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      How Frenchman André-Pierre Gignac Conquered Liga MX
      Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
      February 6, 2017

      How Frenchman André-Pierre Gignac Conquered Liga MX

      Ever since the first European Championship in 1960, no final has ever been decided by a goalscorer based at a club in another continent. Elite players capable of making the difference at this level simply do not leave Europe during their prime years. Except André-Pierre Gignac, that is.

      Having already won one Liga MX title with Tigres UANL, the forward from Martigues was inches away from making history. The Euro 2016 final was tied at 0-0 in the final minute of regulation when Gignac turned his marker inside out and slid the ball past Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patrício, only to see it strike the inside of the post and bounce agonizingly away.

      Gignac had been on the pitch for just 12 minutes,but had his shot crept in he would have been remembered as France's unexpected hero. Instead, Portugal won the game in extra time.

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      "It would have caught the world's attention if it had gone in," reflected Samuel Reyes, the leader of Tigres' hardcore fan group Libres y Lokos. Nonetheless, he added, Gignac's presence is "a great way to showcase our club around the world."

      Undeterred by that missed opportunity, Gignac returned to the dry, desert heat of Monterrey, Mexico's third biggest city, where he consolidated his status as a Tigres legend by winning his second league title on Christmas Day. Gignac may be the most unlikely superstar in the long history of Mexican league soccer.

      Surrounded by dramatic peaks, this sprawling, smoggy metropolis was hardly Gignac's only option when his contract at Marseille expired in the summer of 2015. Plenty of clubs were interested in the bulky forward of gypsy heritage who had scored 21 goals in Ligue 1 that season, two more than Zlatan Ibrahimovic at PSG.

      Confounding expectation, Gignac opted to join Tigres in their quest to become the first Mexican club to win Latin America's most prestigious competition, the Copa Libertadores.

      "I've come to win the league and the Libertadores," he announced on his arrival, before scoring in his debut in the semi-final victory over Brazil's Internacional. Tigres went on to lose the final to River Plate but Gignac doubled down on the first part of his promise with crucial goals in Mexico's Clausura 2015 and 2016 finals against Pumas and América, respectively.

      While Tigres' ambition was one selling point, the wages they offered Gignac and the low costs of living in Mexico surely helped convince him.

      A contract published by Football Leaks last year states that Gignac earns an annual salary of €1 million after tax. However, Tigres told VICE Sports that the document, which does not reveal Gignac's signing-on fee or bonuses, "does not mention the real figures." Local media outlets suggest he earns as much as €4 million a year, more than any other player in Mexico.

      Gignac's move was initially met with bemusement back home. "At first people didn't understand," said Thomas Goubin, a French journalist who covers Mexican football. "They didn't know anything about Tigres or the Mexican league. They thought it was a means of making a lot of money while relaxing and playing at a more leisurely pace, almost like retirement."

      Although he sometimes lumbers around the pitch like a man who's enjoyed a few too many tacos (opposing fans in France used to mock his paunch with the chant "Un Big Mac pour Gignac"), Gignac was only 29 when he arrived, much younger than most of the stars who play out their twilight years in North America. Still boasting a deft touch, strength in the air and a superb eye for goal, he proved his doubters wrong with 44 goals in his first 18 months at Tigres, including several acrobatic volleys and long-range strikes that few others would dare attempt to pull off.

      Known locally as "El Bombón" for his rugged good looks, Gignac elicits the loudest cheers when lineups are announced at Tigres' rustic Estadio Universitario. Fans laud him as "el más guapo" and "el más chingón" — "the most handsome" and "the most fucking awesome" — while vendors outside the stadium say replica jerseys with his name on the back are by far the most popular.

      "It's very important both for Tigres and Mexican football for a player of André's class to come to the Americas when he still has the chance to play in Europe," Gignac's Argentine teammate Guido Pizarro told VICE Sports after a recent training session. "What most impressed me when he arrived was his humility. He came from a very important league in France but he's been very willing to adapt and he gives everything for the team."

      Moving from Europe to Mexico seems like a huge culture shock but Pizarro insists that Gignac has made the transition as smoothly as possible. "He's adapted to life in Mexico very well. We often get together with all our families. The truth is we get on very well both on and off the pitch," Pizarro said. "He's always very happy and he enjoys being here. We call him medio loco (half crazy) because he's always making jokes or punching the other boys, in a friendly way!"

      Social media provides a glimpse of Gignac's wilder side. Shortly before last season's final he posted videos of him firing pistols and rifles at a shooting range on Instagram. Days later, he was filmed celebrating at a club in Cancun with a Monterrey fan who was so inspired by their encounter that he drunkenly announced he was switching his allegiance to Tigres. Another video shows Gignac and one of his brothers leaping off the roof of his two-story home into his swimming pool at night.

      It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Gignac has developed a close relationship with the 3,000-strong Libres y Lokos, whose name means "Free and Crazy".

      "I'd never felt such enthusiasm for the arrival of a player before. I remember the day he arrived at the airport there were thousands of people there. We felt a strange sense of belief and excitement," said Reyes, who cofounded the group in 1998. "He's always been very kind and open with us, as if he were another fan of the team. One time he even joined in a game of football with us. That's not something that happens very often, especially with an international star."

      Rather than taking it easy and ducking out of tackles to avoid risking injury, Gignac treated the game seriously. "It actually got pretty heated," Reyes said. "I was on his team but we were losing and he was annoyed because he didn't want to lose. He was shouting and scolding us but we ended up winning it."

      That was typical of Gignac's attitude on the pitch. "He always gives everything and scores goals in important moments. For me he's the most important player in the history of the club because he always shows up when we need him," Reyes added. "People still don't quite appreciate the quality of player that we have. When he's no longer here I think they'll appreciate him more."

      Now 31, Gignac looks set to see out the remaining 18 months of his contract despite continued speculation over a big-money move to China. He's clearly fond of Mexico and has spoken with pride that his youngest son was born a Mexican citizen. "I hope next year I can become a naturalized Mexican. It would be an honor for me because I'm at home here. I feel really good and my family does too," he said last May. "I hope to stay for many years here in Monterrey and in Mexico. I'm glad that I can give a nice image of my country in Mexico and a nice image of Mexico in France."

      Gignac demonstrated his appreciation for Tigres in January when he asked the local tattoo artist Cesar Ritual to give him his first ever tattoo: a tiger's claw marks across his arm alongside the number 10 that he wears on his shirt. Having befriended Gignac after inking his father and one of his brothers with the Tigres logo about a year ago, Ritual has now been to his house over 15 times to tattoo more of his friends and family.

      "There's always a family atmosphere in his house with lots of people around and lots of noise. He has a big house with a pool and many rooms so that he can invite anyone he wants to stay," Ritual noted. "He lives with his wife and children but his brothers and his parents also come to visit him a lot. His cousins and his friends too, he's always surrounded by people from France."

      This attachment to his loved ones does not necessarily mean Gignac pines for home, though. "The first few times I spoke to him he would tell me that he loved Mexico," Ritual said. "He said the people in France were a bit colder and moodier and that it was cloudy all the time. He loves the heat here and the warmth of the Mexican people."

      Gignac reciprocates that warmth, Ritual says, eagerly obliging when he asked him to pose for a photo with his father, who suffers from diabetes and uses a wheelchair. "That made my dad so happy because he's a massive Tigres fan," the tattooist said with a smile.

      Reflecting on Gignac's impact in Mexico, Ritual added: "I think he brings something positive to the team, the city and even the country. The fans absolutely love him. Nobody could take away what he's achieved. Even if he left tomorrow he'd be remembered as a legend here."

      In addition to winning over the locals, Gignac has even changed a few minds back home.

      Few thought he had a future with the French national team when he moved to Mexico but his strong performances earned him a recall ahead of the Euros. He made 13 appearances last year, as many as in the previous six years combined. The French media started running stories every time he scored for his new club, and his compatriot Andy Delort even followed his lead by moving from Caen to Tigres last summer.

      "The perception in France has changed. Some fans now say it's great that he went there to experience something different and intense," noted Goubin, the French journalist. "I think the move has helped his image because he's now seen as a fighter and someone who's really passionate about football."

      He may not be the man who won France the Euros, but Gignac has earned respect in his homeland and there's a corner of Mexico where he will never be forgotten.

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