"Mbappé should sign for Real Madrid" - Pires talks to AS
In an interview with AS, Robert Pires looked back on his successful playing career and discussed compatriots such as Mbappé, Zidane, Benzema and Camavinga.
Speaking to AS, former France star Robert Pires looked back at his illustrious playing career and discussed the many fellow Frenchmen who have either achieved big things at Real Madrid already, or are being tipped to star for Los Blancos in the future: Kylian Mbappé, Zinedine Zidane, Karim Benzema, Eduardo Camavinga…
For those who have lost track of you since you retired from playing in 2015, what are you up to these days?
I work as a pundit on Canal Plus France and for M6, which is another TV channel in my country. I’m also an ambassador for UEFA, Arsenal and LaLiga.
You first hung up your boots in 2011, after your spell at Aston Villa, but came out of retirement three years later, to play in India. What motivated that decision?
Because I was still hungry for more football - in fact, I still play, even if it’s just with my pals. I didn’t want to stop, despite having retired three years earlier when I left Aston Villa. I was 40, but I still felt like I had enough left in my legs to keep playing, albeit in a slightly lower-level league like India's. I had great fun, was over there with some top players, and my coach was the great Zico… From a financial point of view, it was also a very good opportunity; I won’t deny it.
Between leaving Villa and going to India, didn’t you get any other offers?
No, none. It was a difficult situation.
What’s it like playing in India?
I knew I was going to a league that was at a lower level, but I also knew that I wanted to enjoy myself and use all my experience to help bring on footballers there. It’s a country of many contrasts and we lived in a bubble.
Let’s go back 14 years before your move to India. A year after earning a runners-up medal in the UEFA Cup with Marseille, you came very close to joining Real Madrid. Indeed, you even posed with the club’s shirt. How come you ended up joining Arsenal instead?
It wasn’t an easy time for me, although of course I felt lucky to be able to choose between Real Madrid, Juventus and Arsenal. I was close, really close, to signing for Real Madrid, but [Arsenal manager Arsène] Wenger called me a number of times, chased me hard and finally persuaded me [to go to the Gunners].
Is it true that your family were really annoyed at you for not going to Madrid?
Yeah. Particularly my mother, who’s Spanish. When I called her to say I was going to London, to Arsenal, she said. “You’re nuts! You don’t speak English, with the ability you have you should go to Spain [and play for Real Madrid]!” People said to me that you can’t say no to Madrid, but I did.
Do you think you would have been as successful there as you were at Arsenal?
It’s difficult to say. I spent six years at Arsenal and I was very happy there. One of the very few negatives [from my time at the club] is that we lost the Champions League final against Barcelona in 2006.
You know Wenger well. How many times was he close to joining Real Madrid?
A few. [Madrid president] Florentino Pérez told me that he was really impressed with the work he was doing with us at Arsenal. But, like me, he said no to Madrid… He preferred to carry on with the project he had at Arsenal.
Do you think he’ll coach again?
I don’t think so. After having so much success over the course of 20 and a bit years at Arsenal, where he won almost everything, he retired two years ago and I guess he wouldn’t want to return to today’s game.
In 2006, your move to Villarreal raised eyebrows in Spain and across Europe. Why did you choose the Submarino Amarillo?
Why not? Many people in France, including journalists, called me to ask whether I’d lost my mind and who exactly this Villarreal side were. If I’m honest, I didn’t know a lot about them beforehand, either; I didn’t know where they were on the map… But I never regretted the choice. We had fantastic players, a top coach in [Manuel] Pellegrini, a 10-out-of-10 president and a wonderful, committed fan base. I spent four years there and thoroughly enjoyed myself, because there wasn’t the same pressure that you might encounter at one of Europe’s big boys. Having turned down Real Madrid, joining Villarreal gave me the chance to play in LaLiga.
As well as Real Madrid and Juventus, which other clubs did you knock back during your career?
There was an offer from Benfica and another from [first club] Metz, who wanted to re-sign me at one point.
Let me ask you about Zinedine Zidane, who you know very well. Do you think his era at Real Madrid could be coming to an end?
I think it’s incredible that people talk about a crisis and the end of an era when Real Madrid lose two games before the Clásico and then draw at the death against Borussia Mönchengladbach. I know there’s a lot of pressure at Madrid, but the coach and the players need to be given a calmer climate in which to do their job. Just because they’re Madrid or Barcelona, they can’t always beat everybody; if that were the case, football would be very boring.
What do you think of Antoine Griezmann’s situation at Barcelona? Do you think he made a mistake leaving Atlético Madrid for the Camp Nou?
The problem is that, like Real Madrid, it’s almost a sin to reject Barcelona. I don’t think Griezmann made a mistake by leaving Atlético, but since he arrived at Barça two years ago things haven’t gone well for him. They haven’t gone well for Barça in general, though.
What did you make of what happened between Lionel Messi and Barcelona over the summer, when the Argentine sent his much-talked-about burofax telling the club he wanted to leave?
I think that in the end he made the right decision. It’s hard to see him and Barcelona going their separate ways.
Can you see Mbappé going to Real Madrid next year?
Of course. I’m French, I like Paris Saint-Germain and I’d like him to stay in Ligue 1, but if he wants to keep growing as a player, he should sign for Real Madrid.
There is also talk of Madrid being after Camavinga. Do you think he has what it takes to play at the Bernabéu?
He’s only 17, eh… My opinion is that he should stay at Rennes for another couple of years to keep on developing, and then go to a top club like Madrid or Barça, or whichever he chooses. It’s too early for him. If they can, Rennes should try to keep hold of him.
Benzema hasn’t been picked for France since 2015 because of the ‘Valbuena affair’. A French court ruled in his favour in 2017, but he remains in the international wilderness. Do you think that’s fair?
It’s a tricky issue, one that has created and continues to create a lot of debate in France. I’m not really interested in whatever happened between him and [Mathieu] Valbuena, but given all that he has achieved and is achieving at Real Madrid, of course he deserves a France call-up. He’s one of the best strikers in Europe. But [France boss Didier] Deschamps has the final say.
Which France side do you think was better: the 1998 or 2018 World Cup winners?
The ’98 team, without doubt. Everyone knows that. It doesn’t matter if they have Griezmann, Mbappé, [Olivier] Giroud… they wouldn’t be able to score even one past us!
Who was your footballing idol?
[Michel] Platini, of course, and I also really liked Míchel at Real Madrid. He had bags of class. He ran with the ball so elegantly and had such ability with ball at feet.
Who was the best player you ever played with?
Buffff! There are so many: Zidane, Djorkaeff, Henry, Bergkamp, Riquelme… And one of the best I ever came up against was Ronaldinho.
Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still at the pinnacle of the men’s game, but there’s no getting away from the fact that they’re coming to the end of their careers. Who do you think will take over from them?
Hopefully they keep going as long as possible and we can continue to enjoy watching them for a while yet. Successors? I don’t know if there are any. I enjoy watching the likes of Mbappé and Neymar, but there’s no-one like Messi and Cristiano. I don’t think we’re going to see anyone like them, at least not in the short-term future.
Finally, could I ask you why you haven’t gone into coaching or moved upstairs into a position such as sporting director since your retirement?
To be honest, I’ve never felt the calling of coaching and I don’t have the badges you need, either. But who knows if I might consider it at some point in the future. I like the idea of being a sporting director more.
Thanks for speaking to us, Robert.