Annie Lennox is belting out Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) as Frédéric Kanouté leans back and considers whether this is the best moment of his career. The irony seems to be passing him by.
We are in the pine-floored gym of Sevilla’s training ground, and Enzo Maresca is pounding out sets of five 30m sprints between one-minute rests. The Eurythmics are there for the surging bass line, not the lyrics – and as Kanouté takes his trademark time to develop an answer, it could be the first time a mental muscle has been needed within these four walls. This is a place of physical, not cerebral, worship – and the music is like grass on a pitch: you only notice when it’s bad.
Fredi grins and agrees that the Sweet Dreams theme is pretty apposite. “Since I came here I’ve played in six finals, scored in five, won five. You could say I’m not unhappy.” He relaxes as the ticker tape of memory streams by.
“When I signed, I had never won a trophy, and I pointed out I wasn’t a ‘born’ goalscorer,” he says. “Now I’m in the best scoring form of my life and I have five medals.
“I can’t tell you if a medal ‘feels’ better if you’ve scored in the final – because I’ve never lifted a trophy without getting a goal. It might be almost the same… but it’s a sweet taste to score an important goal and win a final.”
He’s being modest. You could argue that no other striker has made a greater impact on a club in two seasons than Kanouté has at Sevilla.
The club had won nothing since the Spanish Cup in 1948 when Kanouté came on at half-time in the 2006 UEFA Cup final. Middlesbrough were clawing their way back into the match until Fredi gave the crucial assist to Maresca for 2-0 before adding the fourth.
In the 2006 UEFA Super Cup thrashing of Barcelona, he killed off Frank Rijkaard’s European champions by making it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time. At Hampden Park, in the 2007 UEFA Cup final, he put Sevilla 2-1 ahead in extra-time – and when Espanyol equalised, he scored one of the three winning penalties.
A month later, Kanouté netted the winner in Sevilla’s 1-0 victory in the Spanish Cup final over Getafe. Then, a week before the 2007/08 season kicked off, he put away a hat-trick at the Bernabéu to give Sevilla their first Spanish SuperCup triumph – 6-3 aggregate winners over Real Madrid. Very sweet dreams.
Kanouté believes Sevilla’s destiny may well be to win the UEFA Champions League, despite the tragic death of his teammate Antonio Puerta and the abrupt departure of coach Juande Ramos to his old stamping ground White Hart Lane.
Spurs fans have had to suffer their former striker scoring against them twice, including the winner in last season’s UEFA Cup quarter-final – but they will have enjoyed watching Kanouté help Sevilla defeat Arsenal 3-1 in Spain en route to topping Group H.
“If the Champions League was a nine-month championship we simply wouldn’t be able to win it,” he begins, when I mention that Arsène Wenger counts Sevilla as direct rivals for the final in Moscow. “But we do have a good chance of winning this format. We are a great cup team, and the knockout stage is so compact and has such momentum that one big win in either tie can put you into the next round. We could go to the final and win.
“Of course we found the level of this competition different, especially the first game at Arsenal. It was too early in a season that had already thrown so much at us; we weren’t prepared. So we had a special hunger to beat them in the return match, and we knew how to play them. We’re quick learners. Perhaps Wenger rested one or two, but we’d have given them a better game even if they’d had a full team.”
There is no doubt Kanouté has changed. A horrible series of injuries put a question mark against him at West Ham and Spurs – but he’s a team leader at Sevilla. Last season, his 12th as a professional, he beat his previous best for league goals (eleven with West Ham in 2000/01 and in 2001/02), lashing in 21 in la Liga and eight more while winning the UEFA and Spanish Cups. How, Spurs fans in particular want to know, can he suddenly score 29 goals in 47 matches?
“I’m a more intelligent footballer now,” he concludes. “At Spurs and West Ham I tried to be all over the pitch, now I’m more efficient. I don’t like the glib answer that I’m more selfish as a striker, because that’s not true. It’s sometimes appropriate to pass to a teammate and I’ll always do that. I guess a good striker will take the shot 80% of the time. But forwards have to know the best position and get there in the most efficient way. It’s football intelligence.
“It may also be something to do with the different culture in Spanish football. The fans won’t be down on you if you’re not haring all over the pitch – but you are efficient and you score. In England, whether you score or not, the fans appreciate you running, working, tackling, fighting to the end.
“It’s not as simple as hard work versus intelligence, because I learned a great deal in England that has helped me win with Sevilla. I added fighting spirit, I learned not to be scared of physical contact. The Premiership is perhaps my favourite league in the world. The spirit on the pitch and among the fans is terrific. That’s what I enjoyed most as a footballer in England: the immense spirit and loyalty to the values of the game.”
Kanouté returns regularly to the basic values of football. He welcomes the explosion of African players in Europe and predicts they will dominate in the next ten years. But he fears for the young talent of countries such as England, Germany and France.
“You will always have this tidal wave of good African players moving to Europe – because football is a sport of humble countries, not rich nations,” he argues.
“In Africa, we still have much of what is lost in western Europe, in Africa everyone plays street football. It’s unbelievable. That thrill of the ball and what you can do with it is being undermined in rich European nations.
“Food, medicine and education are the priorities across Africa, but when our nations get the facilities to develop our football we’ll be incredible.” Kanouté is doing his bit, working with UK charity Development Trust to bring jobs and education to Mali.
Our conversation is closing. Annie Lennox has long been silenced and Aretha Franklin is demanding R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – a neat musical book end to Sweet Dreams.
“Would you prefer to be remembered as a winner, a goalscorer or simply a footballer,” I ask, thinking the answer is obvious.
Kanouté pays off with the wider view. “I’d like to be recalled for all three, but above all I’m a footballer,” he grins. “When I meet my friends on holiday and play a bit of football for fun, I don’t score goals. It’s not all about winning. The simple fact is that playing soccer makes me happy.
“Scoring goals is part of my professional work and I enjoy it, but if people look back I want them to think: ‘He was a good footballer.’” They probably will.
This interview first appeared in the new issue of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League.