‘I want to play regularly till 37 or 38’

Eric Djemba-Djemba-K.V. SRINIVASAN

“I will enjoy this tournament (Indian Super League) and then decide whether to move or stay. For now I want to win this tournament,” says Eric Djemba-Djemba in this interview with N. Sudarshan.

For somebody who shared his debut with Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United, fans would have expected more than 20 Premier League appearances from Eric Djemba-Djemba. He was signed as a promising 22-year-old by Sir Alex Ferguson but frittered away in two years. Now with Chennaiyin FC in the Indian Super League, the 33-year-old Cameroonian says the stint at Old Trafford came a tad too early. He spoke to Sportstar on that and more.

Excerpts: Question: Why did you choose Chennaiyin FC?

Answer: My agent spoke to me about it. Then I spoke to Mikail Silvestre and Bernard Mendy because I have played with them before. Silvestre has a lot of experience having played in England, France and Italy. He said it was good team to come and play for. Also Alessandro Del Piero is here, Marco (Materazzi) is here. So I thought it was a great opportunity.

You are 33. I believe you want to continue till 37 or 38. With that in mind how do you see this stint?

I consider it as a growth opportunity. I want to play regularly till 37 or 38. I will enjoy this tournament and then decide whether to move or stay. For now I want to win this tournament.

When you made your debut at Old Trafford, Cristiano Ronaldo made his debut in the same match. Then Rooney made his debut. How do you see your journey since then?

It has been great. Both were very young. Cristiano was 16 or 17. He used to live with his mother. I was living alone. He was always with me, during training and afterwards. He used to come to my house. And today he is one of the best (in the world). Rooney too. He is a very tough guy. Has a great mentality. I am happy to see them where they are.

You also played with other legends like Gary Neville, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane among others.

Paul Scholes too. I learnt a lot from them. How to play, how to train. I like Scholes very much. He is one of my favourites. Players like Ryan Giggs, Marco all play till 38, 40. I also want to be at that level.

But when you joined United you weren’t the big name one generally associates with the team. Was it difficult to cope with that?

It’s part of life. I have learnt from that. When I joined Manchester I was very young. I was coming from nowhere. I was a very tough player. But the English press sometimes didn’t like me. I think I was at the right place but not at the right time.

Alex Ferguson met me later when I was playing in Denmark. I was 27 or 28 then and much more mature. He said, ‘I wish I could take you back’. So I think Manchester was a bit too early. When I came in Roy Keane was injured. So played for one and half years and played well. But when Keane came back, he had to play because he was the club captain. After that it was tough.

Coming to African football, where do you think the problem is? It has produced outstanding individual players but not good teams.

It’s because of discipline. In Europe it’s better. You need to start in the academies. You need to learn how to play, control your physique, your diet. But in Africa we used to play on the streets. So Africa has always had a problem of playing collectively. But its changing and we have started working on it.

Your first impressions of India...

People are friendly. I talked to some when I landed in Mumbai. Some Manchester (United) fans recognised me wished me good luck. Back in Cameroon we have Indian restaurants. They are called Masala restaurants. Even in England, when I was in Birmingham playing with Aston Villa, there were lots of Indians. I like them.