‘To me, before his knee injury, Pirès was the best left attacking midfielder in the world. With us he was just flying.’ – Arsène Wenger shortly after Robert Pirès moved to Aston Villa. No arguments there, Monsieur.
When he was still a kid harboring dreams of making it as a professional, Pirès could always be found wearing either a Benfica kit or a Real Madrid one (his father was a Benfiquistas Águias fan while his mother was Spanish). ‘I was lucky enough that both Benfica and Madrid wanted to sign me. Benfica was in ’96 or ’97, but I didn’t want to join them because I wanted to keep playing and improving at Metz. In 2000, Madrid wanted me. But Arsenal wanted me too and I chose London.’
The general raising of eyebrows in the direction of that is natural and Pirès’ response is something Arsenal fans have grown accustomed to – ‘Because of Arsène. I spoke to him lots of times, I knew what he wanted and I knew that I would play. Madrid is a great club, of course, but it’s a club with little stability. Everyone thought I was on my way to Madrid but I didn’t want that.’
But like most professional footballers in today’s cut throat environment, his ability wasn’t always as apparent as it is today. He almost quit the game at the tender age of 15 when, playing for the ‘C’ team at Reims, his priorities, like your everyday teenager, lay elsewhere. ‘I wanted to go out with my mates, party… girls… that happens to everyone.’ Luckily his mother had other ideas – after seeing her son toiling with his career, she knocked down and told him ‘You don’t know what you want, it’s football – it’s your dream and it could be a great job.’ And once Bobby got that into his head, there was no looking back.
He stayed at Metz until the age of 25, claiming he didn’t want to leave as he was playing first team football in the French top division week in week out and even getting a chance to pit his footballing wits with the elite (well, almost) in Europe (Metz were in the UEFA Cup back then). He was guaranteed a place in the starting eleven in every game and he was certain he would eventually break into the French national squad at some point in the not too distant future.
A big club finally came calling in 1998 – Olympique de Marseille shelled out £5 million for his services and Pirès endured a very emotional 2 seasons there. In his first season, the club missed out on the league title by a solitary point and then were battered 3-0 in the UEFA Cup final by a Juan Sebastián Verón-inspired Parma. Controversy and a “big head”, as his President at Marseille put it, marred his second season at the club at the end of which he boycotted the team and effectively ruined any hopes the fans had of seeing him in the Les Phocéens colors again.
Arsenal, and Arsène, gave him a way out of French football as they paid £6 million in 2000 for Pirès but before his first game for the club (away to Sunderland), Wenger left him on the bench. Pirès recalls Arsène telling him ‘I’m going to leave you on the bench and you’re going to see what English football is like.’ By half-time, Pirès was already re-evaluating his decision to switch shores. ‘It was hard, very different to France, but in the end I got used to it. I wouldn’t say you’re scared but you can see that you have to change how you play – English football is physical, they kick you very hard.’
He struggled to make him mark initially with his comments about the physicality of English football not going down too well with the Arsenal faithful. But as the old saying goes, ‘You can kick and beat a person till he’s bleeding dry, but you can’t keep a good man down’. An exquisite solo effort against Lazio proved to be the turning point for Pirès and the resurrection had begun.
One of the most enduring moments of his time at Arsenal is THAT goal he scored against Aston Villa at Villa Park. A long ball by Ljungberg was brought down in typically composed fashion, a delightful touch took it over the head of the advancing George Boateng and as Peter Schmeichel prepared to charge and close down the distance to goal, Pirès, with all the grace of a ballet dancer, nonchalantly dinked it over his head and trotted off to celebrate. He subsequently won both Arsenal’s player of the year award and the FWA Footballer of the Year awards (he topped the assists chart for that season despite missing the last couple of months with a ligament injury).
Contract negotiations with the club stalled in 2006 when it was reported that Pirès wanted a new 2 year deal but Arsenal, in keeping with their club policy, were only willing to give him a 12-month extension. Despite an indifferent start to the season, Pirès picked up the pace and was instrumental in Arsenal’s remarkable run in the Champions League, which culminated in a meeting with Barcelona at the Stade de France. Unfortunately, that night will always haunt Robert Pirès. I will let him describe what he felt (quotes from FourFourTwo magazine):
‘I’ll never forget that. I knew Villarreal wanted me but I hadn’t made a decision, yet what happened in the final left me feeling very bad. That was the end; my mind was made. I knew a player had to go off after that red card but I never thought it would be me. When I saw it was my number, it killed me. I didn’t want to kill Arsène, but Jens? Yeah, I’d have killed the German! Bastard! It was the worst moment of my career. When I saw the number I thought, no, no, it can’t be!’
As fate would have it, those 18 minutes would be the last he ever played for Arsenal. Villarreal offered him a way out and he gladly took it citing Arsène’s “loss of trust” in him as a major reason he had to make the move. He hadn’t even made a single appearance in La Liga before his knee gave out again and he needed corrective surgery that kept him out for 7 months. When he eventually returned, he made his peace with Barcelona when he scored the opening goal as Villarreal trumped the then league leaders 2-0. Without him, Villarreal were languishing in 11th place and sinking without trace. In a matter of 6 weeks, the return of Pirès saw them climb to 5th and straight into the UEFA Cup. With Juan Roman Riqualme’s infamous erratic behavior on full display, Pirès led the club the following season in blistering form. In May 2010, Villarreal chose not to extend his contract and he duly returned to England for a final time on a 6-month contract with Aston Villa.
He was a player with an almost ethereal touch, a footballer who knew what he possessed, a man with ice for nerves and a steely determination which, throughout his career, served him well. He will always be fondly remembered by fans around the globe for that famous goatee, which he claims started as a joke between him and Nicolas Anelka before the Euro 2000 final against Italy.
‘We wanted to do something silly. I went back to Arsenal and they called me D’Artagnan and everyone loved it. I liked the name and there were four of us – Wiltord, Titi [Henry], Patrick and I. Three plus one, so it was perfect for the English. There’s no secret to the beard – if you have a trimmer, it’s a piece of cake.’
Nous t’aimons, Robert Pirès.