Interview: Arsenal’s Robert Pires – The Early Years
In the recent ITV4 show Keane & Vieira: Best of Enemies, the two great midfielders attempted to agree on their era’s combined Arsenal-Manchester United dream team. Some proposed players were the subject of heated debate, but one player who was included with no argument was Robert Pirès. His inclusion in the team is an indication of the respect in which the former Arsenal and France midfielder is held, not only by Keane and Vieira but also by football fans around the world. Whether with Metz, Marseille, Arsenal, Villarreal or Aston Villa, or with the French national team, with whom he became World and European Champion, Pirès entertained crowds across the globe with his slaloming runs, his numerous assists, his classy goals and his sense of fun on the pitch.
Now in (semi-) retirement, Pirès – who has made north London his home – kindly granted French Football Weekly’s Jeremy Smith two hours of his time, to reminisce about a great career and to talk about his hopes and plans for the future – for him, for Ligue 1, for Arsenal and for France.
In this first of our three part interview, Robert talks about his early career with Metz and Marseille, his 1998 and 2000 trophies with France, and his first few months at Arsenal.
I wanted to start by saying that I read your book and one of the things that amused me was the number of nicknames that you had – there was of course Le Portugais [Pirès’ dad is Portuguese], l’Oursin [reference to his self-confessed stinginess], Super Bobby Pirès, unfortunately Le Suceur [look it up yourself – it’s rude!]…
…but you chose Le Canard – the duck – for the title of your book, Les Canards Ne Savent Pas Tacler – Ducks Can’t Tackle. Can you explain why you chose this title?
Why did I choose Le Canard? Very simply, it’s a reference to my feet! Because apparently I run and walk like Le Canard – [in English] “the duck”. In fact it was Aimé Jacquet, during a France call-up, who called me “ten past ten” and the others saw it, heard it, and it stuck.
It’s effective though. You were quick.
Honestly, I don’t know if it’s effective, but it’s certainly true that it helped me to score lots of goals with the inside of my right foot.
The number of lobs and chips is impressive.
That was my favourite move, the one that I worked on a lot in training. And it’s true that I was lucky enough to score quite a few goals like that.
My favourite of that kind is your first goal for France, against Turkey. It was perfectly placed.
Yes, it was a good goal. It was perfect because it was a goal! And it was only my second cap, so it wasn’t easy, there was lots of pressure on me. But if you look at the context, we were already leading 2-0 [Ed: it was 3-0 at the time] so I was more relaxed about trying the lob.
Speaking of that period, I am a Messin – you could say that I grew up with you. So this is a little indulgence for me, but what are your memories and your emotions for FC Metz now?
Well it’s a club which meant a lot and still means a lot to me today, because if I was lucky enough to have a great career, it’s because Metz showed enormous confidence in me, especially the club president Carlo Molinari, because it was he who gave me my first professional contract when I was 19. So for me it was very important. Then, I was lucky to stay six years, to meet good people, a good coach. And when you feel that people are behind you, you are freer and more relaxed on the pitch. So today Metz remains a very important stage in my career. And that’s why it’s a club that I can’t forget. And that’s why, this week, I watched Metz-Creteil on TV. It is important for me, because it brings back good memories, because it’s Saint-Symphorien, because I know the stadium well. It’s for nostalgic reasons that I watch.
You dedicated your book to your doctor and physio [who treated Pirès after his two cruciate ligament injuries] and also to Arsène Wenger, whom we’ll come back to, but also to Joel Muller [Metz coach]. You mentioned Carlo Molinari, but Joel Muller was also important for your career?
Yes, I mentioned Carlo Molinari because he was the president and the one who signed the contracts, so he was important off the pitch. Joel Muller is the coach who gave me the opportunity to play in the first division, it was he who had faith in me and always supported me. But talking of Metz, there was another coach who was important to me and that was the reserve team coach, Philippe Hinschberger. He was the first person who played me on the left wing. Before that I was playmaker, number 10. He saw my game and how I played, and one day he came up to me and said, “Robert, I know you’re not left-footed but I want you to play on the left”. I thought that was weird. At the time it was very rare to have right-footed people playing on the left. I said “Philippe, are you sure?” He said “let’s try it”. And it worked! And there’s the start of my story on the left wing.
And that duel with Lens… [the 1997-98 Championnat run-in] You were Ligue 1 champion for about an hour – actually over two years you were Ligue 1 champion for about two hours, and in the end not at all.
That last match still gives me nightmares.
Yes, it was hard for us players, but also for the fans. Because for a few minutes we were champions of France, as our match finished before Auxerre-Lens. And then Lachor equalised, enabling Lens to be champions. But it’s true that it was a very, very difficult moment. For us but also for the whole city. Because it would have been great to see, on the list of winners, FC Metz. It would have been magnificent.
Metz was a real family club?
Exactly. It was a big family, we were a small club with a small budget, we didn’t have big salaries, but we all had the same aim – to try to win the league. It may have seemed ridiculous to some people, but for us it was important because we felt that we had a good team with lots of qualities. And it’s true that we had some players like Rigobert Song, who was a success, like Jocelyn Blanchard, who went to Juventus. There were successes in their next clubs, there was Cyrille Pouget too, who went to PSG, to Marseille. So yes, my relationship with all the players was good, honestly.
So of course at the end of that season it was the World Cup. You must have gone through a range of emotions over those six or so weeks. There’s the wait and the tension to see if you’re going to be in the [final squad of] 22. Then you said that you felt a little like an imposter. Then you were on the bench, wondering if you’d play. Then you didn’t play in the final, but you’re a World Champion! So what did you go through?
Well first of all it wasn’t easy or obvious because there was so much quality within the France team, and I had to be in the group, because the World Cup, for a player, is very important. And it was difficult because when we were all together, we knew that at any moment, Aimé Jacquet was going to prepare his blacklist – choose his six players who would not be part of the squad. And it wasn’t easy because we felt that there was a bit of tension every morning in training, and that’s normal because everyone wanted to go to the World Cup. So there was a bit of a battle for it. But what was good about it, when I look back at that time, it was a good form of competition. Then there’s a coach there and it’s for him to make his choices. Then, the World Cup, for us players it wasn’t so bad because it was the coach, Aimé Jacquet, who was targeted by all the journalists. So it wasn’t easy for him.
So it was him who took it all upon himself?
He took it all on himself, he shouldered all the responsibility, he knew that, in sending away six players [Jacquet originally chose a pre-squad of 28, but had to cut it to 22, and Anelka, Letizi, Laigle, Lamouchi, Ba and Djetou were the unlucky six], the press would say no, that’s not good, you need to think of the players, how will they feel afterwards. But he took responsibility, he took the risk, and he was proved right! We were World Champions! No one expected that we would win.
Every time you say world champion, you still smile.
Yes, because they were emotional moments, for the whole country and for us players, because we achieved something that is grandiose. I hope that in six months we’ll be world champions again. But we marked French football and today we are all proud to have achieved that. And proud to be French too!
But did it ever cross your mind to play for Spain or Portugal [Pirès’ mum is Spanish]?
Honestly, no. I love my family, I love Portugal, I love Spain, no one can question me on that. But I chose France because I was born in France, I grew up in France, I had the French culture engrained in me. And it’s the French insitutions that taught me and helped me to become a professional footballer. When I say institutions, I mean sport studies and the youth development centre, at Reims and at Metz. So at a certain point I could not forget what France has given me. But I love Portugal and I love Spain – I am not rejecting my roots, not at all. But at a certain point, one has to make a choice.
After the World Cup came Marseille. Is it fair to say that it was quite a mixed two years?
Well the first year was very good, and the second year very bad! (Laughs) The first year we finished second in the league, a point behind Bordeaux. Second again! Which for me was again very hard to take. And we reached the final of the UEFA Cup, losing 3-0 to Parma in Moscow. So overall it was a good season. I learnt a lot in terms of maturity, because it’s not easy there. Then the second season was very complicated, because there was lots of upheaval, Laurent Blanc’s departure really hurt us a lot, we started the season very badly and it was a nightmare until May.
I thought it interesting that you said that going from Metz to Marseille was like going from terroir to bling bling.
(Laughs) Yes a bit, because I left my little family club to join a big French club where I knew that every day would be difficult. But everyone knows and follows Marseille because they are one of the best French clubs. I remember at the time, when I decided to join Marseille, president Molinari said “listen Robert, it’s your choice but I think you’re making a mistake. He didn’t want me to go there. He knew my personality well and he said “it’s not the club for you”. Did I succeed or not there? Honestly, I don’t know, but in any case it was important to taste it, and to play for a big French club.
On reflection, maybe it was a good step between Metz and going abroad?
Now I can say yes. But at the time I didn’t want to leave France. I always wanted to play in our championnat. Because it’s not like it is now, when everyone wants to leave. At the time what I wanted was to be a professional footballer and to play in France. Playing abroad wasn’t such an obvious option, there weren’t many French players going abroad at the time, not like now. So for me it was an extra step, but to grow up, to gain a bit of experience. And then I had that chance, that opportunity, in 2000, when Arsène Wenger came to get me.
But before Arsenal and before Arsène Wenger, there was of course Euro 2000. And there again, like in 1998, because of your second season with Marseille it wasn’t necessarily certain that you would be in the squad. But you were and of course you provided the assist for…
David! Trezeguet! [rolls ‘r’ in Spanish accent]
One could say that the “golden goal” rule was more of a success for you than for any other player in the world, after Laurent Blanc’s goal against Paraguay [Pirès crossed for Trezeguet to cushion a header for Blanc to score in 1998].
Well personally it helped me a lot, the fact that I was the one who passed to David Trezeguet. Because it stayed in the minds of the people, the fans, and today I am lucky to appear in the clips. When we see David’s goal, we see my run down the wing, my cut-back and then David’s fabulous goal. So for me it changed lots of things, as it allowed me to rise to another level with the French team and also with Arsenal. And I know that I wasn’t playing a lot because, in 1998 and in 2000, I knew what my role was – it was as a substitute.
A “joker”! [Supersub]
A joker, exactly. Because there was a hierarchy, and the players who started were better than me. So I was on the bench and I was waiting for one thing – to be told “Robert, you’re coming on”. And I knew that from the start.
In 2000, in almost every match, every substitution that Lemerre made led to a change in the score. Wiltord was also a substitute in the final, and scored.
In fact, my coming on in the final, I didn’t understand it. When I went to start my warm-up, Wiltord and Trezeguet had already come on. And on the side of the pitch were Anelka and me. And I wasn’t even warming up properly because I was saying to myself that there was no point as I wasn’t going to come on. And we’re trailing 1-0, so I’m telling myself “whatever, it’s all over anyway, we’re going to lose, it’s done and dusted”. And then I don’t know why but in the 86th minute Roger Lemerre calls me over. Or actually he calls in our direction and I say “go on Nico, he’s calling you”. And then they say no, no, not Nico – Robert. So I go, wondering “why are they going to bring me on in the 86th minute, there’s no point”. And then he says to me “you’re going to play along the whole of the left flank”. And I say “the whole of the left? But who’s coming off?” And it’s Lizarazu! And I say to myself, “this is the wrong substitution!” That just shows that I don’t have a coach’s instinct! And then we are lucky that Sylvain equalises in injury-time, and then we know the rest!
Can you describe your emotions after your assist? You can see on the clips that you’re not chasing after Trezeguet.
Well what is weird is that I had no emotion. Because there was so much pressure and tension surrounding the match. That’s normal – it’s the final. But then the scenario – it was so hard, for the French, for the Italians. There was nothing between us. And then it’s down to a golden goal. And I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it. And then I put in my cross for David, David scores that goal. And I know I need to run, but I don’t know what’s happening. It was like a blackout – I really no longer had any idea what was going on for a few moments. I was disconnected. Totally. I think it’s the pressure. Because I know that it’s over, that we’re champions of Europe. And what’s powerful, is that when I think back on it, on my left is the stand with all the French fans, behind the goal, and I hear a great noise because everyone is so happy. And then I carry on walking behind the goal. And I don’t know what’s happening. Even today I can’t tell you. Normally I would have been running with the others, embracing them all, embracing David Trezeguet. But I don’t know. I am walking. And then two players arrive who are, I think, in the same state as me. And it’s Thuram and Zidane. And they’ve come to congratulate me because they were dead, I think they no longer had any strength left to run. So that’s the story.
It’s a beautiful story!
Yes, because it ended in our favour. But we saw the Italians and they were destroyed. Honestly, I would not have wanted to be in their place. It’s terrible, what happened that evening to the Italians, it’s unimaginable, it’s impossible.
That’s why after the penalty shoot-out in 2006, I was gutted, but I thought that that evened things out.
Yes, between 2000 and 2006, each had their turn. Although it’s worse for us because we lost in the World Cup final.
And I suppose it’s sod’s law that it’s Trezeguet who misses…
Yes, it’s Trezeguet who misses his penalty. Justice was done, some would say!
So after the Euro comes Arsenal. And you struggled for the first few months. You described English football as a boxing match, in comparison with the style of Reims or Metz.
For me it was a difficult and long adaptation period. Because I didn’t know England, it was different to what I had learnt with the French clubs, and I was only 26, so it wasn’t easy. And what was particularly difficult for me was that everyone compared me non-stop to Overmars. Which is normal, because Marc Overmars had a great career at Arsenal, he scored lots of goals, he caught the public’s imagination. And everyone was a little disappointed that he left for Barcelona. And they were saying “if we’re losing Overmars, who is going to come in?” And when they were told that it was Pirès who was coming, everyone said “Who? Pirès? Where does he play?” Which is normal because in England they didn’t follow the French league. And as soon as I touched the ball – OK, I wasn’t playing well, I know that. But I felt that the fans were a bit cold towards me. And so it took me some time, they didn’t go easy on me, there was even a section of Highbury who would whistle as soon as I had the ball. Not a big section. But you hear it. Those who weren’t happy, who whistled when I made a bad pass or miscontrolled. But then I gradually adapted to the English league. And it’s all down to Arsène, who helped me a lot, who spoke to me a lot. And I remember the day of my first match. I thought “great, I’ll start, I’ll play, I’m happy”. And he came over and said “listen Robert, today you’re not starting, you’re a sub”. I was a little disappointed. He said “I want you to sit and to see how it is in England”. And after 20 minutes I said to myself “what the hell am I doing here?!” It was at Sunderland! And I said to myself “ouh la la, I won’t succeed here, it’s impossible”. The physicality! And then Pat Vieira was flattened by a terrible tackle! Pfffft! And I said to myself “what am I doing here?” But he was right, Arsène! So I watched, I learnt, I spent a few matches on the bench, and that’s how you progress, how you find the resources to do so. As simple as that.
READ PART II – Robert talks about the peak of his career, for club and country, the twin disappointments of missing the 2002 World Cup and his 2006 Champions League final substitution, and that penalty for Arsenal…