Hugo Lloris heard the mating call of the English press. “You got two minutes?” one of the journalists asked. The France goalkeeper and captain did not have two seconds. “Oh, you want to talk to me now?” he replied, with no little huffiness, barely breaking stride en route to the stadium exit.
It was last Saturday night, France had just beaten England in the World Cup quarter-final and it was not immediately apparent what was eating Lloris. Turns out he was fuming at an article in one of the English newspapers that suggested he could be France’s weak link.
The piece drew on data from a goalkeeper-specific analysis company, which said he had compared unfavourably with England’s Jordan Pickford this season, and it received tremendous pickup in France – frankly out of all proportion.
The way it was put to Lloris before the game was that the English media in general had rubbished him and, yes, that is going to sting – especially given he has been a Premier League mainstay for Tottenham since September 2012.
The episode highlighted two things. First, the sense that Lloris is underappreciated in England. What he does well is taken for granted – most obviously, the sensational reflex saves – whereas the occasional errors are jumped all over. There has long been a frustration at Spurs as to why Lloris is never included in the teams of the season.
Second, there is a fundamental truth. The competitive fires rage within Lloris and it is one of the reasons he stands on the brink of history. The 35-year-old led France to World Cup glory in 2018. If he were to do the same in Sunday’s final against Argentina, he would become the first player to captain two victorious teams in the competition. Stoke the fires and prepare to be burned.
Lloris is not the stereotypical goalkeeper, or even the stereotypical footballer, and it is possible that this feeds into the treatment of him. He comes from a well-off family – his father a banker, his mother a lawyer – and his first love was not football but tennis. He was an extremely promising junior player and when he got to 10 he had to make a choice between the sports. He went for football because he wanted to be a part of a team.
You will not see Lloris trash-talking his opponents, engaging in shithousery like, say, the Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. He is no maverick crazy between the sticks. Rather he is calm and serious, darkly so at times; a deep thinker who does not live too long in the moment, does not hold on.
In February 2019, he was asked to reflect on what it was like to captain a World Cup-winning team, to follow in the footsteps of legends such as Bobby Moore and Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona. “I don’t want to say that I’ve forgotten about the World Cup but, for me, it belongs to the past,” Lloris replied, which was a long way from the expected answer. Or maybe it should not have been. As everybody agreed, it was “So Hugo”, the ultimate distillation of him.
The Spurs players who welcomed Lloris in 2012 after his £11m move from Lyon remember his introspection, which was never going to play well when he had to sing his initiation song.
Lloris joined at the same time as Mousa Dembélé and Clint Dempsey, and the former had a decent go at his song. Then Dempsey, AKA The Deuce, got up to perform a rap in which he went through the entire squad, rhyming about each of them. By the end, they were on their feet; cheering, screaming. Follow that, Hugo. He whispered a pretty flat version of La Marseillaise. There was a lot of staring at shoelaces.
Lloris has grown exponentially in assurance as a leader. In the summer of that year, Didier Deschamps had been appointed as the France manager and he kept Lloris as the captain. The previous manager, Laurent Blanc, had first given Lloris the armband for the friendly win over England at Wembley in November 2010 and he would make it a regular thing a little under 12 months later.
As the young captain of a young France team, Lloris was able to feel his way into the role and it was a similar situation at Spurs after Mauricio Pochettino took charge in the summer of 2014. Pochettino formally gave Lloris the club captaincy at the start of the 2015-16 season and, again, it was not an established dressing room that he was asked to guide.
Lloris’s career has been shaped, in part, by the strength of his relationships with Deschamps and Pochettino, the ingrained levels of mutual trust. Lloris is France’s most capped player with 144; an incredible 119 of them as captain.
Pochettino was blown away when Lloris loaned him his World Cup replica trophy. For months, Pochettino had it on top of the cabinet in his office; it was the first thing visitors saw when they entered. But Lloris did so because he appreciated the support Pochettino gave him after his drink-driving conviction in September 2018; an isolated but shocking lapse of judgment, the most testing point of Lloris’s career. Pochettino refused to consider stripping him of the Spurs captaincy.
Lloris has never let France down, the feeling being that he has saved his best for the critical moments at tournaments – the wins over Germany in the Euro 2016 semi-final and Uruguay and Belgium in the quarter- and semi-final of the last World Cup. He did let a soft goal in against Croatia in the final but, happily for him, France were 4-1 up.
At this World Cup Lloris has been solid behind a new-look and often-changing back four, spreading confidence, ready to be vocal when needed. He made vital saves against England and then against Morocco in the semi-final. There are good reasons why he is feted in France.
Lloris can still appear a reluctant hero, in the background a little more than he should be. When he lifted the World Cup in 2018, he was partially obscured in the photographs by Olivier Giroud and a couple of other players, who stood in front of him. It would be commented on at Spurs. Not that Lloris cared. For him, it is only about the next game, about proving himself. It stands to lead to football immortality.