'I touched the sky with Arsenal in 2001/02': Robert Pires on his highs, Henry, and lucky underpants
The ex-Arsenal and France star opens up on his first training stint with Thierry Henry, how Zinedine Zidane was the first person who impressed him in the dressing room and the story of his lucky underpants.
There is something special about Robert Pires that allures even the neutrals towards the former Arsenal star. He is a calm and composed man, something that befuddles you considering he played an intense game called football.
There are hundreds queued up for an autograph; he obliges everyone, along with a picture. Inside studio seven of the famous Mehboob Studios in Mumbai, the former French international is busy giving one interview after another.
By the time your turn arrives, you fear he might be bored, but his charming smile hasn't faded. It's then that we decide to bring out the other side of a generally quiet Pires - the funny one.
Pires had come down to Mumbai to host Arsenal's first ever international screening outside the UK (Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur) and in an exclusive interview with Firstpost, he opens up on his first training stint with Thierry Henry, how Zinedine Zidane was the first person who impressed him in the dressing room and the story of his lucky underpants.
When was the first time that you trained with Henry and what was your experience?
Pires: My first time? Wow... it's a long, long time ago. It was, I think, 1996 or 1997. Before the (1998) World Cup, so... It was interesting because I knew Thierry Henry before as he played for Monaco and I played for Metz in France. But when I did the first training with him, I said, wow, this guy is very fast. So my first reaction to (training with) Henry was that he was very, very fast.
When did you first realise that you can play at the highest level?
Pires: Maybe, when I played for Arsenal. It was, I think, season 2001-'02. I think I touch(ed) the sky. With the team, and of course, with Arsene Wenger and we won the title at the end of the season. So for me, it was 2001-02. I think it was my best season.
How was your first meeting with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger?
Pires: (Laughs) The first meeting with the boss? It was in 2000 just before the Euro in France. He called me and said, 'Robert, I know you and I want you to play for me in the next season.' I said, yes okay, why not? Let me think about this proposition. So I have great memories with the boss.
The first time you tried that (in)famous relay penalty (against Manchester City in 2005) with Henry?
Pires: Bad decision! That was my first reaction. Bad decision because, unfortunately, I missed the ball. I don't know what happened in my head. It was a big, big mistake on my part. I remember Titi (Henry) was a little upset with me because if I (had made) a good pass he (could have) scored.
Did the two of you pull it off in training the first time?
Pires: Yes, we tried the day before the game, we scored (Laughs). But believe me, the sensation in training and (during) the game is not the same. (There is) too much of pressure when you're playing for your fans. So maybe that's why I missed the ball.
When was the first time you thought your unbeaten streak would be broken during the course of those 49 top flight league games (from May 2003 to October 2004) that Arsenal were unbeaten?
Pires: Many times. Actually it was a record, because it was 49 games unbeaten, but I remember games like (those) against Middlesbrough, and especially Liverpool. Liverpool was 2-1 at half time at home and we said, the record would break today. So we changed our philosophy for the second half, and in the end, we won 4-2.
When was the first time you lost your cool on the field?
Pires: Oh, good question! I think, never. Because I am very... I think I am very calm and quiet on the pitch.
When was the first time that somebody asked you for an autograph?
Pires: Oh, the first time? It was at Metz in France. So, long, long time ago. You know, I signed my first contract in 1993, so maybe that year.
What was your experience of a first big final?
Pires: I think my first big final was with my national team. It was the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil. It was a great moment. I have great memories of that final because, of course, we won 3-0 against Brazil and I remember when captain Didier Deschamps lifted the trophy, I said, 'no! I cannot imagine, we are... champions of the world! So yeah, it was a fantastic moment'.
How was the feeling going into that match?
RP: Very good. I think it was one of the best games I played with my national team. I don't know why, but everything that night was perfect. That's why we beat Brazil 3-0.
Now we come to the interesting bit. You've been known to wear your lucky underwear. When was the first time that you wore that lucky underwear?
Pires: It was a long, long time ago. I always put the same underwear for a long, long time. It's like, you know, a superstition. Because when I played my first game against Lyon, I put this underwear and I played very well and I said, 'This is my underwear'. I always played in this underwear.
Which was the first cricket match you watched?
Pires: It was two years ago in a Goa hotel during the Indian Super League. But the problem is, I don't know the rules of cricket. I didn't know who won the points, but I know, in India, you have a very good team and very famous players.
When was the first time you were impressed with someone in the dressing room?
Pires: It was Zinedine Zidane, and it was in 1996, just before the World Cup (in 1998). I don't know he had something special. (When I saw him) I said, 'Wow, this guy is very, very good'.
When was the first time Robert Pires got nervous?
Pires: Got nervous? Maybe one day it was in Highbury. (It was) Arsenal (vs) Manchester United. It was very intense between Wayne Rooney and me. I think that was one time I was very nervous. But it was no more than that, because that game was special. When you play Manchester United, it's a hard game because you know you will have to fight for the title against this team. So Rooney was nervous and so was I.
Which was your first embarrassing moment on the field?
Pires: The penalty against Manchester City was very embarrassing. Especially for the fans, it was very new. I remember at the end of the game, in the dressing room, the boss said, 'You're a lucky man because we won and you scored the penalty before'. I said, 'Thank you boss (laughs)!'
Which was the first Indian food item you tasted?
Pires: Chicken tikka masala, because I love the chicken and when I joined (FC) Goa two years ago, I was very happy to discover a new country, new people and I wanted to try the food. Sometimes it's a little spicy, but chicken tikka masala is very, very good.
Who was your first footballing idol?
Pires: My first idol was my dad. And after that, it was Michel - a Spanish guy (who) played for Real Madrid. He played with No 8 on his back and he was a special player because... he could play the long ball (and) short ball, (had) very good control, very good vision and I said, 'I want to do (it) like Michel".
What would be the first advice you would give to a youngster?
Pires: It's a simple advice. Hard work, confidence in yourself and never give up. That is most important, never give up!
One last thing. How was your first experience with Firstpost?
Pires: It was good. You need to ask the people, the fans. But it was very good. I enjoyed the interview.
Pires had a great time in Mumbai with the Arsenal fans at the screening and here is his experience in Mumbai summed up in a short video produced by Arsenal football club
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