Arsenal had sold Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit to Barcelona, much to the frustration of the fans. Eager to please them, Arsenal signed Robert Pirès, Lauren and after drawn out negotiations, Sylvain Wiltord himself.
Wiltord was always going to struggle to get into the lineup though with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp and would have to settle for playing out wide. The fluidity of Arsène Wenger’s tactics meant that Wiltord was never truly out of position and he constantly proved to be a thorn in the side for opposition defences. He still found his way to goal at the right times, scoring fifteen in his first season in England.
The Frenchman played a very important part in Arsenal’s 2001/02 double winning season, directly influencing the outcome of the double. In the FA Cup final against Chelsea, Wiltord was the man who provided the pass that set up that Ray Parlour goal. Days later it was Wiltord again who wrapped up the league, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory against Manchester United.
Sadly, with the emergence of The Invincibles, an aging Wiltord found himself playing a smaller and smaller part in Arsenal’s 2003/04 campaign. His contract was allowed to run out in 2004 and he made a return to France, playing for Lyon, Rennes, Marseille, Metz and Nantes before hanging up his boots on June 11, 2012.