France’s Teddy Riner is the greatest judoka of all time. A seven-time world champion, four-time European champion and Olympic gold medallist, all at the age of 25, he still has many years ahead of him on the mat and the chance to improve on a stellar career record that will take some beating.
The French man mountain, who stands 6’8 tall and weighs in at 130kg, came close to taking up football full-time but chose instead to devote his considerable talents to the sport he now dominates.
FIFA.com caught up with him at one of his favourite restaurants, just across from the Parc des Princes, the home of his beloved Paris Saint Germain. As well as rhapsodising about his team and their former Brazilian idol Ronaldinho, Riner discussed the 2014 FIFA Ballon d’Or, the UEFA Champions League, his personal goals and the reasons why he chose judo over football, a decision French sport has had very good cause to celebrate.
FIFA.com: Who is your favourite for the 2014 Ballon d'Or 2014 and why? Teddy Riner:It just has to be Cristiano Ronaldo for me, because he scored a record number of goals in the Champions League last season and he won the trophy too. I know he didn’t have a great World Cup, but you can’t expect him to do everything. It’s a team sport after all. I’ve got friends who play for Real Madrid and they tell me that he’s the first to arrive for training and the last to leave, so I know he’s a hard worker. And then there’s the fact that he saved Portugal from missing out on the World Cup. He really deserves it.
I love [Lionel] Messi, but you get the feeling that he’s been off his game for a while, which might be down to injuries or the fact that his team aren’t on top any more. *Barça *aren’t the side they were but I think they’ll come back. They had a team that was together for a long time, that won the lot and then fell away. It takes time to rebuild something like that. The two best-knit sides around at the moment are Real and Bayern Munich. At Paris, we’re still building a team and we need time.
Let’s talk about PSG. You’re something of a regular at the Parc des Princes, aren’t you?I’m a PSG boy. I was around in the days of Paris Saint-Germain Omnisport and I’ve still got all my membership cards at home. I often get tickets to go and see matches at the Parc. It’s the club that’s closest to my heart, and it makes me happy to see them doing so well today.
He’s always been my idol. I love the fact he enjoys himself when he’s playing.
Do you remember the first time you went to the stadium?Yes, it was there, on that side (pointing to the Boulogne Stand). The great Ronaldinho was playing at the time and he was just incredible. He’s always been my idol. I love the fact he enjoys himself when he’s playing. It’s inspiring for me and it’s helped me improve. I watched a lot of videos to see how he prepared himself. With him, there’s no such thing as pressure. If you’re lucky enough to play a sport, then it’s best to do it well and not get hung up about it.
To my mind, he was the best player in the world. You watch the videos and you can see that not even Ronaldo and Neymar can do what he did. Messi’s got the skill and the ball’s glued to his feet for sure. But Ronaldinho is a fast, skilful player who barely put a foot wrong and who had that little bit of unpredictability about him, which made all the difference in my eyes. Ronaldinho’s forebears are Pele and Maradona, who both made their mark on the history of the game. But Ronaldinho’s the one who’s made a mark on my life, with his skills and as someone who genuinely plays the game.
*You’re only 25 and yet you’ve won everything in judo several times over. How do you stay motivated? *I don’t think my story’s come to an end yet. I want to score a lot more nice ippons, take on the very best and show them that I’m there. The challenge is still there. I’m not bored and every year is different. It gets a little bit harder each time. When I’ve got the chance to win something big I always try and hang in there. To be honest, though, I don’t really need to hang in there because I like a challenge. It’s not a hardship for me. I enjoy it. I’m going to go on for as long as I can so that the youngsters coming through can see me and think twice about getting involved (laughs). I want this to carry on for as long as possible.
*Do you identify with Messi and Ronaldo in that respect, two players who are breaking record after record? *To my mind a champion is someone who stands out from the rest, who likes a challenge and faces up to them every day. A champion is always competing. They hate losing, though that doesn’t mean to say they’re a bad loser. They give their all and do what they have to do, at any given time, to win. A real champion is someone who pushes themselves to the limit in search of victory. If you think about it though, it could be a defect, couldn’t it? (laughs) There’s something weird about us, something masochistic, because to get to that kind of level you have to push yourself to the absolute limit. It’s a little thing that you just can’t explain and it’s what separates the champions from the rest. I’m a training fanatic. I push and push myself until I can’t even walk. And if someone gives me another challenge, I’m always up for it.
What did you make of Brazil 2014?I saw all of France’s games and a few of the other big matches. The Germans showed right from the start that they were in it to win it. They dominated every game apart from the Algeria match and the Final. I was rooting for France and Brazil because I’m a big Brazil fan, and in the Final I wanted Argentina to win. I don’t know why. Germany played really well though. They don’t make mistakes and you just know they’re going to win, even if it’s not always very entertaining. All the same, they deserved it and they’ve missed out a few times lately.
What did you make of France’s performance in Brazil?I think they had a good World Cup and they showed a different side to themselves. I went to their training centre at Clairefontaine and I could see that they were a solid unit, which makes a change. Hats off to Didier Deschamps. He’s putting a very fine team together and they’ve done well up to now. They’re still a bit on the young side. If they’d shown a bit more belief, they’d have gone through. They didn’t let anyone down, though, and they only lost 1-0 to Germany.
*How good are you with the ball at your feet? *I love football and I always score every time I play. I play up front but when I was young I was a defender. I was the top scorer the year I gave up. I took the free-kicks and I even scored from a corner. I refuse to play at the back now, though. It’s up front only for me (laughs).
*You played football and judo for a long time. When did you choose between the two? *I had my membership card and I played football on Saturdays and had judo competitions on Sundays. I had to choose when I was about 13. There were top-level trials for football and judo coming up, and seeing as I didn’t like losing there was only one way for me to go. I told myself that I was taking the solo route, and that if I lost then there was no one else to blame but me (laughs). In football, when a team concedes a goal or two, you often see everyone with their heads down and they stop playing, which really annoys me. Even today, when I’m playing I try to pick my team-mates up because anything is possible, even when you’re 4-0 down. That’s sport for you.