Spain have put everything in football: Frederic Kanoute talks to Firstpost about La Liga's supremacy and El Clasico giants
Kanoute was in Mumbai to host the El Clásico screening on 4 December and Firstpost caught up with the former Sevilla man to discuss Spanish football, challenges of facing the La Liga behemoths Barcelona and Real Madrid, the difference between the football cultures in England and Spain, his development into a deadly striker at Sevilla and much more.
As you enter the clubhouse of the boardroom at Mumbai's Sofitel hotel, a towering figure greets you with a beaming smile. It has been some time since you had watched him playing on television, and as you are still marvelling at his impressive height, he offers you a handshake.
The smile widens, and you can't help but ask yourself, "Is he the same guy who terrorised the defences across Europe and Africa?" The PR manager warns him that this is going to be a long interview. Frederic Kanoute accepts it, but you don't miss his cheeky smile. Then there is a gradual transformation, though, and as on the football field, he gets intense while fielding the questions.
Kanoute started off his professional football career with Lyon and then spent five years in England where he played for Premier League clubs West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur. But the best phase of his career came in Spain with La Liga side Sevilla, for whom he scored 136 goals in 290 matches and won six trophies. The Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán club had described him as a 'legendary player' when he left the club.
The Mali forward was the first player born outside Africa to win the African Footballer of the Year award in 2007, and still remains Sevilla's all-time top foreign scorer.
Kanoute was in Mumbai to host the El Clasico screening on 4 December and Firstpost caught up with the former Sevilla man to discuss Spanish football, challenges of facing the La Liga behemoths Barcelona and Real Madrid, the difference between the football cultures in England and Spain, his development into a deadly striker at Sevilla and much more.
Let's start off with Barcelona and Real Madrid. You've spent a lot of time in Spain. How different a game do you need to play against Barcelona or Real Madrid, since they are the giants of the Spanish league?
Frederic: The motivation factor is very important, because, I think, you have to take your game to another level when you face these teams. You need all your strength, your motivation to play against them. That's why for them it's (also) difficult to play against, I would say, lesser teams. Obviously, when they play against each other, it makes for a big Clasico because they are the strongest teams in the La Liga, and probably in the world.
What special physical or mental preparation do you need before a match against these sides?
Frederic: There are different aspects. There is the tactical side. Obviously, you work in a special way to try to block all their initiatives or at least the majority of them. So it is a long process. You do not just come on matchday and say, "Okay, let's try to beat them!" There is a long preparation to it, (which involves) a lot of video viewing (analysing) as well. There is mental preparation as well and for this, every player chooses what is best for him. But obviously, the mental element has to be present and (also) the physical element. You cannot arrive to the game too tired or not having worked enough. You have to be perfect physically and mentally.
How tough is it to keep a positive mindset going into the match? Do they go into the match thinking of a draw, fearing a hammering, or do they go for a win?
Frederic: It depends on the mindset of each team, each coach, each situation in which the match is going to be played. If you have been struggling against the other teams, and you have been struggling to win any game at all, when you arrive to play Barcelona or Real Madrid, maybe your aim should be a draw. Or sometimes, if they score first, you may think it is going to be difficult to limit the bleeding. But most of the teams now have high aspirations, high ambitions and they want to win. Especially when they play at home. And it's possible, because it happens every now and then. We can see other teams winning against Barcelona or Madrid. It's possible, and this is the mindset I like the coaches to have, or any player to have.
But is there a fear factor going into the match, because we have often seen Barcelona and Real Madrid dominating other teams and beating them by huge margins...
Frederic: No I don't think there's a big 'fear factor'. I think it's personal. You have 16 players in the team, and they all have their own personalities. Some of them are very brave and are very ambitious; they want to win any game even if they play against stronger teams. And some of them are a little bit cautious or scared when they play against big teams; so they need the other guys to support them, help them. That is why you have leaders. You have the manager, but you also have leaders within the team. All of these factors make a team. So you have to get a good blend to give good ambition to your team.
You've faced two of the best Barcelona sides during your time, under (Frank) Rijkaard and (Pep) Guardiola. So how different were the challenges in stopping them?
Frederic: We've gone through everything, every situation against Barcelona because we (Sevilla) had beaten them a few times. And we had lost against them badly as well. So it was always difficult to predict what was going to happen against these kind of teams. But definitely our motivation was always on the high when we were facing these teams. For Madrid, it was the same thing. Talking about Barcelona, of course, I think I played in La Liga when they were the best side ever in the world. So the motivation for us was on the highest point and I used to love these kind of games.
So how does one stop Lionel Messi?
Frederic: I think it's possible. There has to be teamwork. You cannot just take him one-on-one in every situation and think you're going to stop him. So far no one has achieved that, and it would be stupid thinking, "Oh, I have a good defender and have him follow him." No! You don't play football like that anymore with man marking strategy. But it's a complete team process. You have to be tight on him. You have to shuffle across very quickly to block him. I don't want to get into technical aspects but it has to be teamwork and don't forget, he plays in one of the best sides of the world. So if you put all your attention on Messi, another player is going to do the job. So it's very, very difficult. It's not that he is the only, really dangerous player in the team, (though) he's one of the best, if not the best in the world. And it's very difficult sometimes, and some teams hope that he has a bad day. That's the only thing (they can hope for).
Did you ever hope that he had a bad day?
Frederic: No I was not hoping (for) anything. Usually when I used to play I used to focus on my own game. Not whether the opposition was good, or something of that sort. As I said, my motivation was even higher (against top sides) and I used to love these games. Obviously, we had our struggles against them (Barcelona) and sometimes we went to Camp Nou, and we lost 4-0 and it was very, very difficult and we didn't have any answers to the problems we were facing on the pitch. That's why I say preparation time is very, very important. Your gameplan has to be established, but even with a gameplan you can make a mistake. And the coach might say after sometime, "Oh it wasn't the right solution to play this way." So it's never easy, because the talent in front is just unbelievable.
Is there ever a feeling that at the highest level you've already prepared for everything?
Frederic: No, no, you prepare for every game. It's professional football. Every game has to be prepared (for) seriously, professionally. We have video sessions, we have specific training and tactical sessions within training. And you have to take all the games very seriously, but obviously when you play against big teams, you have to prepare a little more. Sometimes against other teams you prepare more, you focus more on yourself and where you want to play and impose your style. You can still do this against big teams. Sometimes obviously you have to take into account the quality of the opponent, your game and block their game.
What is the reason that Spanish teams are dominating the European scene?
Frederic: I think it just proves that Spanish football is one of the best in the world. I know that EPL (English Premier League) is very good, very famous in Asia, for example. Because obviously they have been working on the marketing side way before La Liga and obviously it's the richest league in the world. So they can buy the best players and so on. La Liga proves its worth by the quality of it's players, by it's youth development and so on. And it shows in every international competition when they win. Almost every year, one of the (Spanish) teams wins the Champions League or the European League. So it's one of the best footballing nations of the world.
What is the core that is helping them to get to their best?
Frederic: I think the love for football, the culture. I know many coaches there and they are really into football, (as are) the people, the kids on the streets. Football is so very important in Spain! They have put everything in football, not simply funds, but a passion for football. I have seen some coaches spending hours on the field taking training sessions, even with the youth. So it's not only important at the top level, it's important from grassroot football up to the top. The love for football is a culture in Spain. That's why they always have good players.
Speaking of culture, you've spent five years in England also, playing for West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur. How different is the English culture compared to the Spanish one?
Frederic: In Spain, I think, football is the most famous sport and in England you have many, many sports, so not everybody is focused on football. The English Premier League is the most followed (league) in the world and the stadia are full. This is something fantastic. But, they also have other things (sports), and the style, the approach of football is different. It comes from the culture as well. I would say even historically, their approach is more like a fight when they come to football. While in Spain, it's more technical, or how to play good football. But nowadays, everything is blending together, because you have foreign coaches coaching in England and so on. You have other players coming to England, and English players as well playing more of a technical game as compared to 15-20 years ago. So now things are becoming more global.
We saw there was a sudden shift in balance in Europe with Spain suddenly switching over to possession based football compared to the counter-attacking football. How did Sevilla cope with that, because Sevilla were a counter-attacking team and then the culture shifted?
Frederic: Yes, I still think Sevilla doesn't have that typical Spanish type of football. The team never had a proper Spanish style of football. In my time, I remember, we used to be very good in counter-attacking, because we had the players to counter-attack. But in some games we had good amount of possession as well. So I won't say Sevilla had a particular style to play football. No, we played offensive football, we played direct football also, but sometimes, when it was necessary, we played possession football. Now this year, it has changed completely. Last year, Unai Emery (the then Sevilla coach) was playing one (type of) football, which was kind of safe at the back because of the team formation and good counter-attacking. Now, they have Jorge Sampaoli playing another style of football, but still very, very offensive football, wherein transitions are very quick with a bit of more possession. I believe football shouldn't be (played in) one way; there are many ways to play football, and sometimes from one game to another, you can play different styles of football. And that's where the future is taking us.
We have seen that Sevilla has been a Cup-dominating team. What is the reason then that they have not made it big in the La Liga or Champions League?
Frederic: The league is the most difficult competition, I would say. You have to be good week in and week out. And when you have to play other competitions like the Europa League sometimes, you don't arrive very fresh for the next league game. Especially, if you have a reduced squad. We saw that with Leicester City last year, for example, but they didn't have to play the Champions League. This year it's more complicated for them, because they have to focus their attention on many different spots. And that's difficult. But if they had to focus only on the league and with the number of players they have, I think they could have competed with the top two longer during the season. In my time as well, in one year we had been first (on the table) up to December. But after (that), we had too many games, the Copa Del Rey, European league and so on. So at the end we lost a few points and we finished third.
Coming back to you, you were not that prolific in England playing for West Ham and Tottenham, but as soon as you moved to Sevilla, you started scoring a lot of goals. So what provided that spark for a turnaround?
Frederic: Scoring goals is very important when you are a striker. But my case is a little different, because I was not trained only as a striker. In the youth academy, I played in midfield, offensive midfield and defensive midfield, and I was playing on the wing. I came to centre forward quite late, and when I arrived in England, I (had) played only a few games before as a centre forward, and I had to play centre forward the moment I arrived in England. So I had to adjust to play the new way. I had some really good years. Maybe I was not scoring enough goals, but I was still learning this new process of scoring goals. But I was scoring goals when I was playing on the side, obviously not as a proper centre forward. I had to change a little bit of the mindset and I became more mature by the time I arrived in Spain. All the players, when they get to a certain age, always learn, and it has always been my mindset to learn. And I could adjust myself to the new style, and it worked well in Spain.
What are the challenges a striker faces in England and in Spain?
Frederic: (They are) a bit different, but honestly, a good player will have success anywhere, because a good player can adjust, who (while) playing against a top team and strong defenders, will play in a certain way. If a team plays differently, say defensively, he'll play in a different way. So a good player can have success anywhere. Obviously in England it's a bit tougher; the defenders are tough, but tactically, they had a few problems, but in Spain you have more of a possession game. We had more time to build up our offensive style of play. I enjoyed my time in England very much. I learnt a lot there, but in Spain there was no comparison, I really enjoyed my football. I always liked more technical football, and it was fine for me.
If you had trained as a centre forward before coming to England, would you have scored the same number of goals as (you did) in Spain?
Frederic: I remember a period in England when I was scoring every game. I was, maybe, at the top of the goal scorers' (list). But later on, I had a little drought, and I was playing in a different way, giving more assists. If you define my game back in Spain, I was playing more in association with the other players. I was not focused only on scoring goals, I was participative in the way I was playing. That's why some people appreciated my game. It was my style. But it's true that if you only look at the stats, you will say, "Oh in England he was not scoring enough." But, I think, I was appreciated for the way I was playing by the people who knew football, and knew what I was bringing to the table, but obviously I had to learn how to be more prolific in front of goal. Because, as I said, you always had to learn and get better. And in Spain, obviously, there was no comparison. I learnt to be much more prolific in front of goal. It didn't come in the first few months, it took a few months and after that I couldn't stop scoring, and I wanted to improve with time.
How different is the crowd support in England as compared to Spain?
Frederic: Both are great. But to be honest, in England, the support and the show around football was fantastic. It's a tradition to go (and) see football there with the whole family. The atmosphere is unbelievable. And it's so in Spain as well. Maybe now, it's not the case in all stadia. You could say, maybe Sevilla... I am a bit biased on that, but I think they are the best crowd in Spain. But there are others too. I was once amazed by Sporting Gijon. They had an unbelievable crowd. And you have others that are really good.
How much has playing away as well as playing in front of the crowd which is supporting you influenced your development or your performance as a footballer?
Frederic: For me, not much. Honestly, I have never been affected by playing away or at home. Sometimes on the contrary, I was more motivated away, because you have everything against and you want to show and to prove to make your point. But it's a different kind of motivation. (While playing) away you want to prove it doesn't affect you; you will not be scared and (try) to be the best. And at home, you have a fantastic support, and you want to give pleasure to all your fans. So in both ways, it was quite positive.
You have played in six finals, scored in five, won five. What's the secret behind Kanoute becoming a big match player?
Frederic: I don't know, it just happened. As I said, for me, big games had an extra motivation factor and maybe that was it. But I don't know, when I arrived in Sevilla, everything was quite positive for me and even when I was playing in the final(s). That is one of the reasons people remember me because of all the success I had over there.
So what next for Kanoute?
Frederic: I am still really busy with football, because I have an academy in Dubai and in Mali I manage an academy as well. We follow young talents, especially in Mali and in Dubai. We help them find a club in Europe. So I am really busy with all this and with charity in Mali. So I travel two or three times a year and I follow up with the children's village, which is a village for orphan kids.
Any plans to come to India for coaching full time?
Frederic: I don't know yet. This is my first visit now, so let me appreciate the country a little bit more. But we never know. I've been travelling all my life. I am always hungry to know new cultures and people. I know football is developing a lot here in India. So why not? Maybe in the future I will have a role to play here.
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