Clichy: Time to restore France’s strength
© AFP

Gael Clichy goes into UEFA EURO 2012 with a triumphant spring in his step, having won the English league title with Manchester City after a spectacular end to the season. With just a few days to go until France’s opening match, the left-back spoke to FIFA.com about leaving France for Arsenal as a 17-year-old, his new life with the Citizens and, of course, his ambitions for Les Bleus, who kick off the tournament against an England side he knows well.

FIFA.com: Gael, you and Manchester City clinched the English league title right at the death. A few weeks on, what do you make of it all?
Gael Clichy:
It was a lot of effort and a great season. In England, many people are saying that it was the greatest season in the history of the Premier League, with all the turnarounds and the dramatic finale. It was tough for the fans, but I think it’s the best possible way to become champions, rather than securing the title with five matches to spare.

Was it the greatest moment of your career?
It’s difficult to say. I had already won a title in my first season at Arsenal, which was rather magical. This year it was very intense, as it went down to the last kick in the last few seconds. People love it when a situation turns around like that. But if someone gave me the chance to win the title next year with a five-point gap, I’d take it straight away. It’s better for the nerves...

That was precisely the case in 2004, when you won the title with Arsenal with an 11-point margin...
Yes – I think we were champions six matchdays from the end, but we had other objectives that year. We wanted to become the first champions of England to win the title without losing a single game. So we stayed focused to the very end. It was pretty crazy at the time, achieving something like that in one of the best leagues in the world. Even though I was just a small cog in the machine, I was proud and the achievement will be very difficult to repeat. 

In England, many people are saying that it was the greatest season in the history of the Premier League.
Gael Clichy on the recent English season

You left Cannes when you were 17 to join the Gunners. What made you want to move abroad at such a young age?
My goal wasn’t necessarily to be in the starting XI, but rather to join a team that would allow me to play and develop. Everything was clear: I was back-up for Ashley Cole in case he got injured or picked up a red card. In the end I had eight great seasons at Arsenal, including five in the starting line-up, and I started out as a replacement for one of the best left-backs in the world. No regrets!

For a young Frenchman playing abroad, is it reassuring to have a manager like Arsene Wenger?
If I had a son who had the chance to turn professional at 16, I wouldn’t hesitate to send him to Arsenal to play under Wenger. For a young player, it’s the best club to develop at. Even though I left to join City, I know how much I owe to the club and the manager, and I can never thank them enough. Looking at the criticism they’ve had this season, I’m happy to see that they still managed to finish third. They deserve it, and it proves that the world of football is sometimes unfair – even for someone like Wenger, who has given so much to French and English football. But I understand how people can be demanding, because in the end we remember the teams that win titles, not those that play well. In ten years’ time we’ll remember Chelsea, who won the Champions League, but not Bayern Munich, who perhaps deserved it. 

You finished your first season at Manchester City by winning the title. Has it been your best season to date?
It’s hard to say. I put in the same defensive performances last year at Arsenal, particularly towards the end of the season. These days a player can have a mediocre game, but if he scores the winning goal in injury time, people’s comments about him will change completely. We tend to focus only on the most visible contributions, like assists and goals. I’ve been more successful in that respect, but that’s about it. The difficult thing for a full-back is that you have to be able to do everything well. If you have a great match defensively but don’t attack enough, you get criticised. If it’s the other way around, you also get criticised – unlike in other more specialist positions. It goes to show the importance of full-backs in modern football.

You joined up with the French squad having just won the league title. Did your legs feel lighter or heavier than normal as a result?
A bit of both. We’re all tired after what has been a long season, but for me it’s been like winning a final after extra time: as the winner you can start afresh the next day, whereas the loser’s legs feel heavy for three or four days. It’s psychological more than anything. Also, the advantage of having a squad as deep as Manchester City’s is that I’ve been able to rest a bit more this season than I could at Arsenal. This is all positive for the French national team. 

We’re talking about a very experienced team that has players like John Terry and Steven Gerrard, who could pretty much play without a coach.
Clichy on England at UEFA EURO 2012

Is it an advantage to start UEFA EURO 2012 against England while they’re still without Wayne Rooney?
I don’t think it makes any difference. People think it’s better to play them without Rooney, who is suspended, and in their first competitive match under their new coach. But we’re talking about a very experienced team that has players like John Terry and Steven Gerrard, who could pretty much play without a coach. Rooney’s absence could be an advantage for us, but they have so much quality that it doesn’t really matter whether we play them at the start or at the end. Still, the first match of a tournament is crucial.

How do you explain the fact that, despite their individual talents, England haven’t won an international title for such a long time?
It’s not easy to explain, but it’s further proof that having the best players in the world counts for nothing if they don’t work together. My personal view is that 10 or 15 years ago, two English players – one from [Manchester] City and the other from United – would have struggled to connect in the national team. Club loyalty is so strong over there [in England] that you couldn’t ask someone who has spent their entire career with United, like Gary Neville, and someone else who has always played for City, like Micah Richards, to get on with each other off the pitch. I’m not saying that’s the only explanation, but this club culture is, in my eyes, one of the reasons for their lack of success despite all the good players they’ve had over the years. It’s not so much the case these days. Many of them are friends, but I hope they don’t suddenly wake up this year and win the EURO, seeing as they’re in our group!

What do you make of your other two Group D opponents, Sweden and Ukraine?
Ukraine are the co-hosts, and it’s always easier to play in front of your own fans. We saw how that was the case for us in 1998, and there are plenty of other examples. As for Sweden, people don’t talk about them much but they have players of great talent, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and a very solid defence. They’re a team that are never easy to beat. We’ll have to be at our very best in the three matches, but we should draw confidence from our recent performances and unbeaten run, which has included matches against some big teams. We know we’re not favourites, but we have what it takes to have a good EURO and make our fans happy.

Do you any special thoughts for Eric Abidal ahead of the competition?
Even though I’m very proud of the season I’ve had, and feel that I deserve my place, I know full well that if Eric had been there, things would have been more difficult for me. As we’re also talking about a man’s health, I can tell you that I’d have preferred for him to be here and for me to be at home. I hope he’s OK, I wish him a speedy recovery and I’m sending my regards to him and his family. Over and above football there are people, and Eric is someone extraordinary. I hope we can achieve something great for him. 

France are rarely included among favourites for this EURO. Do you think they are underrated?
I remember in 1998 that people didn’t talk very much about France winning, but rather about doing well in front of their home support. The outsider tag could be an advantage. Arsene Wenger often used to say that it’s better to be the second or third team in the title race rather than the first, with all the pressure and tension that goes with it. At the moment, Germany and Spain are favourites and are given more attention than France, which could be something positive. But it also means that those teams are ahead of us. It’s up to us to make up the ground and restore France’s strength.

Finally, is it true that you were right-footed when you were younger?
Yes, it’s true! But I broke my right leg when I was little. After my injury, my dad, who was also my coach, wanted me to score in training matches using only my left foot; otherwise the goals would not count. Perhaps, even then, he wanted me to become a complete, two-footed player. These days I’m left-footed and I thank him for it, because if I wasn’t, with so much competition on the right, my career might not have been the same.

Zinedine Zidane also said that, through hard work, he almost became better with his left foot... 
(Laughs) Yes, although I think that his right foot and left foot are better than my two feet put together!