“Oh, Robert. What are you doing here? This is not for you.” Like his Arsenal career, the game unfurling before Robert Pirès was scarcely a half-hour old and already the French midfielder’s inner monologue was wielding the convenience of retrospection like a blunt weapon, jabbing at his jugular and demanding answers about his recent move to England.
With every full-blooded tackle, every robust challenge, he could feel his stomach knotting tighter. Safe though the bench made him feel for the time being, shielded from the unrelenting intensity and physicality of the players with whom he now shared a league, he knew couldn’t stay there forever. Sooner or later he’d be forced to decamp from the trenches and take up his place in no man’s land.
Pirès had travelled to Sunderland with his new teammates for the season’s opening fixture, suspecting it would be at the Stadium of Light that he would make his Arsenal debut. The playmaker had transferred to the Gunners earlier that summer and had counted down the days to the campaign’s start, eagerly anticipating his maiden voyage across English soil. Now, however, he wasn’t quite so keen. “The thing that strikes me most is how physical it is,” he recalled, “and the commitment. The commitment is unbelievable.”
Eventually, Pirès’ number was called and he took to the field to make his bow in the north of England. There he would forge no fairytale introduction to life abroad, orchestrating no dream debut. Instead, he would perform a forgettable 30-minute cameo while his side, who ended the game a man light after Patrick Vieira’s foolhardy expulsion, succumbed to a dire 1-0 defeat.
For Arsène Wenger’s freshest French recruit, this frustrating start to life at Arsenal proved to be no early outlier. As the months ebbed by, Pirès struggled to find vindication in his search for stardom across the Channel. Occasionally his dark days were illuminated by brief flashes of excellence: his debut goal a vital late equaliser to peg back Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, carrying Arsenal into the knockout phase of the Champions League; two strikes in the space of nine days that helped to humble local rivals Tottenham in both league and cup.
But these instances were few and far between and too many at Highbury required reminding of the calibre of player Pirès, the world and European champion, supposedly represented. Despite his presence, sunlight continued to stream in through the Marc Overmars-shaped puncture in the Arsenal machine.
Journalists and critics wasted no time in joining the monkey on Pirès’ back and routinely seasoned their reportage of the Frenchman with an assortment of insulting labels; “bottler”, “lightweight”, “nancy boy”, “coward”. The press believed they had Pirès pegged from the off – too weak for the English game, in body and mind – and many began drafting their supercilious farewell columns in preparation for his predicted January departure.
But no move materialised. Wenger publicly backed his compatriot, Pirès declared his intentions to make good on the continued faith of his trusted boss, and their collaboration continued unabated. Soon enough the foreigner’s form began to improve as he adapted to the rigours of the English game and his influence on the field grew.
His first campaign in north London, the 2000/01 season, ended in anguish as Arsenal failed to match Manchester United’s pace at the summit of the Premiership and allowed the FA Cup to slip through their grasp, surrendering a late lead in the tournament’s final to a Michael Owen brace. But, for both Pirès and his club, these bitter ends would soon forge new beginnings and, spread thick across their subsequent seasons together, would inspire successes of immeasurable magnitude. The Frenchman would go on to become an attacker of magnificent vintage and one of the Premier League’s all-time great imports.
Born and raised in the north-eastern French city of Reims, the juvenile Robert Pirès cut a frustrated figure for much of his school life. A disinterested student, he cared not for the rules or necessities of formal education. History and geography stirred something inside of him on occasion, piqued the odd interest, but not nearly enough to encourage him to knuckle down in any subject besides sports.
His father, Antônio, who hailed from Braga in northern Portugal, had played throughout the entirety of his own teenage years and could well have become a professional footballer given adequate opportunity to, according to his doting son. Whenever young Robert was to be dressed by his father, he would spend the day adorned in the dark red of his father’s home nation or in a similar shade representing Benfica. On the days dressing duties would fall to his mother, Mabel, a Real Madrid supporter from the north of Spain, it was in the stark white of her beloved Los Blancos that her eldest son would be found.
At home his parents spoke Spanish and Portuguese, while his dear grandparents also spoke only the former, and so his grasp on the French language as a child remained irritatingly fragile. One language Pirès had no trouble mastering, however, was the one he’d speak with his feet – intimate conversations conducted between boots and balls – and so it was on the pitch he first learned to express himself.
Fresh out of school, aged just 15, Pirès gained acceptance onto a two-year sports degree course at Stade de Reims and set about making a name for himself with the aim of constructing a career in the game his only true ambition. But desire alone is worth excruciatingly little to the prospective professional and Pirès wouldn’t be handed his route to the top without earning it.
“There were three teams at Stade de Reims – A, B and C. For two months I was on the C team and thought about giving up,” he told The Times in 2002. “One day I came home and told my mother I’d had enough. She wasn’t happy with me. ‘You don’t know what you want,’ she said. ‘There are times in life when you have to hang on’.” And so Pirès did just that, he hung on, and in spite of his worst fears he was soon rewarded for his persistence.
In 1992, Pirès departed Reims having earned a place at the esteemed youth academy of Metz. It was there, under the sagacious guidance of the club’s reserve team coach, Philippe Hinschberger, that Pirès first made his way to the wing. “He was the first person who played me on the left wing,” Pirès recalled in a 2014 interview with French Football Weekly. “Before that I was a playmaker, number 10. Hinschberger saw my game and how I played, and one day he came to me and said, ‘Robert, I know you’re not left-footed but I want you to play on the left.’ I thought that was weird. At the time it was very rare to have right-footed people playing on the left.” The rest is history.
With the newly emancipated Pirès flaunting his freedom amidst a squad brimming with ambition, Metz punched above their weight season after season in Ligue 1. Were it not for a heartbreaking equaliser from Yoann Lachor, scoring for title rivals Lens away to Auxerre on the final game of the 1997/98 season, the team would have been crowned champions for the very first time in their club’s modest history. Instead, bested by goal difference only, a maiden title went to Lens. Despite their domestic despair, Metz would still have memories of their Coupe de la Ligue triumph of two years earlier to hold dear; their first major trophy for a decade and Pirès’ maiden taste of glory. For the winger, the best was yet to come.
Pirès soon found himself amidst the maelstrom of hope and fear, nerves and expectation, whipping up a frenzy at the centre of his nation as the World Cup arrived on their doorstep. Over the course of the ensuing 33 days, he and his compatriots would be permanently transformed. Whereas on 10 June they had begun their hosted tournament as mortals, they ended it on 12 July as legends: world champions, proprietors of unique French history.
Pirès’ time on the pitch at the tournament was limited to sporadic substitute appearances, and his only role in the final was to play yet another French supporter, sat on the bench, but still, he had played his part in crafting the finest moment in the sporting history of his country.
His reward would come not only in the form of a World Cup winners medal, but, at club level, a move to a giant of French football: Marseille. For many, a move to the Stade Vélodrome may constitute an entire life’s work; the crowning achievement of a career come good. For Pirès, however, his spell at OM would prove unexpectedly troublesome. A world away from the intimacy of modest Metz, Marseille was a rude awakening. Pirès described the transfer as “going from terroir to bling-bling.”
The French word ‘terroir’ does not translate simply into English. It finds its origins in terra, the Latin for earth, but has come to mean far more. Uttered most often in the context of wine-growing, the term, in its simplest form, is used to refer to the combination of the three core components of grape production: its vine, soil and climate. But more than just an environment, terroir means a sense of belonging.
At Metz he belonged, with the club forming the perfect environment for a grape that would, in Pirès, form a truly memorable vintage, encouraging him to grow and flourish naturally. At Marseille, amidst the bling-bling, the affluence and the inevitable expectation that heightened further with every cashed cheque, far from flourishing, he had to fight not to wilt.
When pouring over his opening campaign on the south French coast, there appear many reasons for celebration. Pirès and his teammates finished but a point behind champions Bordeaux in the league and made their way to the final of the 1999 UEFA Cup, only to be defeated by a revered Parma squad that overflowed with talent. But, having come so close to winning the league with Metz, these near-misses at Marseille proved harrowing.
Remarkably, these would be his happiest days with Les Phocéens. The following year, Marseille again failed to match the expectations of their ambitious owner and Robert Louis-Dreyfus’ hammer swung. In the winter of 1999, it took the head off of head coach Rolland Courbis before damage limitation saw the club cash in on Laurent Blanc, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Christophe Dugarry.
Pirès attempted to play through his mounting hardships, dribble on through the mire, but growing pressure would eventually force him out of the city. Local newspapers filled their pages with fallacious rumours surrounding the personal lives of Pirès and his wife, his own fans tormented him from the stands, berating his every mistake, perhaps expecting to somehow mould his game through fear of public admonishment alone, and his home was twice burgled.
Pirès met with his club’s owner and the two agreed to draw a line through their collaboration. The experiment need not be followed to its natural conclusion. The Frenchman would leave in June. Before he could gaze across the continent at potential suitors, however, he had the small matter of the European Championship to contend with.
At Euro 2000, France followed their World Cup triumph with a performance considered by many to be even more impressive. Again, such was the immense strength and depth of the national team, Pirès was made to settle for a bit-part role. However, with his own talent in abundance, the winger was able to make good use of what little time on the field he was afforded, assisting David Trezeguet for the continent-conquering goal.
The hostile environment at Marseille, and the minimal impact he had made during his time there, had left Pirès’ price tag at just £6m. Nonetheless, whoever signed him knew they were getting a world and European champion and an immensely talented wide player approaching the very peak of his powers. Though Real Madrid and Juventus both made eyes at the Frenchman, the prospect of learning under the tutelage of Le Professeur, alongside a healthy contingent of his fellow countrymen at Arsenal, saw him set sail for north London.
On the field and off, Pirès’ first season with the Gunners provided as stern a test as any footballer could hope for. Physically, mentally and emotionally, he was scrutinised in ways he had been given only a glimpse of at Marseille. With eight goals and eight assists during his inaugural campaign, he had been far from anonymous, though he’d hardly showcased his true worth either.
But the summer of 2001 proved to be the Frenchman’s chrysalis. Into it limped a player with obvious talents but one bearing bruises on both his shins and self-esteem. What emerged was an athlete that not only matched his former reputation but exceeded it; an architect of exquisite judgement, a playmaker dripping in technique, a maker and taker of extraordinary goals. Into and beyond the impending autumn, while the leaves about him fell, Pirès would take flight. His destination: a permanent place in the sacred tomes of Premier League history.
“The worst thing was that we liked it down there [in Marseille],” Pirès’ then-wife Nathalie told ESPN in 2001, “but give us a choice today between the sun of the south of France and the rain of London and we will surely choose the rain.” France’s loss was to become England’s considerable gain.
The habitual English showers continued long into his second year abroad, slicking the pitches from St. Mary’s to St. James’, but the dark clouds that had seemed to stalk Pirès since his departure from Metz cleared. Finally liberated, Pirès’ élan illuminated the league.
With the freedom of the left-wing, he struck up a sublime unspoken understanding with Ashley Cole behind him and Thierry Henry ahead. Together they imposed themselves upon their opponents at will. Whether beginning attacks from deep or finishing them with his right instep, snatching goal after exquisitely dispatched goal or laying them on a plate for his frontmen, Pirès was unstoppable.
Throughout the 2001/02 season, as Arsenal romped to a league and cup double, the Gunners’ very own d’Artagnan proved insatiable. Plundering 13 goals in the Premiership, the Frenchman’s finest of the season came away to Aston Villa where his first touch to receive a long up-field pass saw him nonchalantly toss the ball over a bemused George Boateng with the outside of his right boot before caressing it over the head of Peter Schmeichel and under the crossbar with the inside of the same foot. The fact Pirès did all of this while adorned in a gold kit made perfect sense.
Time and again his contributions would be delivered in a similarly swift and ruthlessly effective three-part act: cut in, shoot, celebrate. The only unpredictable aspect was in which style Pirès would choose to deploy his genius in performing any one of the three stages. On occasion the move in-field was fueled by power and pace; on others it was courtesy of a deft one-two. His finishes were sometimes taken with a delicate side-foot or a measured lob; other times they were rifled from distance with a dash of malice. Many celebrations saw him run for joy, arms outstretched in elation, while others were simply a knowing nod or restrained smile that epitomised gallic confidence. ‘I know,’ his expression would read, ‘I know.’
In addition to his goals, Pirès also provided a league-leading 15 assists, proving that while certainly a luxury player, he was very much a necessity too. The “oil in the engine,” Wenger called him. With him on their left, Arsenal simply purred. To the dismay of highlight reels everywhere, Pirès’ sophomore season would be ended prematurely, the breakout tour that was his second campaign curtailed by a serious cruciate ligament injury. But he had done enough to put forth his case come awards season. Despite playing two months fewer than most of his fellow nominees, he scooped the FWA Footballer of the Year award.
Such was his charm, enamouring not only the adoring fans that lined the stands but the professionals alongside whom he plied his trade, when a still-injured Pirès gingerly scaled the podium to lift his first Premier League trophy, his teammates dropped to their knees and bowed before him, in honour of his services to their achievement. And while his comrades evidenced their unique appreciation for the winger with their grand gestures of obeisance, the Arsenal fans sang theirs. Breathless repetitions of “Super Robert Pirès” spilled out of Highbury and skipped through the streets of London.
In the ensuing seasons in the English capital, spent conjuring remarkable feats of flair and finesse, Pirès would come to know quite intimately the very best and very worst of the game, finding himself at the nucleus of both unprecedented highs and demoralising lows. During the campaign that immediately followed his first league title, despite ambitions aplenty, his Arsenal team slipped off the pace and spent a long year trailing a resurgent Manchester United team. On a personal level, however, he remained as prolific as ever, wagging his index finger and smirking in the face of adversity.
The injury that had cut short his previous season had him shackled to the sidelines until November, and for many months he bore the weight of disappointment having remained stranded and helpless while his compatriots faltered at the 2002 World Cup. He still managed 14 goals in the league and waved au revoir to the season in style by scoring the winning goal in Arsenal’s FA Cup victory against Southampton.
And, of course, in the 2003/04 season, Pirès became invincible. Fourteen goals and seven assists – his team’s second top scorer, boasting the joint-most assists – his presence, along with Henry and Vieira, brought a sprinkling of French excellence, of exuberance, to an exemplary team. A squad so in sync, so adept in their artistry, they conquered the Premier League without loss.
After another influential campaign in 2004, the 2005/06 season would be Pirès’ last in red, or rather redcurrant, such was the club’s colour of choice; a throwback to the shade first seen at Highbury and worn again to honour their final year there. Standards had long since slipped, the topography of the Premier League long since changed, and Arsenal’s fight was one for fourth as opposed to first.
But the shifting nature of the English top-flight would not stop Pirès and his teammates from continuing to rewrite their club’s history in reaching their first Champions League final. Undeservingly, in the final of Europe’s showpiece competition, Pirès’ Arsenal career would end in tragedy. When Jens Lehmann’s early red card left his team without a goalkeeper, one player would naturally be forced to leave the field to be replaced by their reserve custodian Manuel Almunia. Sadly for Pirès, his number was raised.
His Champions League final, played out before family members who had travelled en masse to Paris in the hope of witnessing his crowning glory, would last just 18 minutes. On that day, he would depart both the competition and the club he adored long before he’d hoped.
Before hanging up his boots, Pirès would follow a memorable four-year sojourn at Villareal with a final year in the Premier League, playing for Aston Villa, and one last parting gift to the world of football in the form of a single season playing for Goa FC during the inaugural campaign of the Indian Premier League.
He’d later return to Arsenal; the same old Bobby, just with his mane now cropped and the silver speckles of his beard no longer as subtle as his touch. Back at the club he adored, he would not only walk the halls of his old stomping ground, refreshing his memory of the halcyon days, but would begin to learn from his old teacher all over again, this time beginning his coaching journey in the place he best learned to master his bewitching craft. Having sat on the throne for so long at Arsenal, it seemed only right he aid in their search for a worthy heir.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp
Art by Matthew Vieira