Laurent Blanc’s France side face Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday, hoping to seal an automatic place at UEFA EURO 2012. Despite a packed schedule of training sessions and tactical discussions, midfielder Florent Malouda was able to find time to sit down with FIFA.com for an exclusive interview.
Relaxed and full of smiles, he shed light on life with both club and country, discussing Chelsea’s fine start to the Premier League season and France’s resurgence under Blanc.
FIFA.com: Florent, seven matches in, how do you see the current season unfolding in England?
Florent Malouda: The standard is really high. People talk about the ‘big four’, but for quite a while now Manchester City have been on the rise and so have Tottenham, who are quite dangerous. Teams everywhere look to progress and shake up the established order, but that’s especially true in England where clubs invest such a lot.
Do you think the title will be contested between Chelsea and Manchester United again this year?
That’s the way it’s been since 2004. A real rivalry has developed, with the title going to one team and second place to the other, or vice versa. It’s always a fierce battle right up until the end. Last season, we lost the title at Old Trafford, and the year that before we won it there. History has been repeating itself a bit recently. This season, our senior players have stayed, and ambitious, talented youngsters have come on board. That mix of experience and hunger should allow us to remain competitive in every competition.
Has the injection of new blood meant your place in the team is under threat?
No, not really. At Chelsea, the need to get results means there’s not really any such thing as an established order. It’s the same at all the big clubs; your place is always up for grabs and that’s what helps you keep performing. I don’t treat it as a threat when new players arrive. It just strengthens my resolve. Plus, the season is long with a lot of matches and reinforcements can help avert spells of bad results like the one we experienced last year.
Do you see yourself continuing for as long as Ryan Giggs, who plays in the same position as you?
Ryan Giggs and Javier Zanetti are the references for me in terms of my career, just as Paolo Maldini was. It happens less and less these days, but it’s an extraordinary thing to stay at a club that can win everything and remain competitive into your 30s. It’s true that we play less, but we still give an awful lot on the pitch.
How do you look back at your years with Lyon?
That’s where I really gained confidence in my potential and my ability to play at the highest level. My favourite memory of my time there is my last season, 2006/07. I played in almost every position, sometimes even at left-back, scored lots of goals and was voted best player in the league.
Turning to France, what are your thoughts as the EURO 2012 qualifying campaign reaches its climax?
We’re going into this last match with confidence; we know our opponents and we absolutely have to win. The only slight concern is all the injuries we have, which are affecting us a bit at the moment. That said, it’s a good opportunity to test the quality of our squad. We’re playing at home and we need to turn that to our advantage and make sure it doesn’t make us nervous.
Your last, crucial qualifier will be against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday. Is there any danger of stage fright affecting the team, as happened when France lost to Bulgaria in 1993 and missed out on USA 1994?
Not really. We’ll be going into the game with a winning mentality. An experienced player should be able to cope with and prepare for that type of thing, and react to it in the right way if it happens.
As one of the most experienced players in the France line-up, you have lived through highs as well as lows – namely, the run to the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ Final and the disappointment of South Africa 2010.
It’s true that I experienced the best first and the worst later. What I’ve taken from that is how the difference between the two comes down to very little. There’s always a huge amount of passion around the national team and all sorts of stories emerge. People want so much to know what’s going on that they imagine things and make stuff up. We need to shrug that off and make sure we are strong enough not to let it affect us.
Do you find the pressure greater with Les Bleus or Chelsea?
It’s completely different. You spend less time with the national team. There can be big changes in the players who get called up from game to game, and you don’t always have the same freedom or advantages you have with your club. In 2006, I was there to support artists like Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. They were the senior players and I had a role which I fulfilled. In 2008 and 2010, I did the same things but the results weren’t the same. That led to all sorts of unpleasant comments and comparisons with my club performances. It’s always results and victories which matter most.
How would you sum up your experience at the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
We were in a tight spot, but things were tough in 2006 too. Until the match against Spain, people were writing off Zidane and Patrick Vieira as being past it. Everyone ends up coming in for criticism at one time or another, and you have to respond to that together. Above all, you mustn’t try to defend yourself individually or try to prove people wrong by overdoing it on the pitch. When you manage to get through challenges together, that’s when you can go far in a competition.
What has changed since Laurent Blanc took over?
There have been quite a few changes and a new generation has been successfully introduced, to the extent that I’m one now of the oldest around (laughs). Things have also calmed down on the media front, because people relentlessly attacked the previous coach [Raymond Domenech] no matter what he did. Laurent Blanc represents new hope and things have changed at every level: how the players behave, their commitment, their desire to do well etc.
The results have changed too, of course.
We’ve never been in a better position to qualify. People told themselves we’d get there easily playing wonderful football, but that’s a bit of a fantasy. Qualification has always been laborious and all the national teams find it hard going. We sense a little pessimism around us sometimes, but we’re still upbeat and determined.
What has been the highlight of your France career so far?
The 2006 Final. I was voted man of the match in the Final even though we lost it. It’s a bittersweet memory because I missed out on the World Cup. The Trophy was shining so brightly, but I didn’t want to look at it – I just wanted to leave with it. That was my best game with the France team, especially since it could have passed me by given that I’d undergone an operation just before the tournament. Instead, I was able to finish with that great performance, feeling good on the pitch and playing with complete freedom.
Are you intent on still being involved at Brazil 2014?
I’ll be there whatever happens. It’s an important event for me and for French Guiana [the overseas region of France where Malouda was born, and which borders Brazil]. They’ve been preparing for it ever since the World Cup was awarded to Brazil. Of course I want to go there with the France team, and that's another reason why it’s important for me to stay at a high-profile, competitive club for as long as possible. Added to that, I won my first cap in 2004, so 2014 will be a nice round number. It’s perfect.