Back gracing the English Premier League at the age of 37, former French international Robert Pires is determined to enjoy his swansong at the highest level of the game. A FIFA World Cup™ winner on home soil in 1998 and a UEFA EURO champion two years later, he collected a host of English domestic honours during six unforgettable years at Arsenal.
After four successful years at Villarreal in La Liga, Pires is appreciating his return to the English top flight at Aston Villa under Gerard Houllier. His experience and guile may make the difference for a side currently in the midst of a relegation battle. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Pires looks back over an illustrious career which also included spells at Metz and Marseille, and gives his view on France’s recent resurgence under his old team-mate Laurent Blanc.
FIFA.com: Robert, does a 37-year-old footballer go about his profession in the same way as a 23-year-old for example?
Robert Pires: I certainly do. I enjoy training as much as ever. The desire is still there. I came here because I wanted the challenge and because I’m a competitor. I am trying to pass on my experience to a relatively young squad.
How does your experience help you on a day to day basis?
I am more patient, that’s for sure. I have learnt how to conserve my energy, both in training and in matches. I'm coming to the end of my career and am determined to enjoy myself while I can. A lot of former players have told me they regret giving up at 32 or 33 when they could have carried on, so I have chosen to keep going for as long as I can. I’m prepared for it all to come to an end in May, but if another coach and club come in for me, I will take on another challenge.
Why did you choose to go to Aston Villa after leaving Villarreal?
I wanted to come back to London or at least somewhere nearby. Arsene Wenger let me train with Arsenal for two months, from September to mid-November, then Gerard Houllier called me and we met up. He spoke to Wenger and I ended up signing for Villa.
I’m prepared to retire in May if that’s what it comes to, but I am also ready to go wherever an interesting proposition comes from, be it Qatar or the US. I’ve even had an offer from Australia.
How’s it going? Villa are in trouble near the bottom and you haven’t been playing much.
It’s been a tough season for the club. It’s never easy when you change coach during the season. Houllier has been trying to get his experience at Liverpool and with French football across and I'm sure we’ll be fine because we are a quality side. I’m not worried. As for me, I’ve mainly played in cup games. That’s been the coach’s call and I have to respect it. But I know why I came to Aston Villa. I knew I wouldn’t get much playing time and that my job was to be a role model for the younger players. I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t have been so happy at 22 or 23 but I’m ok with it now. The club is well run and well respected for its long history and there is a fantastic atmosphere inside Villa Park.
You talk about passing on your experience. How do you do that?
The young guys watch me at training, and ask me for advice on performing at the top of the game, and how to succeed over the course of a career, stuff like that. We chat, but it’s not as if I’m anyone’s shrink. It’s what Gerard Houllier asked me to do, and he made that clear right from the start. Having said that, when I’m on the bench the only thing I want to do is get on the pitch. But I knew what I was getting in to and I know what I’m doing here.
So what’s next? What’s the plan for next season?
I’m prepared to retire in May if that’s what it comes to, but I am also ready to go wherever an interesting proposition comes from, be it Qatar or the US. I’ve even had an offer from Australia. I’m still playing in the Premier League so I get noticed. People haven’t forgotten about me. Anyway, one thing at a time. I’ll look at that at the end of the season.
How will you go about choosing a new club this summer? Is it mainly about quality of life at your age?
I never choose a club because of the city it is in. I will look at the sporting challenge as I always have. When people quoted me as saying Philadelphia is ugly after I chose not to sign there, they were talking rubbish. I never said that. I’ve never been there so I would never say such a thing. At Aston Villa I’m paid on a match-by-match basis with a small fixed salary so I didn’t come here for the money.
What’s the secret of your longevity?
I don’t have one! My body enables me to play at the highest level, despite having had two operations on my knee, so I am lucky. For years I haven’t gone out much and I watch what I eat and drink. I look after my body as if it were a Formula 1 car, right down to the finest detail. If I went out til 5 in the morning, like I used to when I was young, I’d need a week to get over it (laughs). When you get to a certain age, looking after yourself is really important.
You played for Villarreal for four years and over that time you got to see Barcelona up close. The Arsenal team of 2004 was also all-conquering. Can the two sides be compared?
Barça are the best side in Europe without a shadow of a doubt. Individually and collectively they are a formidable force. I like the way they play football: simply, with lots of movement, keeping touches on the ball to a minimum, nice and easy. And they score lots of goals. Where they outdo Arsenal’s Invincibles is with their trophy count. They’ve won everything, and I mean everything! That season with Arsenal was magical for me. Every match was a delight. When you are playing with complete confidence you are pretty much untouchable and that is what is happening with Barcelona at the moment.
He’s a born leader and knows football inside out. I’m not surprised by his success and I have total faith in him. He could coach Manchester United tomorrow, he’s that good.
What’s your view on the French team right now. Are they in a transitional period?
Yes, and thank goodness for that. It was time to stop comparing French teams past and present, and just let Laurent Blanc get on with the job. He is making his own decisions. He knows what sort of team he wants and needs to be given time to put it together. We should wait until he gets the job done before criticising. The guys have managed to put the South African debacle behind them, and that’s a start. They are improving, no question, and we’ll take stock at the end of qualifying.
Which criticism do you find particularly excessive?
The flak Yoann Gourcuff has been taking recently has really got on my nerves. Picking on him will only knock his confidence. He is a shy guy anyway, so constant criticism won’t do him any good. As a player, you can’t just ignore the critics. Someone will always let you know what’s being said. I remember that from my Olympique de Marseille days, when I was captain. If you let the doubts creep in, things can get really tough. I don’t have the same view as a fan or a journalist because I’ve been the target of attacks and I know how much they can hurt.
Can the French team reconcile themselves with the fans by playing quality football?
The average fan only looks at one thing: the result. Les Bleus will only get the fans back on their side by winning. I gave up fighting Raymond Domenech a long time ago, but under him, the French team became a reflection of their coach: sad. Under Blanc things are looking better but after what went on last summer, they need time. Let’s give him that time to build a side, and put the World Cup behind us. I think he’ll get that done in time for the EURO.
Lastly, you knew Laurent Blanc really well as a player. Are you surprised at how well he has done as a coach?
He’s a natural. He was always going to be a great player and the same can be said about his coaching career. It’s just the way he is. He’s a born leader and knows football inside out, just like Didier Deschamps. I’m not surprised by his success and I have total faith in him. He could coach Manchester United tomorrow, he’s that good. He’s everything the English look for in a coach. He inspires respect.