Interview: France legend Robert Pires – The Arsenal Years

Pires Arsenal

In this second part of our three part series, 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…

So after, let’s say six months, there’s the explosion, especially with Vieira, with Henry, with Wiltord. And I’d say that from the beginning of 2001 until March 2002 are your best years – for Arsenal and for France. For me, two of the best France performances I’ve ever seen were in 2001, they were friendlies against Germany, and then against Portugal where we won 4-0 and you had two assists. That match was unbelievable.

Oh yeah, great memories!

And then in the 2001 Confederations Cup you were awarded golden ball and golden boot, best player and top goalscorer. Against South Korea you were at the origin of three goals, against Mexico you set one up and scored one

Against Brazil too…

…yes, with your volley from outside the area.

Oh yeah, I remember. It’s true that Wiltord-Vieira-Henry-Pirès at Arsenal was working very well. And when we were with the national team, we succeeded in reproducing what we had with the Gunners with the national team. And it worked very well for the French team, thanks to that.

And for France you can add Zidane and Djorkaeff, and for Arsenal Ljungberg and Bergkamp, it’s not bad.

Yes, that a nice comparison. Because Bergkamp – pffft – a very, very good player.

I’ve got two good Gooner friends who love Bergkamp, and to wind them up I always tell them that his goal against Argentina is all down to the great pass from de Boer, and his goal against Newcastle is all down to your great pass

(Laughs) Not bad, not bad!

…You said that for you, providing an assist is as important as scoring?

Yes, I’ve always said that and I still think it today. That’s how I was trained, that’s how I was taught to play, that’s my role. I’m a midfielder and for me a midfielder’s job is to try to help his striker to score. If I came up with one or two assists in a match, that’s mission accomplished. If I was lucky enough to score, that was a bonus. But if you ask me would I prefer to score or to provide an assist to my striker, I prefer to make the pass. Definitely, 100%. That’s why I don’t like it when the striker doesn’t thank the passer.

(Jokes) Like Trezeguet in 2000?

Well, I’ll forgive him that one! But otherwise, I detest that. When there is a great pass from the passer, the striker scores, and he runs off in the other direction. I don’t agree with that.

Well with Arsenal in 2001, 2002, there is a real feeling of team spirit. And for both, for Arsenal and for France, at the time, watching the match, it never crossed one’s mind that you could lose.

What I would say is that, it’s not arrogance but we felt so strong and so sure of ourselves that we said to each other “today, we are practically unbeatable”. And that is why , for example, in the 2003-04 season, we went a whole season undefeated, and we won the league. 49 matches. The Invincibles. It’s beautiful. A very great time and a very great era.

When I told mates that I was going to be meeting you, the question that nearly all of them told me I had to ask…

Ouh la…

It’s the penalty…

OUH LA! It’s funny because everyone wants to know what happened, so I’ll try to explain it well. The idea was Thierry Henry’s. And the error was mine. So, how to explain? The match was Saturday against Manchester City. On Friday, there was a penalty in training. It was during a training session. And Henry comes up to me and says “let’s do the trick that Cruyff did”. And I thought, OK, it’s only training, we could try to do it. In the training session, it was Thierry who passed it, and me who scored. It all worked, no problem. On the day of the match, there was a penalty. A first penalty. I took it, and I scored. 1-0. 10 minutes later, another penalty. And this time Thierry comes up to me and says “come on Robert, let’s try what we did yesterday in training”. And I say “come on Titi, we’re not doing it”. And he says “yes, we must do it now, we’re leading 1-0, we have to do it now”.

In the book you said that Thierry was already thinking of his DVDs, and going that little bit further?

Well Thierry knows all the rules of football. And he’d seen Cruyff take that penalty, and he wanted to do it. And I didn’t want to do it because it was a serious, competitive match – Manchester City and there was only one goal in it – so for me it was risky. And this time he said “let’s do it, but let’s swap roles”. And what you need to know is that it all happens quickly. You don’t have ten minutes to decide. It’s one minute – not even. And I said “no Titi, I don’t want to”. “Yes, come on, we have to – like yesterday, except that this time you make the pass, and I come in and score”. And I was saying “no, no”, but it felt for me like this was taking ages. And he’s saying “yes, yes, yes”, so I decided OK. But I didn’t really want to. So I put the ball down, I’m facing David James? I think it was him. I look at him. I turn around. And the last view I have of Thierry Henry, it’s that he is stuck behind two defenders! I’m facing the keeper, and in my head I’m thinking “he’ll never get there first”. For me it wasn’t going to work and lots of things were going through my mind. So I take my run up, and just as I get to the ball, I don’t know why, but my foot said No! It was like an allergic reaction – you mustn’t make the pass. So I kind of froze. And I barely touched the ball. And what is funny is that – the fault was mine, because I didn’t make the pass for Thierry. And he was the first to get there – I don’t know how – and said to me “but what are you doing?” and what was funny was that the referee didn’t know the rule. Hardly anyone knew that way of taking a penalty. And as the referee didn’t know, do you know what he did? He gave a free kick against us! But I didn’t touch the ball. The ball has to do one full turn to be “in play”. It didn’t, so I should have been able to take it again. But the referee blew for a free kick against Arsenal.

But the match finished 1-0, you won, it was OK?

Yes but I can tell you it was very, very hairy for the rest of the match, it felt like a very long time! (Laughs) So long – you can’t even imagine! But that’s the story of the penalty. But what is funny is that today everyone talks about it. All the Arsenal supporters, whenever they see me, they say “so what happened with that penalty with Thierry Henry?” It’s funny! But I think it’s a cute story. It’s true, I would have liked to have made the pass and for Thierry to have scored, that was the aim. But that way it’s funny, and people haven’t forgotten it. They want to know what really happened that day. And it was like after the goal against Italy [in 2000] – I had a blackout, I didn’t know what was happening. It’s strange.

But it shows that, at the time, you could try things like that at Arsenal, because everything seemed to be coming off?

Yes, definitely. But afterwards people accused Arsenal of being arrogant, they were saying you’re not allowed to do that. But yes, you are allowed. It’s in the rules. Cruyff did it a few years before us. It’s not arrogant, but we were confident in ourselves and we wanted to try other things, to go above the ordinary.

Like your lob from 40 yards against Southampton. Or Thierry Henry’s back heel against Charlton.

For me that’s the goal of a genius. We were, if you like, playing fantasy football. We were strong, we were beating all other teams, and we had the chance to try things that others weren’t. That’s football. For me, football is about having fun, even in the professional game. You have to try different things.

That’s why, for example, I would rather watch Arsenal, or Manchester City this year, than a Mourinho team, which is effective but not good to watch.

Yes, it depends what kind of football people like. If it’s boring football but the team wins, their fans will say “we’ve won”. But if you’re playing beautiful football and you win, it’s much better.

The teams that have marked history are those who play beautiful football.

Yes, for sure. And it’s true that if you look at Manchester City, they’re very strong, because they play, they play good football. And it produces results. How many goals have they already scored?

Altogether it’s about 110 already.

There you go. And in the league it’s loads too. And it’s a team that enjoys playing, that wants to create football for those watching. And for me, that’s true football.

Going back to 2002. The World Cup is approaching. You are – well definitely the best player in England that year…

Voted by the journalists, yes.

…friends of mine say the best in the world at that time.

That’s very kind – be sure to thank them!

And then there’s the injury against Newcastle.

In the FA Cup.

You said in the book, if you want to hear a duck cry, just break his feet.

It wasn’t wrong.

But I don’t want to speak too much about the injury…

No, it’s OK, it’s part of the game, that’s just the way it goes.

I’ve had so many arguments with friends over the years about France’s failure in the 2002 World Cup. I think there are a load of reasons. But one of the ones that I always give is that most teams don’t have one truly great player. We had two – we had Zidane and we had you. And you were both injured. So of course you were both going to be missed.

It’s true that we – well Zizou – was very, very important for the French team. As for me, well after the assist for David in the final, at that moment I was confident that I could move up to the next level in order to help the French. I knew, again, what my role was, and I had become more confident. And it’s true that, with Arsenal, the 2001-02 season had gone very, very well. And so the others started putting their confidence in me, especially Roger Lemerre. So I started playing more and more, I became a starter. And it’s true that at that time, I felt that I had a good connection with Zidane on the pitch. And we started preparing for the World Cup like that. And then there was my injury, and then Zizou’s injury. And certainly, the French team wasn’t prepared for that eventuality. And it’s true that it was difficult to replace us. Well especially Zidane anyway! (Laughs)

But you’ve also said that the main reason [for the 2002 failure] was that Deschamps and Blanc were missed.

Yes, because after 2000, when they both decided to retire, those two men – there was Marcel Desailly too – were important players. But they were leaders. And when you have two leaders like that who leave the crew, it’s hard to stay afloat, and that’s why in 2002 there was no one to steer the ship, we went off course, we ran aground, and we totally failed in the 2002 World Cup. That’s clear.

I’d like to speak about the end of your career at Arsenal and at the same time to ask about Wenger – what was Wenger like, and how was your relationship with him, at the time and now? Because although everyone understands why it happened, it must have hurt for you to have been substituted? [Pirès was substituted in the 18th minute of the 2006 Champions League final, after Jens Lehmann was sent off, in order for Almunia to come on.]

Well my relationship with Arsène Wenger has never changed. From the moment I signed for Arsenal until now. And even if there was that moment with the Champions League, our relationship has always been the same. That is to say that yes, for a few minutes after Jens Lehmann’s sending-off it was hard for me. Because it was in Paris, it was against Barcelona, I had all my family there at the Stade de France, and it was I who was substituted. So it was hard. But what hurt the most was that we lost the final. That is hard, because the Champions League final, you play maybe two, possibly three, but generally just one, maximum. So it was a great opportunity for us. But as for my personal case, afterwards I didn’t care. What I cared about was winning. And then we lost. And I barely played. So it was hard. But I can’t hold that decision against Arsène Wenger. I can’t forget the six years that I worked with him. For me that is important. I prefer to retain those six great years in my mind, rather than to focus on that Champions League final. For me that’s ancient history. I spoke to him about it for two days afterwards – for me it was important to know why it was me who went off. But it’s simply the coach’s choice.

What did Wenger do for your career, and how? Did he give you advice, did he build up your self-confidence?

Yes, both. What is great with Arsène Wenger, it’s that when you have strengths, he makes you work on them. He doesn’t want to work on your weaknesses. If you have faults, you have faults. But if you have qualities, he wants to work on making them perfect. And that’s what he wanted from me, two qualities, speed and dribbling. So I worked enormously on those two areas, and it was important for me, of course. As for how he is – the relationship is simple. When you are on the pitch, he leaves you to it. He lets you do whatever you like. That’s when you have the trust of the coach, and I earned that. I gained his trust, and then you’re a free man on the pitch.

We mentioned Manchester City. Just to touch on your time with Villarreal, Pellegrini was your coach there.

Yes, for three years.

It seems to me that Pellegrini, Wenger, maybe also Muller and Lemerre, are men who are calm, quiet, and who all like the beautiful game.

They are coaches, it’s true, who like their teams to play attractive football. At Arsenal I had a great time with Wenger, and at Villarreal it was the same with Pellegrini. The proof is that he did the same with Malaga and he’s doing it today with Man City. For me he’s honestly one of the best coaches in Europe and that’s why he is today with a big club in England. And it was the same at Metz – Joel Muller wanted his team to create attractive football and that’s what happened. And maybe that’s why I succeeded in having the career that I did.

In Part III, Robert talks about the controversial end to his international career, his thoughts on the current Arsenal and France teams, his opinions on Ligue 1 and his post-professional career.

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