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Robert Pires: One-on-One

Robert Pires is a bad man, even if he does say so himself. In fact, he says he is, “like all footballers”, a hijo de puta – son of a bitch. And then he falls about laughing. Again.

But having spent the last hour and a half bombarding him with your questions in Villarreal’s B team dressing room, FFT can’t help but think otherwise. Bright, funny and articulate, he’s covered everything from astrology to London life, goatee beards to the f-word, daylight robbery to assault with a pepperoni pizza, Romford Ray Parlour to that penalty, plus Ghostbusters, lucky underpants, and even romps with the manager’s wife.

Indeed, FFT can only agree with the woman who shouts, “Pires! Pires! You are a very nice man,” when at the end of the morning’s training session, he spent 20 minutes signing autographs for her school party while the rest of his Villarreal team-mates hurried inside. And that’s before he even starts posing like a musketeer – with your questions doubling up as D’Artagnan’s sword...

What’s the story behind your family moving to France? Is it true your dad was a republican exile?
Joe Duncan, Aldwych
Yes, from Portugal. They were sending all young men to Angola to fight, so he escaped. He didn’t want to do military service. He went and stayed with his older brother in France, then he met my mother there, and that’s how my life started. He didn’t have anything but he knew there would be work in France. That was 38 years ago now.

Is it true growing up you could always be found either wearing a Benfica shirt or a Real Madrid one, because your dad was a Benfica fan and your mother was Spanish?
M Parker, via email
When I was little, yeah it’s true. But Madrid excited me more, of course. I was lucky enough that both Benfica and Madrid wanted to sign me, too. Benfica was in ’96 or ’97, but I didn’t want to join them because I wanted to keep playing and improving at Metz. In 2000, Madrid wanted me. But Arsenal wanted me too and I chose London. [FFT: Why?] Because of Wenger. I spoke to him lots of times, I knew what he wanted and I knew that I would play. Madrid is a great club, of course, but it’s a club with little stability. Everyone thought I was on my way to Madrid but I didn’t want that.

You almost quit football at 15, only to be talked around by your mother. What happened? What do you think you’d be doing now if you had abandoned football?
Kevin Davids, Romford
At 15, I was playing with the C team at Reims and I wanted to leave. It’s a difficult age for a kid – I wanted to go out with my mates, party... girls... that happens to everyone. Luckily, my mum told me: “You don’t know what you want, it’s football – it’s your dream and it could be a great job.” She was right. [FFT: Do you see it as a job?] No, it’s not a job. You train twice a day in the sun and earn a lot of money. I always wanted to be a footballer and even now I enjoy it. If I hadn’t been a footballer? Erm, I don’t know… Maybe I’d be a taxi driver, like my brother – that is a job.

Bobby, it seems strange to me that a player of your talent was playing for Metz until you were 25. Would you say you were a late developer as a player, or was there another reason why you didn’t sign for a top club before 1998?
Clint Reztam, via email
I wanted to stay at Metz, simple as that. I was playing in the top division, I played every game in the league and the UEFA Cup, and also for France U23s. The most important thing for me was – and is – always to play. At Metz I knew that was certain.

How difficult was it missing out on the league title by a point and losing the UEFA Cup final with Marseille in 1999? You boycotted the club towards the end of the following season – what happened?
Amy Kitcher, Cardiff
Very, very hard. We were just one point off Bordeaux and we lost the final of the UEFA Cup in Moscow with Roma. You can win it all or lose it all. We lost it all. That’s football. The following pre-season we made lots of changes and that affected us badly. We survived by just five goals that year, if I remember rightly. [FFT: And the boycott?] Boycott? We did a boycott? Did we? [pauses, thinks] Boycott, no. That’s impossible.

Did you regret your decision to join Arsenal during your first few months? Do you put your patchy form down to the overly physical nature of English football?
Catherine Penton, Kingston
I remember what Wenger said to me before the first game, away at Sunderland: “I’m going to leave you on the bench and you’re going to see what English football is like.” By the 20th minute I was already thinking, what am I doing here? It was hard, very different to France, but in the end I got used to it. I wouldn’t say you’re scared but you can see that you have to change how you play – English football is physical, they kick you very hard. But now I like it a lot [starts laughing].

You were signed as a replacement for Marc Overmars. Did you feel pressure because of that? How long was it before you settled into the team and was there any one goal or game that helped?
Scott Reid, Liverpool
Yes. I felt a lot of pressure. The fans loved him and they wanted me to do things the same as him. During the first few months I felt I had to do something every time. Bit by bit they saw that I could do things too. [FFT: What was the key moment, when you thought you’d cracked it?] When I scored the first goal. I was waiting for that and so were the fans. They knew I had scored goals at Metz and Marseille. I scored when we won 2-1 at Lazio and from that moment it was [puffs out cheeks]... phew. If you are a new striker at a club, everyone’s saying: when will he score?

What happened between you and David O’Leary in 2000?
Daniel O’Connor, Leeds
Er… what did happen? [As he thinks, a smile comes across his face]. Ah, Leeds versus Arsenal! When I think about it now, the best thing is to laugh about it. They were winning and he was winding me up a bit and I got angry because we were losing at a difficult stadium [starts laughing] against a team that kicked us a lot. I saw him as I got on the bus and he kept on talking and I answered back and he insulted me and I insulted him back. I said a few things in English – you know, the typical English words you learn first!

We were robbed in the 2001 FA Cup Final by Liverpool and Michael Owen. I was gutted. What was the mood like in the dressing room after that game and did it take a while to recover?
Christopher James, Kensington
In 2001? It was hard. You can lose but not the way we lost. But you have to think about something else and get back to winning. A robbery? I don’t know about that. When you have chances you have to score and we didn’t.

Is the reason you never really learnt English because there were so many Frenchman at Arsenal? Did it ever get to the stage where the English players had to learn French? And of all the Englishman at Arsenal, who was the hardest to understand – I’m going for Ray ‘Romford Pele’ Parlour?
Callum Morley, Newcastle
Parlour?! How did he know that? Yeah, yeah, yeah, Parlour... He was so hard to understand. He would be hammering away dead quick and I’d be, “Ray, calm down, please, I don’t understand a word!” My greatest regret was that I didn’t learn English. I was at an English team but with very few Englishmen. In the dressing room, you could speak French, Spanish or Portuguese. I could talk about food and drink [in English] but to have a proper, long conversation I was sunk. Now, I know I made a mistake…

You seem like a man accustomed to a continental lifestyle. What was the hardest thing to deal with in England: the food, weather, lack of al fresco eateries?
Zach Allen, Brighton
Honestly, nothing. The only difficult thing was on the pitch. London? Nah! Are you mad? London is the best city in the world. I lived in Hampstead, I played for Arsenal and climate doesn’t really matter. Food? If I wanted to eat well I would go to an Italian, French or Japanese restaurant.

You’re of Portuguese and Spanish decent, so how is it that you’re the master of the Gallic gesture and expression? Would you ever sit in front of the mirror and practice a look of continental disgust?
Mark Simpson, Tonbridge
Hey, I was brought up in France! It’s culture, it’s education! I have Spanish and Portuguese blood but above all, I was born and raised in France. [FFT: Do you feel more French, Spanish or Portuguese?] I don’t feel anything, I feel like I am from all countries. I don’t want to seek differences. I feel European.

I hear your famous goatee owes a lot to Nicolas Anelka. Could you elaborate? You’ve specialised in a natty range of facial hair throughout your career. What are your tips for that achieving the perfect goatee?
Sara Beston, Croydon
Yes, it was Anelka. It was a joke between us before the European Championship final against Italy. We wanted to do something silly. I don’t remember what he had to do but I had to do that. I went back to Arsenal and they called me D’Artagnan and everyone loved it. I liked the name and there were four of us – Wiltord, Titi [Henry], Patrick and I. Three plus one, so it was perfect for the English. There’s no secret to the beard – if you have a trimmer, it’s a piece of cake.

Among English fans, flicking your own ankle to win a foul was known as ‘doing a Pires’. Were you aware of this? What did you make of the British view of diving compared to continental Europe?
Aidan Matthews, Isle of Wight
[Starts to laugh] I know, I know! But  there was a foul everytime, you know! I remember one time when the ref gave me a penalty against Portsmouth. Everyone thought I had dived and no-one believed me that the defender touched me a bit. If he touches me, I’m going to fall – as if I was diving into a pool – but he’s touched me, so it’s a penalty. It’s my fault, but ultimately the ref decides. [FFT: Did English football change you?] Yes, yes, yes. I had to change. At times, when players were going to hit me I had to prepare myself for the impact and try to withstand it... but they did hit me!

Here’s a conundrum, Bobby. Would you happily have lost a league game in ‘Les Invincibles’ season to have won the Champions League with Arsenal? How much pressure did you feel trying to maintain the 49-match unbeaten record? Ever secretly want to lose a game, just to relieve the pressure?
Paula Dous, Bromley
The 50th game [a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United], now that was a robbery! Oh yes. Definitely. That was a robbery. But would I swap our run to win the Champions League? Sure. Of course. The European Cup is the title Arsenal lack. And it’s the European Cup! That unbeaten season there was a lot of pressure, but we enjoyed it. We went on to the pitch and we knew we were going to win. We wanted to keep it going; we never secretly wanted to lose. But the 50th game was a robbery. Unbelievable. If we had drawn, we’d have carried on for ages. That game hurt, it was hard to take. Against Man United too!

You, Ashley Cole and Thierry Henry combined brilliantly down Arsenal’s left. Was this understanding something you worked on or did it just come naturally?
Suzie Greene, via email
With Ashley and Thierry, wow! Every day in training we worked on it and it became automatic. It was almost perfect. With Ashley, bang! With Thierry, cor! With them, I played some amazing games; I always felt perfect alongside them.

Your last appearance for Arsenal came in the 2006 Champions League Final. You were replaced because of Jens Lehmann’s dismissal after only 12 minutes. How did that make you feel? How much did this play a part in your decision to leave the club?
Daniella Mallia, via email
18 minutes, not 12! I’ll never forget that. I knew Villarreal wanted me but I hadn’t made a decision, yet what happened in the final left me feeling very bad. That was the end; my mind was made. I knew a player had to go off after that red card but I never thought it would be me. When I saw it was my number, it killed me. I didn’t want to kill Wenger, but Jens? Yeah, I’d have killed the German! Bastard! It was the worst moment of my career. When I saw the number I thought, no, no, it can’t be!

You scored a number of great goals, but which was your favourite? (Mine was when you chipped Paul Jones in the Southampton goal from near the byline.)
Aaron Piggott, London
Hmm. I was lucky enough to score a few but, yeah, Southampton was nice. There were lots of nice ones against Tottenham, ha, ha! I used to love the rivalry with Spurs.

You faced Arsenal last season in the Champions League. How did that feel? Were you determined to do well or did it simply feel strange to be facing your old team-mates?
Tom Mulkerrins, Southampton
It was wonderful. I was so, so happy to play against them and go to London. We lost, sure, but it was lovely. The fans were incredible – they sang before the game, during the game, after the game. Un-be-lievable. There was a moment when I thought – a bit of me, at least – ah, if only I had stayed.

That fluffed penalty against Manchester City – what happened and was it planned? Did Arsene Wenger see the funny side?
John Smythson, High Wycombe
Aaaaaah! The penalty! The idea was Titi’s but I was the one that got it wrong. Wenger didn’t say anything because we won and I scored, but if we had lost he’d have killed me. Titi had seen Johan Cruyff do it. I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t feel comfortable, but he insisted and insisted and insisted. When I got to the ball, I don’t know what happened, I still don’t. I stood there and thought, “He’s not going to get to this.” If you look at it I didn’t hit the ball properly. Thing is, the ref didn’t know the rules. We should have retaken it – the ball is supposed to rotate once fully. Me and Titi knew that because we had studied it but the ref gave a free-kick. But that’s football. You have to try things, like you did as a kid. When you’re older there are people depending on you but [sighs] that’s what the game should be about. [FFT: So, why not try again?] Because people knew! They’d been warned. You can only do something like that once.

In his book, Ashley Cole suggests the player who threw pizza at Alex Ferguson after the Arsenal game against Man United in 2004 was Cesc Fabregas. Can you confirm or deny this and where on earth did the pizza come from?
Dave Bridge, via email
Ha, ha! There was pizza because after every game there is always food and, yes, it was him, but I’m not sure if he tried to hit Ferguson – I think it might have just been bad luck that he got him in the face. Cesc is a good lad. When it hit him in the face there was lots of tension and pressure but in the end of course we laughed.

You bought one of the Highbury flats. Did you go for the standard IKEA-style finish or for something a bit more upmarket?
LW Cusden, via email
I chose a simple one. I had to buy it,  because of everything we did there, because of what Highbury is. The other day when I was there I was almost crying. You look out at the pitch, which is now a garden. When you think about what was there before it’s... [big sigh, deep breath]... it’s hard to see Highbury like that.

When you went to Spain aged 32, did you really envisage playing for another four seasons and beyond? What do you put this down to?
George Fleeson, Coventry
No. I’ve been here for four years and I’m still the same. [FFT: Did being out injured help to prolong your time here?] Yes, of course. When I first came I was out for seven months – I lost that time so that’s why I’m playing now at 36, like a kid.

I recently went to Villarreal and saw the whole town in half a day! What does a man of the world like yourself do to keep occupied there?
Sam McCuskall, Gillingham
I know, it is totally different to London. But I live in Castellon. Imagine it, London is 12 million; here there’s barely 50,000.  But here it’s a different pace of life; you eat well, you’ve got the sun, the sea, my kids are happy, they learn Spanish and English.

I read that you’ve worn lucky underpants throughout your career. Is that true and if so, where can I buy a pair?
J P Trusse, France
Yes, yes, it’s true. Well, I wore them until my first injury and then I saw that, hang on, there’s no point. It’s all psychological. But I didn’t wear the same pair!

How much did your decision to retire from international football have to do with your feud with Raymond Domenech? Why did you fall out? Surely it had nothing to do with astrology, as was reported?
Mel Aston, Hounslow
I don’t know what happened. I was playing well for Arsenal and yet I didn’t get called up for the 2002 World Cup. We then got into a conflict but I still don’t know why he stopped picking me. In France they say I had an affair with his wife! [FFT: And did you?] No, ha, ha! People were saying, “Pires is playing well and we need him, so there must be a problem with his wife!” As for the astrology, he’s mad when it comes to that. He was saying you can’t have a Scorpio on the team – and I’m Scorpio. But that’s a good reason – that, and the fact that I’m a bad person. Domenech was right: I’m a Scorpion, I had his wife, and I’m a bad man!

You once said that if stuck on a desert island, you’d take your wife, a toothbrush and a DVD player. What I want to know is which DVD would be in the player? I’m guessing Ghostbusters!
Roger Pens, via email
I did once say that but it doesn’t make any sense and I’ve thought about it since. I mean, where am I going to plug in the DVD player? That was a bad answer. [FFT: OK, imagine there’s a plug socket on this island, what film?] Why Ghostbusters? No. There’s a plug? You sure? What kind of desert island is this? OK, er, Scarface. As a kid I wanted to be like him – all kids do, don’t they? You’re the boss, you’ve got money, women and power.

As a close friend of Thierry Henry, what did you really think of his blatant handball against Ireland for France?
Elaine Dowson, Sunbury
It was hard for the Irish but I’m Henry’s mate so I will always support him. And anyway, Titi is not the one to blame and nor is the ref; it’s time to use video replays. How can a team not go to the World Cup because of that? If there’s a problem, stick the video on – you see it, you give it, you get on with the game. What does it take, 30 seconds? [FFT: Would you have replayed the match?] No. But if there’s a video, it’s done. If I put myself in the ref’s shoes, it’s not easy. But you show him a video and it’s easy.  [FFT: But if there was video evidence, you’d get caught out doing a Pires!] No problem – check the video to see if it’s a penalty? Yes? No? End of. UEFA are trying with five refs but what’s the point? It’s worthless. Yes, Titi handballs it. But if there’s a video, bish-bosh, done. Platini, please! You know it would have helped with some of the decisions made in the World Cup too, wouldn’t it?

You don’t really strike me as the management type, so what do you think you will you do once you retire?
Stephanie Unchen, via email 
How does she know? Congratulations, you’re right. I’ve been a footballer and I know how footballers think [whistles]. If I’m a coach and I don’t play so and so, he’s going to kill me: “Son of a bitch of a coach, he doesn’t play me...” You become a coach and your hair usually goes white and falls out. No thanks. I’ll be a commentator, probably in France or Spain. I like the idea of staying in football. [FFT: Even though footballers are all...] Are all what? [FFT shifts uncomfortably. Erm, sons of bitches] Ha, ha! Yes, we are. A coach has to control them all – and I don’t want to.

Interview by Simon Talbot. From the September 2010 issue. Subscribe