Few men know as much about European football as Gérard Houllier, the venerated French coach whose opinion is valued at every echelon of the game. Currently serving as technical director for the French Football Federation, the 60-year-old guided both Paris Saint-Germain FC and Olympique Lyonnais to French league honours, and captured the UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, FA Cup and two English League Cups during his six-year spell with Liverpool FC. That haul earned him an honorary OBE for services to English football, which as he reveals here, he is still very attached to.
Why do you think four English teams made it through to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals?
Firstly because the clubs are strong: good teams, good quality. And also because the English league is in my opinion faster and more intense in terms of athleticism and play, and so that has to be a better preparation for the Champions League.
Your old team Liverpool must get past Arsenal FC, of course. What do you make of the two sides?
They're two clubs with big identities in terms of their success, that are very well-known, well-loved, popular and that currently play in two very different styles. One is a team that’s more powerful with perhaps more experience; the other a team that’s growing. I know that the philosophy of [Arsenal coach] Arsène [Wenger] depends on speed, technique and movement, so that's why he always creates a type of play that's spectacular, attractive, pleasing, and that the fans really love.
How close do you still feel to Liverpool?
I'll be a Liverpool fan for the rest of my life. There are still players there that I got started, connections to the team that we set up.
Like Steven Gerrard, for example?
Above all, I'm happy and proud to see he's progressing, that he's become a key player for [current coach] Rafael Benítez. For me, it's especially [pleasing] that he continues to be a world-class player in the sense that he can alter the balance of matches – big matches at key moments.
Can he still improve?
Steven's like everyone, he can progress every day, every season. What's sure is he's going to gain even more experience. For me, he can have a very long career full of trophies. What he's missing at the moment is the English championship but that'll happen for him one day.
What are your thoughts on the number of French players in the UEFA Champions League?
France is a country that supplies a lot of players to the Champions League. I think we're the nation that supplies the second biggest number of players. We've had two teams in it for the last five years, but we're the second nation after Brazil. So we're a good training centre for Europe.
Would you prefer up-and-coming stars like Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri to stay in France longer?
It's not whether I like it; I know that at one time or another they'll want a bigger change for their own careers, abroad. Whether that be in Spain or Italy or England, it doesn't matter – in Germany even, as we've seen with [Franck] Ribéry. But what seems important is that they leave at a time when they have a maturity in their game, and that they don't have the stress of still developing and making it.
What is your role now as French technical director?
I'll describe it in terms of an image. When you're a club manager, you just focus on your own club, especially on your first team, because you can't do much at a club if you're not getting results every third day. When you're a national technical director you're looking at French football and world football, because you need to know exactly where football is at the top level, how it's going to develop, and how to prepare the footballers and the football of tomorrow. So now I have a wider view, and to improve and develop and adapt to prepare for the future, you need to intervene occasionally in the training of coaches. You need good training for players, so you work on training for coaches, on the elite, on national youth teams, and the last point is the development of how much football is played, which means getting more and more young people to play football.
Do you miss management?
I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it. You know, when you've spent your whole life involved in something, you want to go back to it. But this is another challenge, another career and another role.
Gérard Houllier was speaking to the UEFA Champions League television programme Champions Weekly.
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