John Arne Riise: ‘I am happy playing in the centre’

Norwegian John Arne Riise speaks about his performance so far in the ISL, Indian players and reminisces his time at Merseyside.

"The Indian Super League is better than last year but there are areas for improvement," says Delhi Dynamos' John Arne Riise.   -  R. Ragu

Riise with Roberto Carlos... "He (Carlos) was the reason why I joined Delhi Dynamos," says Riise.   -  ISL/ SPORTZPICS

Riise won the English FA Cup with Liverpool in 2006.   -  REUTERS

Considered Liverpool’s greatest ever left-back, John Arne Riise had a venomous left-foot that had many goalkeepers trembling. The Norwegian loved to bomb down the flank, a trait that made him a perfect fit for the attack-minded Premier League and an instant hit with the Kop faithful.

He went on to play 348 games and score 31 goals for the Reds, in the process winning the FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League with the club. Now of Delhi Dynamos, he spoke to Sportstar about his performance so far in the ISL, Indian players and reminisced his time at Merseyside.

Excerpts:

Question: How do you rate your performance this season?

Answer: It’s been pretty good. Being a natural left-back and now playing as a centre-back has been a big challenge for me. It takes time to get used to it, especially if you’re involved in competitive matches. But it’s getting better and better. The more I play there the more confidence I gain. Playing with Anas Edathodika has been good, we have a good understanding as he is a very good defender. I am more of a ball-playing defender whereas he is more traditional. So, as a pair, it is working for us. We have the best defensive record in the League.

How has your transition to centre-back been?

Roberto Carlos asked me, when we met in Sweden, during pre-season, where I preferred to play. I immediately said centre-back as I had to think of the future. I always thought of myself ending up playing in the centre and at 35 years of age, it was time for me to start that transition. Of course, I did tell him I can adapt to midfield, left-back, centre… wherever he wanted me to play. Nevertheless, I am happy playing in the centre as I am good in the air, can pass the ball and have a good left foot, so it feels more like ‘my’ position now.

Your experience working with Roberto Carlos as a manager…

He was the reason why I joined Delhi Dynamos. As a youngster, I looked up to him because I am naturally a left-back just like him and he has a powerful left foot just like I do. As a manager, he is very easy to talk to. He is friendly with the players and he wants you to enjoy and have fun. But he is a workaholic. If you do not work hard, he will tell it to your face and maybe even punish you with some extra running. That is because he is a winner and is not here to just relax. That is another reason why I joined Dynamos because I am a winner too. I hope that we can work for many years together.

How do you rate the league so far?

It is only the second season for the league… I spoke to Luis Garcia (former team-mate at Liverpool FC), who played for ATK last season, as soon as I knew there was interest from ISL and he was very positive. I also needed to think of my future as I foresee myself as a coach/manager and I currently have TV commitments. So a four-month league made sense as I had the rest of the year off to work towards these goals. About the league, it is better than last year but there are areas for improvement. For example, across European leagues, there are better coaches and the grassroots development is more intense.

You touched upon grassroots development. How would you compare India to Europe?

Like I said, in Europe there are better football schools where we learn at a younger age and the right way. That could be because we have more opportunities there compared to India, which is a bit unfortunate. In Norway, we have coaches to take care of us since we are six-years-old. We are taught the different tactics and techniques, something that is lacking in India from whatever I have seen and learnt. Another difference I see is the Indian players learn at a later age, which is not ideal.

How do you assess the Indian players?

In the beginning, they were very shy. When I landed from Sweden nobody spoke and there wasn’t much smiling. They were almost hiding! And I’m the kind of guy who likes to shout during training to pump up the others and they were scared when I did that. So, I had to tell them that this is how we should go about training and now there has been a huge change. For example, Souvik Chakraborty has improved the most since I came here. He is normally a central midfielder and one of the shy guys in the group. He is now playing right-back for the team and smashing in with the hard tackles. This is what I want to see; people learning and adapting, and getting better. He is, for me, India’s best right-back. The biggest problem in Indian football is that the players are too shy to show what they can do. Another observation I have made is the effort Indian players put with respect to fitness. Some of them don’t realise what it takes to be at your best. For me, it is normal to have a training session in the morning and a gym session in the afternoon. I don’t hit the gym to become bigger, but to cope up with the stress of a competitive league. Not many Indian players put that effort in the beginning. But I am happy to see the change as more and more players are putting in the extra yard and it is showing on the field, especially in a league where recovery time is very little.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the Indian goalkeeper, is playing for Stabaek in Norway…

I know, I met him in Norway. I was commentating for the game on television and after the game I met some of the players in the team. The goalkeeper wanted to meet me and I obliged. I was surprised to know that he was from India. But credit to him for going abroad and wanting to learn. This is what Indian players need to do more. Be brave and pursue foreign opportunities.

Could you give us an account of your time at Liverpool FC? You spent seven trophy-laden seasons at Merseyside.

Liverpool FC is very popular in Norway and it was amazing to have signed up with the club. I didn’t realise how big the club was until I joined up with the team. Nobody really knew who I was, but I established myself at the club after I scored 11 goals in my debut season. One of the goals I scored was against Manchester United, the free-kick lay-off. So yeah, those seven seasons were the best years of my life. I won the Champions League, the FA Cup and the Carling Cup. I was very lucky to be part of the team and start every game, which was for me a very big achievement.

What makes Liverpool special?

It is a family club. When I joined I didn’t realise this aspect of the club but when I got there I felt so welcomed. Even after you leave they remember you. The fans are unbelievable, they communicate through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It is impossible not to feel loved. I still speak to the club as I will be involved in some ‘legend’ matches in the future and hopefully I will be an ambassador for the club.

Jurgen Klopp, who recently took over Liverpool, said he will deliver the Premier League title within four years. This is the one trophy that has eluded the club…

I like the new manager, he needs to bring back the fear factor. When I was playing for the club, teams used to fear coming to Anfield. They’ve lost this over the past few seasons. He needs to make Anfield a fortress and I feel he is the right man to do this. This year is going to be too hard but hopefully they will finish top-four this season and build on from that. Next year Klopp should target to challenge for the league and the year after win it!

You talked about making Anfield a fortress but Klopp has aced his two biggest tests so far away from home.

Away from home they seemed to have done well. The Chelsea victory (3-1) was good but the 4-1 win at Manchester City was unbelievable. They need to translate this confidence at home. I feel they are trying too hard at home whereas they are playing with less pressure away from Anfield. But I am sure the home record will improve.

Your favourite memories at Liverpool?

Apart from the Champions League victory, my favourite memory is definitely the goal against Manchester United. Mainly, because of who we were playing against and the goal helped me become a favourite with the fans. One of my favourite games is the FA Cup final in 2006 against West Ham. I remember I scored a penalty in the shootout and, of course, we won. However, the ultimate favourite game is the Olympiakos quarter-final in 2005. They were 1-0 up and we needed to win by two goals and we ultimately won 3-1. We won the Champions League that season. Many more memories from that season; the semi-final against Chelsea and the final, of course.

Your favourite memory with Norway?

Not many! (laughs) It was a dream for me to play for my country with the flag embossed on your shirt. On a personal level, I have the record for the most caps for Norway, which is special for me. I enjoyed playing for Norway no matter where and who we played. It is sad it’s over but hopefully my record stays for a while.

You’ve played in Norway, England, Italy and now in India. Which is the toughest league?

Premier League, for sure. There is really no contest. Especially if you play for a top team that competes in all the competitions, you end up playing many matches. In my first season, we played 66 games of which I played in 65! Also, the tempo of the game is non-stop for 90 minutes.

Do you have any passion outside football?

Golf. Big fan of the sport. I play golf, watch golf, I read golf and I think golf. I play a little bit of tennis too but not as much as golf. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are my biggest idols. I’ve had the chance of meeting Roger Federer a few times and the first time I met him, he called me by my name. The fact that he knew who I was made my day! When I was younger I watched WWE (Wrestling) and my idol is the Rock (Dwayne Johnson). Even though he is in Hollywood now, I still look up to him regardless of whether he is a good actor or not.

Your favourite player?

Steven Gerrard! No doubt about it. Gerrard, during the years we played together, had everything as a football player. Power, pace, stamina, shooting, scoring, heading… everything. Apart from Gerrard, I feel Leo Messi is the best in the world. Few people prefer Ronaldo but for me Messi does more on the pitch, he creates more.

Your favourite gadgets/cars/bikes?

I love fast cars, but don’t have a garage full of cars though. I have an Audi RS5 and that is a quick car. I’ve had a Ferrari F430 during my Liverpool days and that is my all-time favourite car. I treated myself just after we won the Champions League in 2005.

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