I've interviewed many footballers, but rarely have I been as nervous as I was before meeting Montpellier Hérault SC's larger-than-life president Louis Nicollin on Monday. It's hard to explain, but perhaps suggests the extent to which his very public persona, oft-embellished with outrageous statements, has become a major feature of the French football landscape.
My anxiety was unfounded, though. Geniality itself over an espresso when we met at the club's leafy headquarters, it soon became clear Nicollin is a man of the people. A 20-minute drive east of Montpellier to his vast estate brings home the fact he is a wealthy man of the people, whose success in the family's waste disposal business and in Ligue 1 last season has proved not only where there's muck, there's brass, but there is also silverware.
Though large swathes of his land are given over to agriculture, Nicollin has used a good part of his equally sizeable fortune to do what many of us would if we could: build his own private football museum.
The exterior of the barn-like building on his property, the scene of our interview, gives no indication of the riches inside. The massive room is wall-to-wall football history with an entire 100m-long section dedicated to shirts from Nicollin's own team. It is the image of what many a 12-year-old boy's bedroom would look like if they had the money. "I was given a lot of the shirts," he explained. "But I also bought many at auction."
Though his collection has a distinct Gallic flavour, Nicollin is by no means partisan. Matt Derbyshire's Olympiacos FC jersey is given the same treatment as Zinédine Zidane's spare, unused 2006 FIFA World Cup final shirt, which – like all the others – is framed, labelled and hung from either the ceiling or the walls.
"George Best," Nicollin said to me, a boyish glint in the eye of this 69-year-old at the mere mention of the 1968 European Footballer of the Year, whose Northern Ireland and Manchester United FC tops hang from the walls. "There's Bobby Charlton, too. There's also Ronaldinho."
Though polite, friendly and unfailingly humorous, Nicollin is somebody who cares little for what people think. "I could have come in a suit and tie, especially as it's for UEFA, but ..." His voice trailed off as he looked down at the casual clothing he had arrived in, after stepping out of the golf buggy used to transport both man and memorabilia the vast length of his museum.
For the next 20 minutes or so, I tried to disguise my amusement as Nicollin, sat in a high-backed chair covered with an old-school Montpellier shirt, held court, both king and jester, in front of the camera. "What will you do if you win the Champions League?" I asked the man who sported a blue-and-orange Mohawk haircut following his team's Ligue 1 title triumph. "I'll become a monk," he replied, giggling to himself. "And I'll be completely naked underneath my robes." Cue barely stifled laughter all round.
There was less joviality when the camera panned to him following Younès Belhanda's brimful-of-bravado penalty against Arsenal FC on Tuesday. For a man who had sworn to me barely 24 hours before that he hates "being completely into the match", Nicollin's features betrayed the tension.
I can only imagine in what sort of state he was after Arsenal quickly scored twice, and then during Montpellier's valiant but ultimately unsuccessful second-half onslaught. There are likely to be several more nights like that for Nicollin before the end of the group stage. Monasteries in the Montpellier area, however, can probably rest easy.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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