Travelling in Delhi can be an absolute nightmare. Having flown in full of anticipation all the way from Mumbai for an interview with Delhi Dynamos' marquee player Florent Malouda, you are instead left frustrated by the crawling traffic.
By the time you reach your destination hours later, wading through jams and snarls, you have no energy left. But as you are settling down inside the King George meeting room of the Leela Ambience Convention Hotel, in walks Malouda, in his Delhi Dynamos training kit. His broad smile immediately makes you forget traffic and tiredness.
"Hello," he says, offering a warm handshake. His infectious energy sets the tone of the interview, and what was to be 15-minute affair, ends up being a 40-minute one, as the former Chelsea winger opens up on his roller-coaster ride at Chelsea, football back home in France and overcoming the disappointments of losing big finals.
Malouda handles questons with the same panache that he shows on the field. Sometimes intense, sometimes smiling, sometimes animated, and sometimes joking. The former French international, who has been an inspiration for Delhi Dynamos in the ISL this season and last, is completely in his element. Here's the full text of his free-wheeling interview with Firstpost:
Earlier there was a feeling among aspiring French players that you have to gain experience in major foreign leagues to establish yourself as a big player and that it was also how you could earn yourself a place in the national team. Do you think that feeling still exists?
Malouda: Umm... I'm not sure. I have never really heard about that feeling to be fair. I know that in 1998, most of the players who won the World Cup were playing abroad, but I think things have changed and now there are (French) players in the Mexican league who are also in the national team. So I think there is no such rule - the best players will still get called up, even if they are in the French league. I, myself, was playing in Lyon when I played the World Cup in 2006. So it depends on the talent of the players. And now we have very young players who are really mature, so there's no such rule; it depends on the personality of the player.
We've seen a lot of good young players moving out of France like Dimitri Payet and others. Now, Ligue 1 is known to be a feeder system for supplying players for the big stage. Do you see this exit of players from the French league as good or bad?
Malouda: I think it's both. It's a good thing because it shows that the work done in the league is good, but it's a bad thing too, because before, players wanted to achieve something great in the French league. Now it's just a step towards maybe the Premier League or La Liga or other leagues, which means players are not willing to stay in the French league. There are many reasons for this - money, exposure, better stadia and facilities as well as media exposure and competitiveness in the European competitions. It's difficult for a league to be competitive if you cannot retain your best players. The best player in the French league in a given year never stays in the league next year (these days). I think the French league has no choice. It cannot compete with the financial power of England and the other countries.
What do you need to do for a French club other than PSG to come in and perform really well in the Champions League?
Malouda: If you look at PSG and my former club Lyon, they are two different business models. PSG has a strong investor from Qatar, Lyon is more of a corporate business model - trying to attract people, to get people to invest, trying to own its own structures, stadium and new training facilities. Lyon don't have the same financial power as PSG but they're still trying to be competitive with a different strategy.
As far as PSG is concerned, even with all its financial power, it will take them a bit long - much like Manchester City or maybe Chelsea - to achieve success on the European stage. This is because money may attract players, but it doesn't mean you are assured a team strong enough to compete with those with a bigger history and past, like Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.
It takes time to be competitive at the highest stage of football, because (while) you need good players, you also need experience at the highest level. And for a French club, if you don't have the financial power to keep your best players or offer them good contracts, then it's fatal. That is why French clubs find it so difficult to be competitive at the European level. PSG dominate the French league, but in European competition, the level is not the same.
After France's debacle at the 2010 World Cup, they rediscovered their vigour at the recently concluded Euro 2016. Do you think French society still identifies with the national team? Or are the scars of 2010 yet to heal?
Malouda: I had been there at the 2006 World Cup, where we had great results. I had been there at the 2010 World Cup, where it was a disaster. I had been there at Euro 2012 as well where we reached the quarterfinal, but it wasn't a good result for us. I was there at Euro 2008 where we didn't advance beyond the group stage. So there have been cycles. And even the 1998 and 2000 (when France won the World Cup and Euro respectively) teams were the same as that in the 2002 World Cup.
In football if you win, you are a hero, and if you lose you are zero (laughs) even with the same players! According to my experience, fans love their team no matter what. Of course, you're more proud when your team wins, but it is something that you feel in the media that people don't like their team. They don't like it when they don't have access to their team, but they support their team even during bad results. It's just the image (the team sometimes builds) that they don't like. The image is something you can work on and if you can do that things can change. So for me, there are no ups and downs when it comes to the fans.
After the 2010 World Cup, I went back to France and nobody harassed me on the street or said they didn't like me or the team. People that you met were wondering what was happening but they always encouraged their players.
In six years at Chelsea, you saw a lot of managers come and go. How does it affect a player? Doesn't it cause anxiety and insecurity considering that every manager has his own ways?
Malouda: No, not really, because it can happen not only in Chelsea but elsewhere too. When you're a footballer, you need to be very strong mentally; you cannot let things off the pitch affect you. You can learn from every manager and even if he doesn't have you in his plans, you can turn things around. This is a life lesson and life story that you can apply to football. Otherwise, you would just play in a club where the manager wants you. But as you can see now, most of the time, when the manager arrives, the squad is already there and he doesn't even choose the players. So it works both ways.
You know that you must have a professional relationship (with the manager) and that the club must benefit from that. And you know that if the team doesn't produce results, maybe they (the team bosses) will sack the manager, but you also know that in the next transfer window, you could be the next one out. So everybody must deliver. That's the rule.
In the time that you were at Chelsea, there were players like John Terry and Frank Lampard. When you walked into a dressing room that had such stalwarts, did you feel the need to immediately strike a bond with them, because they were very important members in the side and you knew they were going to be there even when the managers went away?
Malouda: (chuckles) Yeah, but you need to understand that when you sign for a club like this you have done (good) things before. So when I stepped into the Chelsea dressing room, I had already won the French league four times, and I had played the World Cup and was in the final. So I knew them and they knew me. There was mutual respect and they knew that if the club had decided to invest in a player it was because the player would be a plus.
In such cases they would do everything to make you feel comfortable and get you settled as fast as possible. I remember when I met them during my first pre-season in California, they made me feel comfortable and it was like I had always known them. They were the leaders of the team - John Terry was the captain, and he would always be there for you, on and off the pitch. In England, when you are part of a club, the club is like your family and you're a part of a big family. It's a very easy process. You just observe and learn from them because they have more experience of the Premier League.
During your time at Chelsea you were sent to train with the U-21s for almost an entire season. As a player, how difficult was it to see yourself being pushed away from the senior team despite having proved yourself on the grand stage on numerous occasions?
Malouda: It wasn't difficult. I wanted to go for free and the club wanted to make money on me. So both parties decided that we wouldn't carry on together, but there was a contract. So we had to wait until the end (of the contract). I saw it happening before to other recognised players too, and I had decided to go for free, no matter what the price was. My pride had no price. In that year I gave priority to my family because I knew I had to wait one year. So it was really easy and for me the most important thing was to be respected by everybody, every single individual at the club. Maybe a few people didn't have respect for me, but I had the respect of (nearly) everyone, right from the groundsman, to every fan in Chelsea.
The only thing they were trying to do was to attack my image. I didn't have to respond because everything I had done, maybe for five years, was speaking for myself. I didn't play for one year but then I came back. I played European competitions, I played three games a week with Trabzonspor, which meant that I wasn't finished from football. It's just that someone took a decision saying "I don't want you to wear that jersey that you wore for five years; you have been successful, but I have decided that you will never play again." I accepted it, but after that I proved that I was still competitive. This is life, but you must have principles.
In the 2009-'10 season, you simply went berserk with Chelsea. You were scoring goals and you were also setting them up. What was the spark behind that performance? And how difficult was it to maintain that flow?
Malouda: No, it was not difficult. Everything was about work and consistency and it was the same in Lyon. When I arrived, I had a role. I played my role and then I waited for my time, and when I was allowed to do certain things, I did them because I had the ability to do them. I am more of a team player, but I also have the ability to make a difference (all by myself). I can be a playmaker, I can be a defensive player, and score goals. They were talking about leaders, and when it's your time after you had accepted your role, they would give you the responsibility to score goals and to assist. I just did it. I played an offensive role that season, so people remember it. I was the Player's Player of the Year. We had the same squad for sometime and everybody evolved in different roles and in that season I was more regularly in a goalscoring position and I really enjoyed it. I had been working with those players, observing, learning from them and it was just my time to apply what I saw.
You came into a Chelsea side that had won a lot of titles before, but were going through a tough phase. For a footballer, what creates more pressure – getting into a winning side or getting into a side which is struggling?
Malouda: You must know that in top clubs nothing is easy. I've been there and seen it all. In my first five years at Chelsea, we changed managers, I was banned for one year but we still won a lot of trophies. It wasn't like nothing was happening. We won the league, we won three FA Cups, and the Champions League. The five years were successful years, but there were still changes, and that's what you call difficulties.
Difficulty is not when you don't win a game, because in a season you can lose, have a bad run of games and still turn things around and in the end it's your character that makes you successful. In top clubs, if you win it's normal. If you draw, you're not far from crisis. If you lose, you might hear those dreaded words - "you're gonna get sack in the morning" (laughs). So this is normal. Top players put themselves under pressure. If I am a top player nobody can put pressure on me because when I step on the pitch, I want to prove things. You don't get shaky on the pitch because you need to be good. It's like "I believe I am good and I'm just gonna show that I am good." Mentally you have to be very, very strong. And when you are like this, you don't even realise you are in Chelsea or in front of 40,000 people. For you all that is normal.
In the Champions League in 2012, we lost to Napoli in Napoli and that was pressure. But we managed to reach the final, We played the final against Bayern Munich in their own backyard and were 1-0 down. That was pressure. Many would have given up but none of us did and that's why it was a big, big achievement to lift that trophy.
You have had two big final appearances and two losses - a World Cup and a Champions League. Does a player fully recover after losing a big final?
Malouda: It's never easy and I will come back to the mental strength part. The process is very long. Before you start a competition, you have the pre-season and friendlies. Then you have two or three months in which you live together and manage to reach the final. After that, there's a winner (chuckles) and a loser. If you lose, you never know whether you will qualify for the World Cup again or play in the biggest tournament again. Nothing is guaranteed. You don't know if you will still play football and it's not because you're old; even young players don't realise it might be their last appearance.
For me it was the latter (chuckles again). So I kept on thinking about it. But when it's done you have to realise that it's finished and you have to move on. You just have to move on. I never watched the final (2008 Champions League) again. I just moved on, because 20 days after that I had to start another season where everybody was expecting me to be the player I was at the final.
So I couldn't say "I am tired" or "I'm not ready yet". When people are used to see you at certain level, you have to deliver. And you cannot let yourself down and feel sorry for yourself and this is the harsh reality at the highest level. And that's the story with Chelsea. For instance, in my first year, we reached the final, we lost on penalties and in my last year (of playing considering I was relegated to the reserves), I played in another final and won on penalties. It's an amazing story. This is how things turn around. Never give up.
Have you watched the 2006 World Cup final again?
And you haven't talked about it with Gianluca Zambrotta (his current Delhi Dynamos coach who also played in that 2006 World Cup final)?
Malouda: No! (laughs) no... never. We lost the final and people will speak about all the... what happened in the final. But for me, it doesn't change anything. It's just a loss. There is a winner and there is a runners up and I was the runners up. So I don't need to watch it back. It's done and it's the same even for the final in Munich. It's in the past and I just focus on what's coming next. Maybe when I finish my career, I will have time with my grandchildren to say "look what grandpa did!" (laughs) when I have nothing else to do, but I'm too busy now, going forward and setting new targets.
Call Gianluca to your house when you watch it.
Malouda: Yeah! (laughs) maybe we'll have a good drink.
You started off as a striker, then converted into a winger, then a midfielder and sometimes left-back too. Do you think adjusting to the demands of the team can sometimes derail a player's career, especially when you are a specialist in a certain position?
Malouda: Umm... not my career. Maybe some players can feel that way, but I think every experience is a good experience and for me it's something that has always been a plus (for my career) not only in terms of my own performance, but it has also helped me understand the game better. I've played under many coaches and when they talked to me I understood and applied (the tactics) very clearly. I could also be a relay to the coach because I played in different positions and I knew the different aspects (of play) on the pitch. I think when you are not confident, you will say, "Oh! This might be negative for my individual performance".
Even if I speak about last night's game (Delhi Dynamos vs Mumbai City FC), I played in different positions, and when I look at the result I am very happy. I didn't score but I am happy that my ability to play in different positions helped the team recuperate from a negative position. It's a collective sport and I'm sure that the manager (will be happy) when he sees that you have the ability to adapt and you're bringing him solutions instead of problems.
What are the quintessential qualities you learn in France, and how is it different from what you learn outside France?
Malouda: I grew up in French Guiana. I went there when I was 15, so there were things I learnt in France that I couldn't learn in South America. In France, importance is given to discipline. You learn discipline on the field and off it. There is discipline with timings, with what you eat, and when you sleep. There's a way of training - tactical training and physical conditioning. It is something similar to Italy where you have to work really hard. It's different compared to England. For example, (in France) in the pre-season, you have to run a lot before you touch the ball. It's a different way to prepare and it's a different approach to pre-conditioning. And these are the habits that I learnt when I was 15 – ones which I still need and use. Even when I move out of France and I see a drill, I know the drill, because I have repeated it in the academy in France.
Speaking about the differences abroad, in England, people just want results. In France, the way you prepare can be an excuse (for poor results). So, if I didn't prepare well, that's an excuse. In England, you don't care about how you prepare. There's a winner and a loser (chuckles). You are either a hero or zero. Everybody wants to be the hero. They don't care about your private life as long as you deliver for the club. Whereas in France, people will tell, "You must have a good life" and things like that.
In England, there are players who didn't go to the academy, who had other jobs, but had been professional players and had earned respect from the fans. So you have different profiles of players, whereas in France, their profiles are almost the same. People go through one channel - the academy. It's difficult to come out of this channel and that's one big difference. In England, if you have the talent, mental strength and fighting spirit, you are able to break it into the professional world, but in France it will be very difficult if you don't go through a certain channel.
So what next for Florent Malouda?
Malouda: Oh! There are many, many things, you know. Just like on the pitch, I do many things on the spot. My first priority is play football and to enjoy as much as possible. This is one advice from people who have been playing with me who have not stopped their careers. They say, "As long as you can continue and you enjoy it, just play because when you stop (chuckles) you will be at home, bored".
Don't you want to be a coach, like Gianluca?
Malouda: Maybe. I'm learning. I was talking about observing and learning - that's what I do as well. For instance, last year I was playing under Roberto (Carlos), I've played against both of them (Carlos and Zambrotta) and have been witnessing their transition into coaching. So for me it's an experience. I don't know if I will do it, but I would be stupid not to try. If I like it I will carry on, but if I don't like it I will do something else and at the same time I'm doing other stuff. I have other things around, maybe in terms of business, maybe in terms of management; not only managing a team, maybe being on the board, or in the academy.
I've been playing since 15, so it has been almost 21 years now. I have a lot of experience. I can use it, but if I enjoy it, I will carry on, and I think I will enjoy it. And there's family too, because I have six children. So (chuckles) believe me, I will be busy! (laughs) In fact, when I am here I am very tranquil. I get a little bit of peace (laughs again). I have five daughters, so I will be busy taking care of them because I have been away a lot. At the moment I am enjoying my time with Delhi Dynamos. I'm not worried about the future, because I have so many opportunities, but I don't want to have any regrets at the end of my career, so I just live my life to the fullest.
How do you want to be remembered after your playing career?
Malouda: Except the titles that are the heritage of my family. I want to be remembered as one who was a good partner and a very loyal person in the squad. When we start something together, I fully commit to it. I treat every member of the squad as my brother, as my family (member).
We've been living together in good and bad moments and it's reactions in the bad moments that reveal the personality of a man, and this is what is most important for me. You don't speak about yourself, people will speak about you; they will say, "Yeah, this is the guy that I can trust". This is the only thing important for me. This is my personality and this is what I want to stick to.