High on Highbury

Former Arsenal legend Robert Pires has been overwhelmed by his popularity in India and now wishes to extend his involvement with Indian football, even dreaming about coaching FC Goa one day. The France World Cup winner in a chat with Ayon Sengupta & N. Sudarshan.

The inaugural Indian Super League, which has brought in a string of international superstars amidst us, has been a roaring success, with fans attending the games in big numbers. The stars, too, have been bowled over by the Indian hospitality and the crazy support of the fanatics in a land, which they had considered as a cricket bastion before their arrival in the country. Former Arsenal legend Robert Pires has been overwhelmed by his popularity in India and now wishes to extend his involvement with Indian football, even dreaming about coaching FC Goa one day. The 41-year-old speaks at length with Sportstar about his long and illustrious career.

Question: How has the experience in India been so far?

Answer: It’s been good. Very happy to be here, to be in a new country and meet new people.

What are your early impressions of the Indian players?

They have been good. They want to learn and play at a high level. They ask me a lot of questions. I am in India, not for me. I have proved everything that’s there to prove in my career. I am here to help the Indians. I have a big role and I need to be a good example for others.

Is it difficult to play after coming out of retirement? You last played in 2012.

No. If your mind is ready, your body can follow. It’s simple. And, I was training with the Arsenal first team before I came to India. It helped. I am fit to play and it’s good for my body.

How was it to be a part of the Arsenal team which went unbeaten for 49 games?

ROBERT PIRES and his FC Goa team-mates during a practice session at the Jawaharalal Nehru Stadium in Chennai.-R.RAGU

I was delighted to be part of that team. Fans called us the Invincibles and it was a great memory.

Later you lost to Manchester City 2-0 and the run ended…

No, no. It was Manchester United. I remember (smiles). We were upset because it was United and the teams had a great rivalry. But it had to end someday.

You formed a great combination on the left with Ashley Cole and Thierry Henry. Was that just spontaneous or did you work a lot to get the combination right?

We had to work a lot. Football is not easy. We don’t have any secrets. It’s just hard work. If you are very good on the training ground, you are good on the pitch. Simple! Sometimes Arsene Wenger used to employ these combinations. On the right we had Lauren, Sylvain Wiltord/Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp.

How was it to play against Arsenal as a Villarreal player in the Champions League in 2009?

It was impossible. But it was a special moment in my career as well. The Arsenal fans sang my name before, during and after the game. On one hand I was happy because it was Arsenal and on the other side I was unhappy because I lost. So it was complicated. But thank you very much Arsenal fans (smiles).

There are reports of Arsenal playing FC Goa sometime next year. Do you want to play for FC Goa in that game?

Of course! I want to. If Goa organises a match against Arsenal, then I cannot imagine the atmosphere. I think the Goa stadium is small for that. But anything is possible. Especially in India (laughs).

Didier Deschamps, Zinedine Zidane and Laurent Blanc have gone into coaching. Do you also see yourself doing the same thing?

Why not? I need to get the license. May be next year or in two years I can coach FC Goa!

But you once said that coaching was not for you…

When I said that I was still playing for Villarreal. Now, I have changed my mind. Because I love football. I don’t know how good a coach I’ll be, but I’ll try.

Was it tough to be substituted after 18 minutes in the Champions League final in 2006? Jens Lehmann (goalkeeper) was sent off and Wenger removed you…

It was disappointing but not for this, but because we lost the final. Sometimes you get only one opportunity in life. It was against Barcelona. It was in Paris, in front of my family. It was a very bad moment.

It was said you were mad with Lehmann. Are you still?

No, no. It was the fault of the referee. If you see, when Lehmann touched Eto’o, Ludovic Giuly scored. It should have been 1-0. There was no sending off. And Lehmann is still my friend (laughs). We sometimes meet in London.

You have played in Ligue 1, La Liga and the EPL. How will you differentiate between the three Leagues?

I don’t like comparing teams or managers. I was lucky to play in all the three Leagues, but I think the Premier League is the best. There’s more competition in England. In Spain there are only two teams, it’s the same in France. But in UK there are six or seven good teams and so the competition is very tough. Every weekend the games are difficult. Every year (the fight for the championship) is tough.

There has been a sudden influx of foreign money in French football. How will it benefit football in the country?

We needed the investment. It’s a good opportunity for Ligue 1, especially for Paris Saint Germain and Monaco. Some people have put in a lot of money and now we can fight with other European teams, especially in the Champions League.

What was so special about the France national side that won the 1998 World Cup and EURO 2000?

It was the best team. The best France team or best in the world?

Both! We keep in contact, all the players from France 98 and EURO. We still have good relations. When you win the World Cup and the EURO two years later, you can say the team is good. It was the best moment for France.

You had a lot of trouble with France national team coach Raymond Domenech...

Yeah, yeah, yeah….That is life. I had big trouble with Domenech. Why, I don’t know. And that’s the biggest problem. Sometimes you have good relationship with managers, like Wenger and (Manuel) Pellegrini (Villarreal) and sometimes you have big trouble. But I have proved everything with the national team and with clubs. I don’t care (about it) now.

Do you think the problem with Domenech forced you into early international retirement?

Maybe, I think. But you need to ask him this question. I understand a manager needs to pick his own players for the national team. I remember before the 2006 Mundial, he said ‘I don’t take Pires’ and I asked ‘why?’ And he just said ‘I don’t take’. I don’t know why, I don’t have the reasons. (Being left out in) 2006 was difficult for me. I had a very good season with Arsenal — we finished fourth in the League and reached the Champions League final.

You have been a PFA Player of the Year… Yes, 2002.

And Pele picked you in his list of top 100 footballers and the Arsenal fans voted you as the sixth best Gunner ever. How important are personal accolades for a footballer?

For me, in football, it’s important to win a title together. Not alone. Football is a team game; it’s a game of 20 players. I don’t like when someone says ‘he is the best player’. Team is a team. I prefer to win a World Cup, EURO, Champions League or the EPL rather than a Ballon d’Or.

Your father, a Benfica supporter and your mother, a supporter of Real Madrid… Was it difficult to pick loyalties as a kid?

It was very difficult. I was in the midfield — on right my daddy and left my mommy. It was funny, especially when Spain was playing France or Spain playing Portugal. At home it was woof (puts up his hands in exasperation). It was big trouble.

You had offers from Real. Why did you turn them down?

In 2000, three teams — Juve, Madrid and Arsenal wanted to sign me. Mom asked ‘why are you picking Arsenal’ and I said ‘I chose Arsenal because of Wenger. He is French and I think he understands me better.’ I think I made a good choice.

Tell us something about the Arsenal and Man United rivalry.

Games with United were always great. It was spirited and exciting, and for me there was always a duel with Gary Neville, be it Highbury or Old Trafford. In Highbury the stadium was small, the dressing room and the tunnel too. Remember the (Patrick) Vieira and (Roy) Keane incident — it was because the tunnel was too tight. I played with players like (Tony) Adam, (Ray) Parlour, (David) Seaman and they were good strong players with strong English spirit. So it was always a fight.

You have an admirable record in the north London derby against Tottenham…

Two things — I know why Arsenal fans love me and Tottenham supporters hate me. I played 11 games (against them) and scored eight goals. Yesterday, a fan clicked a picture with me and then said he hates me. I asked him why and he said he is a Tottenham fan. I said okay, I understand!

How has been the support from Arsenal fans in India?

I got a great welcome in Chennai and it was the same in Mumbai, Kolkata and Kerala.

You have been fouled a lot in the ISL. Has that been a little discomforting?

Now, I know and understand — the Indian players are watching the Premier League. But this is football. If they want they (can) kick me, but the referee is there. It’s the same in England.

Your former Arsenal teammate Jermaine Pennant recently said the referees in India are lenient compared to the English ones. Do you agree?

You can’t compare. The referees in England are professional and that makes a huge difference. Indian players and referees need to learn.

Was it a disappointment that Arsenal moved out of Highbury and settled at the Emirates Stadium?

Yes.

Is that the reason you bought a flat in Highbury?

It was for the memories. I played six seasons there and it was fantastic. I understand why Arsenal built Emirates, it was good business. Emirates is a good stadium but it doesn’t have the atmosphere. Highbury is Highbury. It’s a bit like Anfield. If you ask Arsenal fans they’ll also have the same opinion.