How would you describe how well Lille have performed this season?
The team has changed since last season. We've lost some really important players. It's a difficult season but now we have to fight against the pressure of the other teams waiting for us in the championship. The teams playing against us are playing against Lille, France’s champions, not against a Lille side in the Champions League. It’s a contrasted season.
What has been your personal highlight of the season so far?
My highlight of the season is my goal against Marseille [in the 3-2 win] because it allowed us to quickly get back into the game. We were at home and couldn’t lose it. Marseille had just scored their second goal and I was the one controlling the ball that went into the goal. Very quickly, in five minutes, I managed to put the team back on track to be able to win the game at the end.
There are other moments but they are sad moments. The game against Nice [drawing 4-4 at home] just before the Christmas holidays, even if I scored it was one of my worst games of the season. It finished 4-4 though we had a good start. Personally, I had troubles with [Renato] Civelli’s game. It was a nightmare but now it’s forgotten. I am trying to go forward and to give the best of myself until the end of the season.
How did it feel to have reached your 100th game for Lille recently?
I was happy because I arrived in Lille in difficult conditions. I was almost out of professional football when I was at FC Rouen so coming to Lille really helped me. Seeing my progression until now, it’s really a feeling of pride. When you are African you want to embrace a professional career in Europe but I had never imagined I would reach 100 games.
Today I’m one of the central players in the changing room. I continue to make my way and I continue to learn. It’s not because you reach 100 games that you can think you’re done. But I must say that this many games proves I am experienced, and if injuries leave me alone, I can continue like this as much as my body lets me.
How did it feel to have been voted in French newspaper, L’Equipe’s French team of 2011?
I was really happy because it is the championship that makes us live. It means that you have been observed during 38 games and that you gave a good performance. In France, there are some really good central defenders - I’m thinking about my national team compatriots [Stéphane] Mbia and Nicolas N’Koulou [both at Marseille]. There really are some good players [in Ligue 1] so to know I was part of the top 11 of the season, it’s really something fantastic.
I take advantage of every moment to give the best of myself because I know football goes really quickly and from one day to another you can become anonymous. Today, I’m in a team that plays well and I’m playing the game well. Even if it is a team game, let’s not forget it is individual performances that count the most. For me, it really is a huge pride to be part of the best 11 of 2011.
Lille manager, Rudi Garcia, has been hailed as a coach with a great football philosophy and likes stylish and attacking football. What do you think of him as a manager?
Since he has come to Lille, we have seen that Lille’s way of playing has changed. From his Spanish roots, he always wants to win. In France, generally coaches go for the “when we are away we are going for a draw” tactic and “when we are at home, we play to win even if we have to put the game on the opponents.” But the coach always tells us to play whatever the situation.
Garcia is a really good coach. He brought his Spanish touch to the team. And we can say, without any arrogance, that our game is inspired by Barcelona. We get inspiration from Barça to elaborate our game whatever the pressure from the other teams is. It might not work for every game but I think the best [tactic] is to start playing from the back. We can see when [Lille goalkeeper] Mickaël Landreau has the ball at his feet, we as defenders make space and the midfielders come to make the game.
We had short players - we still have short players - but we handle the ball well. It’s better not to give the ball to the opponent. Play even if we have to take risks and until now it has always paid off. That’s what he [Garcia] brought to LOSC.
He is really close to his players too, always defending them. If we lose a game, he won’t tell the press we played badly but in the changing room, he says what is needed. His external speech is different to his internal speech. When we lose a game, he will definitely tell us. He really is close to us - he protects us. He is a good manager.
Have there been any disappointments for you this season?
Being the reigning French champions, we have known joyful moments and we want it to happen again. Paris [Saint-Germain] and Montpellier are winning everything this season but we can only blame ourselves because we have lost points stupidly during games against Auxerre and Rennes and against Bordeaux at home. But it is part of the season.
Last year, we were lucky not to have had any long-duration injuries. [This season] Marko [Basa] arrived [from Lokomotiv Moscow] and got injured. There were suspensions and there was my injury but it is part of a season. Am I disappointed? Yes, because we have the potential to show a bit more than what we have showed so far. But it’s coming. We are third but Saint-Etienne are only one point behind us. Let’s not forget that there are still 11 games left so we’ll look for third place, which will allow the club to enter into their new stadium [in 2012] playing in the Champions League.
PSG and Montpellier are performing really well. Do you think Lille can win Ligue 1 again this season?
It will be difficult but nothing is impossible in football. We will have to concentrate on us. We have the possibility to go for first place but it will be very difficult. Those two teams have set the bar really high in the championship, it will be very hard. But in football we never know what will happen.
Several Lille players have been linked to moves abroad such as Eden Hazard. If Eden does decide to move, how much of a loss do you think he will be to the team?
We know we are going to lose him - it is not an “if”. For me, it is sure that he will leave next season, because he is a really talented player and he has already shown a lot in France. He has been the best player of the championship twice [Hazard was voted Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010 and was named Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2011]. When you have the whole of Europe after you, for his evolution and for his progression, he has to go. Lille have understood that it is time for him to go, to cash in on some money.
But I don’t think Hazard is all Lille. Yes, he is talented but there are other players. There were games that he missed but that other players made us win. It’s true he will be a big loss for us but it’s good for him. He will go progress somewhere else. There was a team before Hazard and there will be a team after him. It’s true that we will lose in vivacity and in game quality but we will be able to adapt and carry on the Lille adventure.
Do you think he is one of the best players in France at the moment?
Yes, for me he is one of the best players in France. He’s 21 and he has done a lot. We had games that we couldn’t handle so we gave him the ball and he did what he wanted. In the Champions League - it was his first - he didn’t give a good performance but it doesn’t take anything away from his talent. For me, he is one of the best players I have played with in my career.
Joe Cole has done well since coming on-loan from Liverpool. You speak several languages including English. Has that helped you bond well with Joe? What’s he like in the dressing room?
When Joe arrived, I didn’t know the person - for me he was a star. Coming to France was a regression [for him] but I knew he would help us. But no, he has been really good with us in the changing room. He is a really nice person. He is kind. As soon as he arrived, he started to learn French. He proved himself at Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool - there is no need to introduce him! For me, he is a really great player.
Unfortunately, it will be difficult for Lille to keep him because we know that Lille and Liverpool don’t have the same financial situation but it has been a pleasure to share this season with him. I hope that our paths will cross again. It’s true that he brought us a winning culture that the English people have. At training, he is on it from the start. That’s what makes the difference between the great champions and the ones who want to be champions. It is a really great pleasure to play with him this season. Moreover, he gave me his Champions League shirt when we played against CSKA Moscow in Russia!
How would you describe his performances in particular for Lille since joining the club? How important do you think he is to the team?
He has brought his experience and his approach for the big games. It has really helped us. Even if he doesn’t really speak French, even at training he talks to us. He tells us where to be placed and what we should do in certain games because he obviously has a high level of experience. It is really good for us. It’s an added value. I hope for him he will be able to make it into the English national team again.
Liverpool and Juventus are two clubs who were interested in your services last year. Have you heard from these two clubs since?
It is not really the time to talk about it. We hear about interests when it is the transfer period in December or June. It’s true there was interest from the clubs you mentioned but I don’t stress about it. First, I will finish my season well. Because Lille are third [in Ligue 1], we are probably less watched [than other teams] but I stay focused on the team. It is true that I have an agreement with Lille to go [when the 2011/12 season ends] but I take it easy. At the end of the season, I will see but it is always nice when your name is on the transfer lists of those big teams.
Have any other clubs been in contact about a move abroad?
Yes, I had contacts from other clubs but I don’t think it is the right moment to talk about it. For the moment, I am really focused for Lille to be in the Champions League as it is the club’s target. We will talk about the interest after the Championship. There has been some but it’s not the time to talk.
You signed a new contract until 2015. There is a clause in your contract that states that you can negotiate a move abroad at the end of this season. What do you want to do? Do you want to move abroad or would you prefer to stay in Ligue 1?
I would like to go - in England or maybe in Germany. Like I said I don’t really have preferences. But today, I would say I have a soft spot for England because it is a really fascinating championship. Moreover, I watched the Arsenal-Newcastle game and it really was the best of the best.
I also went to London recently – Gervinho invited me. I saw the Arsenal-Manchester United match, when Arsenal lost. It was beautiful. It’s a football I would like to discover. I hope I will have the chance in my career to play some Premier League matches because for me, today, it is the best championship in the world. But like I said, I really want to concentrate on the end of the [Ligue 1] season. It would be ideal to leave the club where Lille want to be. The future, I will think about it a bit later.
Manchester United or Manchester City…?
They are two great clubs but right now, Manchester United already have what they need in central defence with [Nemanja] Vidic, [Jonny] Evans and Rio Ferdinand who are really strong players. And at Manchester City, they have [Vincent] Kompany and [Joleon] Lescott, who really are players I respect. If I could get into one of those two teams, I'll be there to learn. They really are two amazing clubs and I would be really happy if they call me.
Interview: Vaishali Bhardwaj, March 2012. Translation: Caroline Ienné.
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