Defiant to the end, Robert Pires is keeping the France 1998 flame alive all by himself. The sole member of the hosts' triumphant FIFA World Cup™ squad yet to hang up his boots, at 41 he is four years older than Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, who both retired earlier this year.
Together with those iconic strikers, he tasted further international success at UEFA EURO 2000, while he picked up a number of titles and trophies in a glittering spell at Arsenal between 2000 and 2006. Pires also represented the likes of Metz, Marseille and Villarreal with distinction, in a career that most players would happily draw a line under once the game's physical demands became harder to bear. Not so, Pires. Instead, the man capped 79 times by Les Bleus is training hard in the hope of being offered yet another challenge. He spoke to *FIFA.com *about his enduring passion for football and some of the greatest moments from his playing days.
FIFA.com: You are the only player from France's World Cup-winning squad yet to retire. What are your current thoughts on retirement?
Robert Pires: (Laughs) Yes, it's true. At the moment, I'm waiting to see whether I'll try one last adventure in India, like last year. I'm kind of just waiting, as I was last year. I'm working hard to be ready to leave if I get called back.
*How would you judge your fitness levels?
*I feel I'm in good shape. I'm pretty happy because the other day I took part in pre-season training at Arsenal, with the club's internationals. OK, I'm not going to pretend I didn't suffer a little because at 41 it's not the same any more. But let's just say that the body is willing, the mind is still ready and, above all, I have no issues with getting back to work. As for my vision and technique, they're still there, even if I always have to work on them – which is true if you're 20 or 40.
*Why is it so difficult for players to hang up their boots, even after a career like yours?
*I can't complain. I played at the highest level for 19 seasons, and I'm aware of having had a wonderful career. Right now, I'm guided by my love of football more than anything else. There are always jealous people who'll criticise and say that I'm chasing money, but I've never heard of any professions that people do for free. The Indians got in touch with me to use my name and image, so it's only fair that I get paid for that. But, I'll say it again: I love football. I live in London and, whenever I get a chance to play a five-a-side game with some friends, I'm there. Football is my passion and it's what I've done since I was seven years old. I was 18 when I started making money from football. Now that I'm 41, there are people offering me the same thing. So, quite simply, I say yes. And I enjoyed India a lot. I learned a lot and came face to face with the poverty there, which is very, very tough. One thing's for sure: I no longer have the right to complain about anything. That's impossible now. But I discovered a beautiful country, fabulous and very welcoming people, and the local cuisine.
*Does your desire to keep playing reveal a certain frustration with your career? Does it mean that you feel like you haven't done enough?
*No, I'm not frustrated. It's just part of who I am, and I love football. Beyond that, it's true that I do have trouble retiring. What's certain is that the highest level is behind me now. But if I can still get to enjoy myself, I won't hesitate. I have my health for a start, and that's what's most important. And former players never stop telling me: "Robert, you're right. As long as you can still play, as long as you can still run and as long as you still have the desire to work hard, then keep going." They won't say it, but there are former players who regret having stopped too soon. I won't give their names, but some of them have told me (laughs). So all those jealous and bitter people who think that footballers make too much money for just chasing a ball… There's no problem. I accept all criticism. But I'm sure that if they were in my place, they would do the same thing.
*You were a world champion at 24 and European champion at 26. Looking back, what are your thoughts now on your early taste of glory?
*People put their faith in me, that's all. The first was Aime Jacquet because he believed in me and saw I had qualities that could help the France team. Above all, there was a very good generation around me.
*When France were celebrating becoming European champions on 2 July 2000 thanks to your memorable burst down the left, did you think that was just the start for *Les Bleus and yourself?
**Yes, and I wanted us to go as far as possible. I started with the senior team in 1996 and finished in 2004. I think I did what was required and it was an honour and pride for me to represent my country. We did the double with our World Cup and EURO wins, and that's what's most important for a top-level athlete. I made 79 appearances in blue and I'm very proud of what I've achieved, at club level and especially at international level.
We still had our heads in the clouds to some extent.
*France also won the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup, when you were voted player of the tournament. How did you feel during that period?
*Arsene Wenger said to me at the time: 'I don't know what's happening at the moment, Robert, but I get the impression you're flying!' (Laughs) And it's true that everything I did was coming off – all the controls, all the dribbles, all the shots. There are moments like that when you're in a state of grace. I wasn't about to complain; quite simply, that was my best period. Then, as so often happens in football, I got that injury in 2002. For me, it wasn't serious: it was part of the game.
*That cruciate ligament injury came just before the 2002 World Cup, with the English press having voted you player of the year. Were you perhaps the missing piece that France were lacking in Korea/Japan?
*I can't say, I don't have the answer to that. Unfortunately, there were a lot of injuries – there was Zizou's [Zinedine Zidane], mine and so on. A lot of changes were made at that time. I think we exploded in full flight. We still had our heads in the clouds to some extent.
*France went out in the group stage after two defeats, a draw and no goals scored. What was it like watching that debacle from the outside?
*I lived it like all the players and all the supporters. I was saddened and distraught because of what happened to us and that early elimination. I was disappointed because I was in among the fans and I realised the extent to which people won't cut you any slack, even if you were crowned world champions four years previously (laughs). What's difficult in high-level sport is to be consistent. Between 1998 and 2000, we had a lot of success, but that consistency deserted us in 2002.
I always believe in the France team. I'm not worried because I think Didier Deschamps is the right man for the task at hand.
*You then returned to your best level very quickly. You scored the winning goal in the 2003 FA Cup final, won another Confederations Cup with France and helped Arsenal take the Premier League title unbeaten the following year. EURO 2004 was tailor-made for you, especially given your Portuguese roots, but France lost to Greece in the quarter-finals. Was that your biggest disappointment playing for *Les Bleus?
**Yes, of course. It was a huge disappointment for us because we were one of the favourites. We were confident in our ability to repeat what we'd done in 2000. Perhaps we put a little too much pressure on ourselves. For me, what was glaring was that certain players had made way and we were having trouble replacing them at that time. Whether it was Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc or Youri Djorkaeff, they were all senior players who used to be there during difficult moments and made it possible for others to lift their heads. Maybe the new players coming through weren't good enough, but that's just my opinion.
How did you feel during the period that followed, with *Raymond Domenech taking over as coach and no longer calling you up?
*You know, I've always done what needs to be done on the pitch, especially for my clubs. The post-2004 period was all about a dispute between myself and the coach. I got judged on what I'd said rather than what I was doing on the pitch. It's not a huge deal, though. What made me laugh was that I was right. I'd said: "If we carry on like this, the France team are heading for disaster." That shows I wasn't wrong about the person in charge at the time. I took a lot of flak during that period (laughs), but don't get me wrong. I want to be clear: I really would have liked to see France win a second World Cup in 2006. That's what matters most: getting several stars on the France shirt like Brazil or Italy.
*France have been going through a bit of a rough patch recently, with losses to Albania and Belgium last month and a slip down the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. With just a year to go until EURO 2016, are you worried?
*I always believe in the France team. I'm not worried because I think Didier Deschamps is the right man for the task at hand. He knows what he's doing and he knows how to manage the players. I really liked the fact that he had a big rant after the Albania game. That will do everyone some good. I'm not going to judge France on losses to Belgium and Albania because we've all been there before. They're the kinds of games that come at the wrong time. OK, you have to play them and respect the shirt when you're called up – that's very important – but there's a kind of fatigue that sets in as a result of the past season having been so long. And, above all, it's a time of year when you have just one thing on your mind: going on holiday and relaxing, because the new season will be even longer. So, to repeat what I said before, I'm not worried and we mustn't be too harsh on the players. They made a mess of those two games and suffered two defeats, but that's not the most important thing. What's most important is that they're ready for the first match of the EURO.