The recent period of sporting inactivity has given some of football’s greats a chance to examine the incredible experiences the sport has given them. We continue the series by talking to France’s Robert Pirès.
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I’ve always loved playing football. Even now, if anyone needs me, I’ll go and play.
It was very hard to finish my professional career. But it’s OK, I really had played for as long as I could – I was 41 when I played my last match, in India, for FC Goa.
Many ex-players used to tell me, “But Robert, you have to stop at some point.” And I would say, “No, as long as I am physically able and have the motivation, I will keep going.”
I always tell players to keep playing. If they are able, and if they have the desire and motivation, they should keep playing for as long as they can. Whether it’s until you’re 37, 40 or 41, it’s really important to play for as long as possible - time goes quickly, and as we have seen recently, you never know what can happen to stop you playing.
Now, after hanging up my boots, I am still working in football. Whether as an expert for Canal+ or an ambassador for Arsenal or UEFA.
For me, it’s still a great experience, but I’d like to tell you a little bit more about my life in the game.
The early years
Like a lot of kids, it was my father who made me want to start playing football. He played for a local team, and when I was five or six, I watched all his matches.
I first registered as a player at the age of seven, when I joined EF Sainte-Anne in Reims, my home city. That’s where it all began.
I took to playing immediately because I was quite skilful on the ball and good with my feet. I remember that, when I started, we played on a red artificial pitch and I was surprised because I thought I would be playing on grass - my boots didn’t last long, so my mum used to complain a lot at the beginning!
I was ten years old in 1983 when my Sainte-Anne team became champions of France in our age group. It was an amazing experience. We played in a curtain-raiser for the French Cup final between Paris Saint-Germain and Nantes at the Parc des Princes. Imagine, a club like Sainte-Anne, from a suburb of Reims, became French champions by beating SC Bastia 3-0 in the final!
It was a great start for me, but the most important thing at that age is simply to play football. Then, the older you get, the more you have to dream and set yourself targets.
Taking my chance
When I was starting to think I might be able to turn professional with Stade de Reims, my local professional club, they went into liquidation and were relegated. That was a setback, but I moved to Metz, where I started playing professionally at the age of 19.
It was relatively late by modern standards, and it took me a while to make the transition. Before making the first team, which was coached by Joël Muller, I played for the reserves and the academy side for two years. During this period, I was playing and improving my game until, one day, Muller needed a left-sided midfielder and called me up.
I have fond memories of my first professional match - at home to Lyon in July 1992. The stakes were high because places in the first team were hard to come by and I was only picked because one of the regulars was ill. We won 2-0 and that was the start of my professional career.
I knew from that point on that I was a first-division player.
The path to the top
The hardest thing about playing at the top level is performing consistently well. My aim in every match and every training session was to play well. That is how to make sure you enjoy a long career and gain experience.
I’m also aware that it was the players around me who helped me to progress. This was important because, at all the clubs I played for, I always had great players alongside me. I’m not being humble, I just know that without my team-mates I would not have achieved anything.
I stayed at Metz for six years because it was important to play, because they trusted me and because I played virtually every match of the season.
Unfortunately, RC Lens pipped Metz to the league title on goal difference in 1998, which is when I decided it was time to move on. I wanted a change of scenery. My career was like that, always taking one step at a time.
In 1998, I decided to leave Metz and joined Olympique de Marseille. I needed to experience a different type of pressure at every level. Marseille fulfilled this need. I don’t regret it because I had a great time. In that first season, we had a fantastic team, but the second season didn’t go very well.
In 2000, Arsène Wenger came calling. Arsenal was the biggest club I played for. We were champions, we won FA Cups, we went a whole season unbeaten...
The key to my success at Arsenal was the education I’d received at Metz. Of course, I improved after that, and working with a coach like Arsène Wenger is bound to make you a better player. It was the whole package.
At Metz, I was also under pressure because when you play for one, two or three seasons and you start to settle down, people begin to see what you’re capable of doing or giving to the team and they always expect more of you. Whatever happens, they say to you, “OK, you’ve scored ten goals, but next season you need to score 12”. Then the next season, they say, “You’ve scored 12 goals…”, and so on. Each season, the pressure increases.
I had it at Metz, I had it at Marseille and, although it’s true that it was different at Arsenal, it was always a good type of pressure. And wherever I went, I was lucky to always be surrounded by a good coach and good players.
I will talk a little bit more about the national team, but I learned a lot from Zinédine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff, and, at club level, from players like Philippe Vercruysse at Metz. At Marseille, I also played with some great players, such as Christophe Dugarry, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Laurent Blanc, so I certainly can’t complain.
But after that, one of the best – and this won’t come as a surprise to anyone – was Dennis Bergkamp.
Training with Dennis every morning was a pure pleasure. I love that kind of player. They are what football is all about.
As for my opponents, the one who impressed me most was Ronaldinho. A true magician. What he did was so simple and, at the same time, so beautiful that, for me, he was one of the best footballers the world has ever seen.
Internationals, injuries and regrets
I was proud to be given the chance to play for the French national team. Let’s be honest, when I was a French champion with Sainte-Anne at the age of ten, I never thought I would one day play for the national team because it seemed totally out of reach.
It was Raymond Domenech who selected me for the French Under-21 team. I played in the European Championship and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and by now I was always setting myself targets.
Since I was already with the Under-21s, I thought maybe I could make the step up to the senior national team. It is the highest and, certainly, the hardest level you can play at.
Eventually, I made my debut as a substitute against Mexico in 1996, going on to make 79 appearances, winning the World Cup in 1998 and EURO 2000, where I assisted the winning goal for David Trézéguet.
Being a member of those 1998 and 2000 teams would undoubtedly be the ultimate achievement for any elite sportsman.
But despite all this success, I never felt as strong as I did in the 2001/02 season, just before my injury, when a torn cruciate ligament in March 2002 kept me out of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
The coach was planning to give me a key role, which I had taken on board. In addition, with the likes of Thierry Henry, Zidane and Patrick Vieira, things were going well on the pitch at the time. But then I got injured and that was it. There was nothing I could do. And it wasn’t just a minor injury. But you have to accept these things. I accepted it and, unfortunately, 2002 was a complete disaster.
But I don’t have any regrets about that. There are four things that I do regret: failing to win the French title, with Metz and Marseille, and losing the 1999 UEFA Cup final and the 2006 Champions League final.
I regret those things, but I don’t regret the injuries because they are part and parcel of the game and you can’t do anything about them. They are what they are. But losing hurts.
I could have won four more titles, which is not something to be sniffed at. Of course, I won a few titles, the World Cup, the EURO, the Premier League… I wouldn’t swap them for anything in the world, but I would really love to have a French league title with Metz on my CV.
What football gave me
Football is unique because it enables you to travel, learn about other cultures, meet new people and speak other languages.
Never would I have imagined, as I ran around on that small Saint-Anne pitch, that I would still be playing football at the age of 41, in India, let alone have played for the French national team and lifted the World Cup, because for me it was all an impossible dream.
After all these years, it makes me very proud that the Saint-Anne stadium has been named after me.
Going to play in India at the end of my career was particularly special. I never thought I would get the chance to even visit India, let alone play football there.
But it was football that gave me that opportunity and I saw even more clearly the power of sport and its ability to produce unforgettable moments, as well as opportunities to travel, meet people and experience different cultures.
It’s amazing how football can take off in different countries like that, it’s just wonderful. I would never have imagined that football would become so important in my life.
I’ll never forget what the game has given me. I am extremely pleased and proud of what I have done, proud of the way I was brought up by my parents, and proud of the family life I can now enjoy with my wife and three children. I began my life in football with my father when I was five or six, and I’m sure I will still be involved in the game until the day I die.