A legend in French football circles from the moment his shot hit the net at the Stade de France on 12 July 1998, Emmanuel Petit can look back on a hugely successful career in the game. The midfield linchpin rounded off the scoring as the hosts beat Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ Final and he then followed that up with continental glory at UEFA EURO 2000. At club level Petit racked up an equally impressive collection of winners’ medals during spells with Monaco, Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea.
Since hanging up his boots in 2004, Manu has become one of the most respected television pundits on the French scene, offering the public the benefit of his excellent insights and genuine candour. Earlier this month, he also provided his analysis during the announcement of the final list of candidates for the 2011 FIFA Ballon d’Or Award, and afterwards he agreed to share his thoughts with FIFA.com. Petit gave his views on the three contenders, his own illustrious career and the state of the French national team.
FIFA.com: Xavi, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the three candidates for the 2011 FIFA Ballon d’Or Award. Do you agree with that shortlist?
Emmanuel Petit: It’s easy to lose objectivity in this type of discussion, but the list of the three contenders makes some sense. Spanish football is enjoying a certain supremacy at the moment and this list fits in with that reality.
Do you have your own favourite among that trio?
For me, they all deserve the Ballon d’Or. Xavi has redefined the position of midfield anchorman and taken that role forward. He’s Barcelona’s jack of all trades: he moves the ball forward from deep, organises attacks, scores goals and creates them. His talent is immense. As for Lionel Messi, he adds magic to Barcelona’s team work. He’s exceptional, a PlayStation player. That said, Cristiano Ronaldo would get my vote, and God knows how much I like the other two! But in a Real Madrid environment where things are maybe more complicated than they are at Barcelona, he boasts some impressive statistics. Despite dominating in England, he didn’t think twice about testing himself again by going to Madrid. He’s assumed his responsibilities perfectly and maybe has more of an ability to score with his head compared to the Argentinian. He’s just a tad out in front, but I’m still waiting for both of them to finally make full use of their abilities with their national teams.
You crossed paths with a number of Ballon d’Or winners during your career. Which of them impressed you the most?
I loved Marco van Basten, Michel Platini and also Zinedine Zidane. For me, you have to fulfil a whole list of criteria to deserve the Ballon d’Or – and being an example off the pitch is a fundamental one as far as I’m concerned.
Attacking players tend to win the most votes. As a player confined to more defensive roles during your career, do you find that unfair?
Guys like Paolo Maldini, Lilian Thuram, Franco Baresi and Marcel Desailly were giants at the back. They were all good enough to win the Ballon d’Or. Maybe we should have one Ballon d’Or for each position!
What did you enjoy most about being a holding midfielder, a typically unsung role?
The unselfishness and importance of the position. The midfield anchorman is at the crossroads between all the various aspects of a team. He’s like a roundabout and everything goes through him. If the midfield isn’t working well, the whole team feels it. I adored players like Fernando Redondo and Frank Rijkaard in that position, even if they were very different. I was fortunate enough to share the pitch with them – and the danger is that you end up standing back and watching when you play against them (laughs).
France coach Laurent Blanc has tried a few different options in that position, giving chances to Yohan Cabaye, Yann M’Vila, Alou Diarra, Abou Diaby and Maxime Gonalons. Do you see any of those players as the next Emmanuel Petit?
I’m left-footed, and that’s one of a number of things missing in the current France team. Les Bleus tend to favour one side of the pitch more than the other. Cabaye is improving his game at Newcastle and I hope he manages to add another dimension to his play in the Premier League. He mustn’t confine himself to a role as a holding player; on the contrary, he should look to be involved in moves going forward. That will require him to have a more physical profile, real tactical clarity in his movement and a more refined technical finesse. In England, teams move the ball around quicker and that means you have much less reaction time.
In total, you spent six years in England and just one in Spain. Why did you experience less success in Spain than elsewhere?
I arrived at Barcelona at perhaps the worst possible moment in the last 20 years (laughs). I laugh about it now, but I found it less funny at the time. I’m not bitter, though. We had a squad that was coming to the end of an era. Rivaldo, Pep Guardiola, and the De Boer brothers were fantastic players, but they were on their way down, as was I. That explains what happened.
Barcelona had an impressive contingent of players in the initial list of 23 candidates for the 2011 FIFA Ballon d’Or and now boast two in the shortlist. Are they the best club in the world?
They’re the team that keeps winning everything, anyway. They’re the club that sums up modern football perfectly at the moment. Plenty of people are growing tired of watching them knock the ball around, but their players have given new life to terms like ‘pressing the opposition’, ‘winning the ball back’ and ‘possession’. For me, this Barça team right now are what football is all about. They’re one of those rare sides who manage to raise football to its highest possible level, like Brazil in 1970.
You played for Monaco, Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea. Which of those clubs left the greatest impression on you and why?
The year 1998 with Arsenal and the France team was the pinnacle of my career. To win six titles in one year is something extraordinary.
As a former international, what did you make of France’s qualifying campaign for EURO 2012?
I’m not going to fall into the popular trap of patriotism. I think that, right now, Laurent Blanc’s France team has neither the mental capacity nor the football ability to be considered among the favourites. France have a number of top-quality players, but those players still haven’t managed to express the full range of their talent in the national team. Still, it’s all the better if we’re able to shake off the tag of group favourites, as we showed in friendly wins against England and Brazil that we’re better in the role of outsiders.
What are thoughts on your former France team-mate Laurent Blanc as Les Bleus coach?
He’s trying to do the best he can, and I think he’s doing it well – Les Bleus are on a long unbeaten run. In terms of their play, I think we’re right to expect much better, but he would be the first to say that. After the events in Knysna [at the 2010 FIFA World Cup] and the awful image left by the France team, it was suicidal to take the reins of that side. At the moment, he must simply be frustrated that certain players are a long way from their best when they play in blue. He must also be frustrated that generations change: football is becoming more and more of a sport for individuals. Taking that into account, I think he’s doing a more than competent job in charge of the France team.
Can you see yourself moving into a coaching role like him?
I have other priorities right now. To be a club or national coach, you need to dedicate yourself 200 per cent to that job. At the moment, I’m not willing to make such significant sacrifices in my private life and professional career.