x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Joe Cole enjoying the challenges of France

Lille seem to have found a star as the former Liverpool player moving to France to revitalise his football career.

Lille's Joe Cole, centre, celebrates with teammates after scoring against St Etienne.
Lille's Joe Cole, centre, celebrates with teammates after scoring against St Etienne.

For country that invented the game, England has become notoriously weak at exporting its best footballing flesh and blood.

The Premier League may sell itself enthusiastically and lucratively to more television screens across the globe than any other domestic competition, but when it comes to English players stepping out of that environment, a timidness afflicts both the footballers and the potential foreign buyers.

The list of English players to have won the Champions League with a non-English club in the last 20 years?

Two. Steve McManaman, with Real Madrid twice; and Owen Hargreaves, with Bayern Munich.

The number of England players to have won a major overseas league title in the last decade? Surprising low.

There's Hargreaves, who was born in Canada and moved from there directly to Germany, and his Bundesliga Shields, and McManaman, who won two Spanish Primera Liga titles with Real, for whom David Beckham later won one.

These are the sorts of footsteps Joe Cole hopes to follow over the next nine months.

He has joined, on loan from Liverpool, a Lille squad wearing freshly minted Ligue 1 gold medals but without one or two pillars - like the transferred Gervinho and Adil Rami - of that title-winning unit.

Hence the bid for Cole, 29. So far, so promising. Cole made his Ligue 1 debut last Saturday away at St Etienne and, as a substitute, featured prominently in a 3-1 victory that pushed the title-holders up to second in the table, just a point behind Lyon.

Wednesday, Cole should make his first appearance in front of his new home fans, against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League.

His arrival, in a deal struck on transfer deadline day, has been celebrated as a milestone for French football. L'Equipe, the sports newspaper, devoted an editorial to the move, writing: "A genuine star of English football disembarking in Ligue 1. It's scarcely believable!"

Historians scrolled through the archives. The last full England international in France's upper echelons? Trevor Steven, 20 years ago. Before him, flair players like Chris Waddle at Marseille and Glenn Hoddle at Monaco.

Cole certainly needed a move. Signed by Liverpool in the summer of 2010 when his contract with Chelsea had come to an end, he had a wretched time on Merseyside, sent off - for the first time in his career - on his debut, then marginalised with the change of manager last autumn from Roy Hodgson to Kenny Dalglish.

"It's just nice to be playing again," Cole told me. "At Lille, there's a great team spirit and it was nice to start off with a win and help get the three points."

Cole's memorable debut against St Etienne had seen him collect possession, about 35 metres from goal, beat three players with his changes of direction and close control. With a twist one way, a dart the other, he reached the goal-line and, pulling the ball back sharply, picked out Ludovic Obraniak, who netted.

"When you play at your best, you don't think too much about what you're going to do … or at least I don't," Cole said.

The skill on the ball, the relish of the one-to-one duel and the confidence are hallmarks of Cole at his best, the assets that have earned him 56 England caps.

"I'd always seen him as the most Latin of British players," Rudi Garcia, the Lille head coach, said "and he suits our style."

The epitome of that style would be Eden Hazard, the gifted young Belgian, who was Ligue 1's Player of the Year in 2010-11.

"I look forward to playing alongside Eden," Cole said. "He's got a lot of talent. I made the decision to come here because I wanted to be in a team playing the way Lille do.

"But it will take me time to adjust because the French league is not like English football, which is unique."

Which is not to say French football is kinder, gentler. "Not at all," Cole said. "What I noticed straight away, even on the training ground, is that a lot of the guys around are very physically strong, and there's a lot of strong tackles."

Cole is not here to take it easy. "It's a big challenge and I'm determined to make the most of it."

He felt annoyed when it was wrongly reported he would live in England, and commute, via the hour-and-a-quarter Channel tunnel train service, between his native London and Lille.

"I've already found an apartment here. I want to be in France, to learn about a new league and new culture, hopefully win some trophies and help the team do well in the Champions League."

sports@thenational.ae