Robert Pires works as a commentator in Canal Group and in M6 in his country, but he is a legend of his selection and Arsenal. The Gaul has granted a exclusive interview with 90min France in which he reviews the moments most successful of a sensational career
What does soccer mean to you?
Since I was 7 years old, I have this passion in me thanks to my father. He was the one who led me down that path, but without thinking about whether I would one day become a professional footballer. For me, soccer is above all a passion.
You made your debut at Stade Reims but you didn’t play much. It was at Metz that you made yourself known. What does that club mean to you?
I had no luck at the Stade Reims because I was bankrupt in 1992, when I was there. I was part of the second team, although occasionally I trained with the ‘older’
The problem is that I did not get to debut. I had to go to Metz and there they gave me the opportunity. They trusted me and gave me the opportunity to play, even though I was only 19 years old
In your last year there, you shine under Messin’s orders and you were called up to play the 1998 World Cup in France. Were you surprised to be on the list of 22?
Honestly yes. In the French team there was a very good group of players, very physical and very technical. It was a pleasant surprise for me to be on Aimé Jacquet’s list. I think he liked my style and my way of playing
Between 1996 and 2000 there were many good French players. It was very difficult to enter the call, and I had to be very persistent, serious and hard-working
During the World Cup you did not have much participation, but you managed to prevail in the final. How was that experience for you?
Actually Jacquet already made it clear to us at the beginning that there were some gallons in the team, but that we had to be ready at all times to help. I very willingly assumed my role as a substitute, we were a team. We wanted to be world champions.
Also, I learned a lot from the older players. It helped me grow. I didn’t play much, true, but being with all those footballers for two months helped me a lot in my career
But you had a decisive role in the round of 16, against Paraguay
(laughs) I told you, I knew I was going to be a substitute theorist. I had a ‘certain’ Dugarry in front of me …. I was important against Paraguay because I gave the ball to Trezeguet, who then handed it to Blanc to score. Thanks to that goal we continue our adventure in the quarterfinals. I liked being important despite not enjoying too many minutes
For you, was there someone who stood out above the group?
It’s a very good question, but I think not really. Our defensive level as a whole made the difference in that World Cup. Our defenses from that tournament were literally scary, and so it was very difficult for rivals to hurt us
Did any player impress you at that tournament?
Yuri Djorkaeff was a wonderful player. He was ‘unlucky’ (laughs) because he was in Zizou’s shadow. But I learned from him daily. He was a technically very good footballer and lethal against the rival goalkeeper. He gave us the technical touch that the team needed in that World Cup
That title was a turning point in your career and you signed for Olympique Marseille. How were your two seasons there?
Yes it was. When they signed me, the president of Metz told me “be careful, you don’t know where you are going” (laughs). But it was a very good option to go there. Marseille is and will continue to be a powerful club in the French league. I took some criticism, some stick, because the pressure there is greater, but it made me grow
Today something similar happens at the Olympique. I already experienced it in 1999. It is not easy, but with tough times like this is how you really learn and improve
In the summer of 2000 you were called to play the Eurocup. This time it doesn’t surprise you anymore
(laughs) The truth is that no. It didn’t surprise me, because during the two years with OM I had done well on a personal level. Then I also had the confidence of Roger Lemerre, who was Aimé Jacquet’s assistant in 1998. He knew the group well, despite the fact that he changed some players.
Like in France 98, you didn’t play much either. But you entered the second half in the final, against Italy. What do you remember of all that?
When I saw that we were going to go home empty, I felt sunk. We lost 0-1 against Italy, that seemed impossible to save as a general rule against them. But we tied on the last play and we won in extra time. That is the magic of soccer. Lemerre’s three changes worked perfectly
Do you think the 2000 team was better than the 1998 team?
Yes. The difference is that we had grown up, we knew each other better and there was more chemistry between us, both on and off the field. That’s why I think the 2000 team was better, especially on a technical level. The bar was high
In July 2000 you start a new stage, in England with Arsenal. How did you get in touch with Arsène Wenger, why Arsenal?
When I was at Metz, Arsène had already wanted me for Monaco, which was the team he coached. In the summer of 2000 I had offers from Real Madrid, Juventus and Arsenal, but Wenger convinced me, because he assured me that he was going to play and for me it was the most important thing.
How was that change from Ligue 1 to the Premier?
It was complicated, it took me about 6-7 months to adapt. There was a lot more pace, they don’t spend any downtime and it’s a lot more physical than in France
Six seasons in North London. What is your best season individually and collectively?
On an individual level, I would say the 2001-02 season. Yes it is true that I broke my cruciate ligament, but I also felt that everything I tried was coming out. I do not know why.
At the collective level the 2003-04 season. It was Arsenal of the Invincibles, we won the league without losing any game. It was something impressive on our part, nobody has ever done it in history, although I think that sooner or later a team will achieve it too.
What was the greatest strength of that team?
Technically we were above the rest. Mentally too, thanks to the English players. Foreigners were the fine ones and they were the tough ones (laughs)
Which partner impressed you the most? And what rival?
Henry. I called it ‘the fighter plane’, because nobody could stop it. In the counterattacks it was a rocket, crazy. I’ve been lucky enough to play with him for years, be it at Arsenal or the national team. For me, he is one of the best strikers football has ever known. Titi was very strong. I also learned with Dennis Bergkamp on a technical level. I was lucky to have him on the team, and Zizou on the national team. Full time magic!
Among opponents, I’d say Gary Neville pissed me off a lot. I didn’t want to play. He just wanted to destabilize me, hitting me or insulting me. He often fell into the trap.
In 2006 Arsenal reached the final of the Champions. You lost against him Barcelona (2-1) and on top of that you left at the beginning of the game, replaced by Almunia, after the red to Lehmann. Is it one of the worst memories of your career?
Yes, it is one of the two worst I have. Very difficult to digest. That they changed me at the beginning did not matter so much to me, it is part of the game and the coach has to make a decision. It hurt to lose a final like this in a competition as tough as the Champions League
The other is not having been champion in France with Metz. I would have liked to add Ligue 1 to my record
You finished your career in 2016, in India, and today you are an analyst at Canal Group and M6. How is this new life going?
I started at beIN Sports, although today I am lucky enough to comment on the Premier with Canal Group and the French team with M6. I enjoy it, and so I follow the games of ours
What do you think of the current situation for Arsenal, which is tenth in the Premier League?
The club is still in transition, Wenger’s shadow is still long there. It is something similar to what happened to United with Sir Alex Ferguson, although today they have improved a lot. This is sure that Arsenal will turn the situation around. There is quality for it and I trust Arteta
And how was Ozil treated before he left for Fenerbahçe?
Seen from the outside it is incomprehensible. Ozil and Arteta argued, but Mesut said nothing and in the end accepted what Mikel told him. He kept going to train every day like one more. He knew he wasn’t going to play, but he never complained. Nothing can be blamed on him as a professional
The rest is up to the coach. As they say in England, the coach is the boss. Once you have made a decision, it must be accepted.
Who do you think will win the Premier this season?
Well, it sure won’t be for Arsenal this year (laughs). But a club like Manchester United would be fine. It is an ambitious club, with a great history.