For a man who had arrived in India just a day ago, Robert Pires looked uncannily at home. There was no sign of grogginess or jet lag, no expression of feeling smothered by the attention he was getting in India and certainly no tantrums in front of the media as they quizzed him on Indian football, the Indian Super League and of course, Arsenal. In fact, he made us feel comfortable — appreciating the starry-eyed gazes with answers punctuated by occasional chuckles — reminiscent of the way his 'second daddy' Arsene Wenger treats the media in England.
"The reception at the airport was amazing," he said, before adding, "Thank you for the welcome India... and the spicy food."
While stars have been signed and interviewed in the run-up to the eight-team tournament, the burning question has always been this: why would a players like Pires (who has won two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two FIFA Confederations Cups, a European Championship and a World Cup) come to India out of all places? And in the Frenchman's case, it was even more relevant considering he hasn't played since 2011 — which essentially means he came out of retirement specifically for the ISL.
"Why not? Why not?" he retorted to a question from Firstpost during a press interaction in Mumbai — on why he would avoid the glitzy life of America (like former teammate Thierry Henry) or the oil-fuelled riches and Lamborghinis in the Middle East for a stint in India — where football clearly plays second fiddle to cricket and the conditions to play are, let's say, not the most ideal.
"For me the project and the passion for the game are very important. India needs a start. You need to progress. And for me, that was important. I had offers from the USA and Qatar but I wanted to be part of a new beginning for the sport in India. As for the conditions, we all know about them — but I'm ready and training hard. I like the pressure," he said, making it clear that the USA and Qatar hardly excited him as much as India.
Pires is a regular at Arsenal's training ground, using the facilities to stay fit, and said that he spoke to Wenger about playing in India: "He told me if you have it in you and if you have the passion to go play in India, then do it. And I think I'm ready."
However, he doesn't think Wenger would come to coach India. "No," he said, before sensing the disappointment and making up for it by adding, "Because he loves Arsenal so much... but you never know."
Interestingly, Pires had also signed up for Premier League Soccer — a similar franchise based football tournament which was planned a couple of years ago in Kolkata. But a lack of backing from the All India Football Federation and a host of other logistical issues led to its cancellation. Pires however, was not sceptical in the least about giving India another chance: "Yes I had signed and it got cancelled. Then when I was contacted by the ISL, I said why not? I am absolutely sure of the ISL's success," he said.
Through the whole interaction, from the unveiling of the man to him doing keepy-ups with FC Goa co-owner Virat Kohli and brand ambassador Varun Dhawan and a couple of separate Q&A sessions with the media, Pires' aura was that of a very approachable superstar. He played at a time when the Premier League really started booming in India — fans know him, swamp him, take selfies with him and ask for his autograph — but Pires never seemed annoyed. He has been tweeting and retweeting generously on his Indian journey so far — it seems a case of him being as interested in coming to India as Indians being excited about him playing in their country.
"I think a two-month league is long enough. Along with Zico and other players, I want to help youngsters in the country. It's difficult for India but it's a step-by-step process. The U17 World Cup in 2017 will be very important for you — the mentality to approach it is very important. All I knew about Indian football before coming here was your ranking (158th) — so everything about this league is going to be positive for you," he said.
What Pires' arrival will do is introduce Indian football to the world in a different way; a way that goes beyond just our dismal FIFA ranking. If the ISL is successful — and Pires is sure it will be — then India can look forward to players who come in the future knowing more about their country than just a dismal ranking.
The writer tweets @TheFalseNo9
Updated Date: Sep 24, 2014 15:42 PM