You have flown from Mumbai to Delhi, battled the capital’s infamous traffic jams for over two hours, and have your energy sapped by the time you reach the hotel to interview Florent Malouda. You’re just about getting into your groove when a beaming smile greets you. Malouda, in his Delhi Dynamos training kit, offers a handshake.
His infectious energy sets the tone, and the former Chelsea winger, who has been an inspiration for Delhi Dynamos in the ISL this season and the last, opens up on his good and bad times, football back home in France and overcoming the disappointments of losing big finals. Excerpts from a free-wheeling interview with Firstpost
We've seen a lot of good players moving out of France, like Dimitri Payet and others. Ligue 1 is said 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: It's both good and bad. It's a good thing because it shows that the work done in the league is good. Bad because back in the day, emerging players wanted to achieve something great in the French league, but now it’s a step towards Premier League or La Liga, which means they aren’t ready to stay in France. 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 keep your best players, but the league has no choice; clubs cannot compete with the financial power of England and other countries.
The French team had a debacle at the 2010 World Cup but recently rediscovered its verve. Can French society still identify with the national team?
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, where we reached the quarter-final; I was there at Euro 2008, where we didn't advance beyond the group stage. So there are cycles.
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. 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?
Malouda: It’s football and 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 around the pitch affect you. You can learn from a manager, and even if he doesn’t have you in his plans, you can turn things around. Maybe if you don’t have the (right) results, the club will sack the manager. But you never know, in the next transfer window, maybe you will be the next one out. So everybody must deliver, it’s a rule.
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 and we had to wait until the end. I saw it happen with other recognised players too, and I had decided I will go for free, no matter what. My pride has no price. In that one year, I prioritised my family because I knew I had to wait long. So, it was really easy and the most important thing was to be respected by everybody at the football club. Maybe a few people didn’t have respect for me, but I had the respect of everyone, right from the groundsman to the fans. I accepted it, but after that I proved that I was still competitive. This is life, but you but must have principles.
In the 2009-10 season, you were scoring and setting up goals at Chelsea. What was the spark behind that performance? How difficult was it to maintain that flow?
Malouda: It’s not difficult. Everything is about consistency. When they gave me a responsibility to score goals and to assist, I did that. I played in an offensive role that season, so people remember it. I was players’ player of the year. We had the same squad for a while and everybody evolved in different roles. I was in goalscoring positions more regularly and I really enjoyed it. I had been working with those players, observing and learning, 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: In top clubs, nothing is easy. In my first five years at Chelsea, we changed managers, I was banned for one year (sent to train with U-21s) but we still won a lot of trophies. It wasn't like nothing was happening. We won the league, three FA Cups, and the Champions League. But there were still changes, and that's what you call difficulties.
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 a crisis. If you lose, you might hear those dreaded words - "you're gonna get sacked in the morning" (laughs). If I am a top player, nobody can put pressure on me because when I step on the pitch, I want to prove things. 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.
You've lost in the finals of a World Cup and a Champions League. Does a player ever fully recover from a big final defeat?
Malouda: It's never easy. 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. For me, it was the last one (chuckles), so I kept thinking about it. 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 again. I just moved on, because 20 days later, I had to start another season where everybody was expecting me to be the player I was. I couldn't say "I am tired" or "I'm not ready yet". When people are used to seeing you at a certain level, you have to deliver. And you cannot let yourself down and feel sorry for yourself. In my first year, we reached the final but lost on penalties. In my last year, I played in another final and won on penalties. It's an amazing story. This is how things turn around. Never give up.
You started off as a striker, then converted into a winger, 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: Not my career. Maybe some players can feel like that, but I think every experience is a good experience, and for me, it was something that has always been a plus, not only in terms of my own performance, but also helping me understand the game better. I've played under many coaches, and when they talk to me, I understand and apply (their tactics) very clearly. I can also be a relay to the coach because I've played in different positions and know different aspects of the pitch. I think when you are not confident, you will say, "Oh! It might be negative for my performance." But I am happy that my ability to play in different positions help the team recuperate. 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, that you're bringing him solutions instead of problems.
For full text of the interview, click here