Christian Karembeu: No gentlemen in football when World Cup is at stake

The 2018 World Cup is in full swing, hordes of fans are lighting up the streets of Russia – but what does the World Cup mean to the players who are working wonders on the pitch? We talked about this with World Cup and Euros winner Christian Karembeu.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Christian hi, welcome to our show. It’s really great to have you with us. So how are you finding Moscow and the World Cup so far? Are you enjoying it?

Christian Karembeu: Yes, I do. First of all, because it’s very attractive. Everybody is going to discover what is Russia, Moscow, St.Petersburg, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, all the cities and all the venues. And I think, they might change the way they see Russia because it’s beautiful, the sun is with us. Indeed people like to be here and love Russia. 

SS: So it’s not your first time here, is it?

CK: No.

SS: So you didn’t come with preconditions, you knew it was a cool place?

CK: Yeah, I think, Russia has very beautiful places to go and to be. And, again, you’re here with a magnificent sight. We have the Mausoleum behind, we have the Red Square. And for sure, when we talk about Moscow, it’s not only the Red Square, there are many other sites to visit: parks, churches, you have beautiful architectures. So far we need to discover more - through football.    

SS: You have literally held the World Cup in your hands.

CK: Yes, sure.

SS: What is it like?

CK: This is a dream come true. Twenty years ago we left that trophy in France, in our homeland. We hope that Russia can do so. But, again, it’s a history of mine, if I may say that. I need to be selfish because when I was young I didn’t understand that I could reach this level. Step by step, working hard, gradually I became better than the others, on the same level with the other professionals. And, of course, becoming the world champion is just something unique, and it’s a great experience.

SS: But does it actually feel as good as you thought it would be? You know, people have this notion of happiness, a goal that you want to reach. And once you reach it many say that it was the process that was important and it was too bad not to enjoy the process because that moment is not as ecstatic as we thought in our imagination. Is it that ecstatic to hold the World Cup as you imagined?

CK: No, because, it’s, like you said, the whole way, the path you go to reach your goal. This is preparing yourself to be the one to have the trophy or not to be. There are too many obstacles, too many temptations on your way, and you need to avoid that. You need to be very precise to achieve this goal. You need to work every day and also have a connection with your team because it’s a teamwork, and you need to be with them together as well.  

SS: But then the longer process isn’t shorter process.  If you take one-year span, it’s, like, 38 games for each team to play? It’s a good number and you can work hard to put yourself on a map…

CK: 32 games. There will be less games. But I think, you need to understand that the elite is very demanding. When we talk about the elite, we talk about championships, we talk about clubs, like here Spartak or in St. Petersburg… I think it’s a big club, but in Europe they have this culture to win trophies and to provide better players. When we talk about the World Cup championship it’s national teams, the best of the nations playing here. 

SS: Yeah, but my question was different. When you have 38 games to play during one year, you can gradually put yourself on the map. But when you have three games and the playoffs, it’s like super, extra pressure. Or is it not? Tell me, because the process is so condensed…

CK: Of course, it’s so compact. And you need to deliver one or two performances to qualify, to do your best. But the thing is everyone has the same goal and will for the victory. The thing is that only a few remain.

SS: So when I watch football players some of them are very focused on the pitch; there are others, like Ronaldinho, who are always smiling like a little kid. And I always wonder, what’s more important - to be superstructured like the Dutch or the Germans or to have this kid-like light in you that makes you play one of the best footballs? What do you think is more important - to have this kid in you or to be superstructured?

CK: You need to be diverse. And to be diverse means to come from different environment, many backgrounds. So you don’t need to cut what is in yourself because when you talk about skills or talent, Ronaldinho, for example, comes from favelas in Brazil. You can’t tell him “you should be like this”. No. You’ll kill him if you do so. If it comes with his passion and his skill he can deliver what we can expect, and he can be one of the best. So far it’s two different environments, different backgrounds. If Germans play like this, if they efficient, they can continue to do so. It’s fair, it’s good for everybody. It’s good for competition and it’s …

SS: … diversity of style.

CK: Of course.   

SS: And then there’s the emotional component. Like, for the actors or for arts people, for journalists, when we reach a great success there is this emptiness and you don’t know what to replace it with. And when there’s failure that’s also sad. What is it for a football player? What’s harder to deal with - great success or failure?

CK: Both. We are learning to be successful and to avoid failure. But failure is also something that pushes you to be on the Euro, to be on your path to reach your goal. And, on the other hand, failure can also be very negative for your career because when you can’t reach your goal you can become a bad player…

SS: Or it can be an extra motivator, like, “I’m not going to be a loser, I’m going to get over this”.

CK: Yes, that’s why we have all the motivators, sports coaches, managers to motivate, it’s not easy. You have a family to motivate, it’s not enough. But if you have good teammates, if you are inspired by excellent people, I think, you’re driven to reach your goal.  

SS: When I was growing up and looking at football there were concrete gods of football - Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain. When you look at this World Cup it’s something incredible, I don’t think I’ve seen this before. There are always surprises, but not to this point. These amazing teams that have always been part of the elite established are struggling with Iran, Tunisia, Iceland (which is my favourite). What’s going on? Is the world football changing?

CK: Yes, it’s just part of any market. We talk about globalisation and I think football is doing so. We’re talking about the statistics, the new technologies. Everybody has the same analysis everywhere in the world. They can focus on one player, they can focus on one club, or one national team. They can learn quickly and they can have this in their hands. You can see, there’s no small nation in football, they can really read and learn everything about the opponent, and there’s no gap anymore.

SS: So do you think, the success of other teams is due to the excess to information?

CK: Yes, of course. Before, you had the competence and knowledge with you, you couldn’t share it. Now you can share any information and knowledge. 

SS: If I give you a million dollars right now to spend it like this - which team would you bet it on in this World Cup? Pick one team.

CK: Wow. I would pick Russia.

SS: Seriously?

CK: They are home.

SS: Also I want to talk to you about how much a success of a team is at this point predetermined by a good manager and a coach. Is that enough, or do you need to have a squad of stars in it? Or just one or two stars will be enough? 

CK: The manager is key to success also. He drives his team to one goal, and they need to respect that. Of course, you also need teamwork. And you can see this in the Russian squad, they were performing together, Cheryshev and Dzyuba. They are doing something, but still this is one collective game, and this is very good.     

SS: How right is this when one huge star takes on a mission of a coach? Like, for instance, Ronaldo and Messi, everything hangs on them. Is that a right thing?

CK: No, I think, they also respect the teammates, the coaching theory…

SS: But can one star pull through the whole team?

CK: In the end they need to inspire the others, to take some actions. By scoring many goals Cristiano inspires them to follow. And the coach let him do so, because he’s the leader of the group. He cannot cut that. If he cuts the leadership of Cristiano he’ll lose the team.    

SS: It’s debatable because in the Euro final I saw him giving instructions to the others and cheering them on, like he was the actual coach…

CK: He’s also the captain, and the coach. It’s normal for him to support his own team, to support the manager, to inspire them as if he was on the bench. 

SS: Also, when I was watching Argentina’s game, the commentators were all about Messi: “Messi this, Messi that, oh my God, what’s wrong with Messi, why can’t he score a goal”. And I was, like, “Oh my God, the success of the whole team is actually hanging on one man…”

CK: Yeah, it’s like Neymar in Brazil. Sure. I think, it’s normal to have stars in a team…

SS: But how right is it? It’s such a huge pressure.

CK: Yes, it’s a big pressure. But the thing is - if people around him, his teammates, do well he will shine. If they aren’t doing well - nothing. It’s normal. It’s a collective game. Everybody knows that one actor on the pitch is very important. If one actor is not playing well you can have imbalance in the team. If it’s two or three it’s finished.

SS: So when you play football, you commit fouls. And the World Cup is as serious as it gets. It’s like а la guerre comme а la guerre. Is it like you’re at a war, or is it a gentlemanly game still? Honestly.

CK: There are no gentlemen. There’s no behavior like this. I think, we all want to win, to lift the trophy. And so far there’s one commitment in your life and you try to reach this and to go for it whatever happens. Of course, we have VAR to mention this or that. But still, you’re a human being, you have to respect the adversary, your opponent. But you’re also built to be a warrior and to be a winner. 

SS: There are so many tournaments right now. I need to read them out ‘cause I can’t remember them: FIFA World Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, the regional championships, the Champions League, Confederations Cup, Olympic Games. I mean, where’s the balance between making a profit from yet another high-profile tournament with a busy schedule like this? Is it fair on the players? Do they not need to have time to rest, to recuperate?

CK: This is what we are trying to talk about with the union of the players - to have more time to rest, but also the increase in fees in the clubs and in the national teams also.

SS: So they think if they can pay you more money you can play all these games and the tournaments?

Today when we talk about professionalism it’s all about money, it’s all about business.

SS: What about physical capacity?

CK: That’s why we can also enhance teams to forty players and to have a rotation like this. But so far, yes, it’s all about business. Today when we talk about any event in the world, it’s billions of viewers. This is normal, and one billion of viewers is extra money.  

SS: What about the viewers which you’ve mentioned? I mean, yes, it’s entertaining, we love to tune and watch a good football game. But doesn’t the amount of diversity and the amount of tournaments take it away from the main prize - from the World Cup? Does it devaluate it?

CK: No, because in the end people from Namibia and Polinesia can see the Red Square, the Luzhniki Stadium, they can see Dzyuba, they can see other countries playing in Russia. And this is very good. They can see Kazan, they can discover the country. Not only sport, but they can see what’s happening in Russia. This is good and cool for everyone. It’s international, it’s global. 

SS: So for a football player is there one prize that you want to win, like the World Cup? For instance, for actors it’s always Oscar... 

CK: Yes, César, Oscar…

SS: Yeah, and everything else is still secondary. For instance, Golden Globe is important but not as important as Oscar. For football players, as I might imagine, it must be the World Cup. You’ve seen the World Cup, you’ve seen the Champions League, what’s the difference?

CK: It depends, when you play for the club you want to win the Champions League. It’s a valuable prize. And you know that every year you can reach this level. But the World Cup is every four years, so you need to wait four years. You need to be in the squad with great performance, if not - you’re not in the squad, in the national team. So you need to play regularly at the Champions League tournament, in the European League tournament, and deliver something so that you can be selected to be part of the national team to perform at the next World Cup.       

SS: I was growing up in Paris and watching you play football when you were playing for your national team. And you had your issues with the French national team. Is it hard to play for the national team if you have this inside you? Is it still like a 100%-dedication to play for one team if you have that history that bothers you?

CK: The thing is I know who I am. As I play for the French national team I represent my people. I represent France, but I also represent my people. It’s good to give the visibility to my people through sport, through football, to share the information, to have a great and transparent communication of who I am. And therefore, the French people understand my issue and they respect that. It’s normal that you’re from somewhere and nobody knows you. This is not normal. You should make everybody understand, TV and radio can help that.      

SS: I understand that ‘cause I’m Georgian and I live in Russia. Russia is my country, and I always say that I love Georgia probably more than Russia ‘cause if you don’t love yourself you can’t love anybody else unconditionally. So I know what you mean. I remember, you refused to sing the national anthem, and when France conducted nuclear tests near your country, New Caledonia, you had the whole team behind you to protest. Have you ever experienced backlashes from the French government for protesting?  

CK: No, because I’m on the right path and I’m talking about truth. It’s real. Today we have the viral disease in this area, in Mururoa, for example. A lot of people have died. So they know, they made some mistakes. I did talk about this because for me it’s normal. We’re human beings, and we talk as human beings. After that we talk about politics and other things. It was my feeling to talk about this and I do some documentaries all around the world to talk about people who are living aside because they chose to live aside, not like us living in the 21st century.

SS: But obviously you’re not the first world-known athlete who protests something socially or politically. For instance, in America, the American football players protest during the anthem and the President got involved. Do you feel that protests bring awareness or do they annoy people?

CK: I think, that each country has a different story and environment, background. And, for sure, in America when Mr. Obama stopped being President two years ago, the Americans never talk about their own history: who are they, who were the natives of America, and how they developed themselves. And this is very crucial to make everybody understand where they come from, who they are, and to be together, and to be American in the same country, not Afro-American, not white American - what is this? “We’re Americans, or we are not”. And this is our purpose in the Harvard University. We talk about this, because it’s crucial today to understand that we are human beings first of all. There’s nothing else. We’re one race - human race, no matter if we dark, white or whatever. We talked about this with scientists, it’s just a biological change.   

SS: I agree about the human race, but there’s a precondition in humans’ minds about profession. For instance, when a world-known athlete protests, people are looking and saying: “What do you know about our problems? You’re making so much money, you’re living a dream life. You’re so detached from reality - what are you protesting about?”

CK: They can say this. But this thing is that we somehow need to start. If not, that the problem remains. And also we need to start to eradicate the vision of people that the system has put us in the loop, and it’s normal. No, we need to make a change. It’s proper for the human beings to change. 

SS: Ok, back to football. I was wondering, all of you guys play for the clubs. You’re stars in different clubs and than you play for national teams. And often when you face off another team you play against your playmates in the club.

CK: Yes.

SS: I mean, I don’t understand what you must be going though because, for instance, it’s a good thing because you know his pros and cons so you can outwin that person, but you also have that bond with the person that you don’t want to be fighting with him because in other circumstances you’re fighting together. 

CK: It’s the same when you’re on TV, you’re an actor and you’re doing a scene…

SS: No, it’s not the same.

CK: … and with this scene you can win the Oscar or you don’t, or in other movie you don’t. It’s the same.

SS: No, it’s not the same.

CK: Of course. What I’m saying is that when we go to another championship we learn and gain experience. 

SS: But what do you feel when you play against your mate in the club?

CK: This is the European history in football. Before that everyone remained in the championships in their own countries. The European Union was created, so we can play in Europe, we can move from France to Italy, to Spain. And each championship is very valuable and competitive. So we go to this championship to be competitive as footballers. And therefore, we know from that when we come back to the national team we are rich with this knowledge and we can perform better. And this is everywhere: scientists from Russia can go and spread their knowledge elsewhere, to exchange and to come back to be better. This is the same in every country. When you exchange competence, information, you get better.  

SS: You’re talking about changing clubs. I’m talking about when you play at the national level you play against a person with whom you’re fighting for the club.

CK: Yes, this is normal. You do this in each country. It’s a market, it’s a business.

SS: Do you ever want to become a coach?

CK: No.

SS: Why not?

CK: I’ve already been on the pitch for 20 years and I want to be more behind the scenes, to care about management, to care about the players, to care about their pathway to success.  

SS: Christian, thank you very much for this interview. We wish you all the best of luck with everything you’ll be undertaking in the future.

CK: Thank you! And go Russia!