Robert Pirès – When simple meant great

My friends have always asked me why do I admire Robert Pirès so much? Why not Henry, Bergkamp or Vieira? Thierry was “The King”, Dennis was a master while Patrick was a complete midfielder. If you now watch videos of Robert, it’s hard to identify only one attribute where the Frenchman excelled. He was an intelligent and talented all round player with a capacity to do things simple but perfect, something extremely rare these days. Arsène Wenger could not give a better description of Bobby, considering him “remarkable in his simplicity”. He made things look simple when sometimes others made them complicated.

My first memory of Robert Pirès is from EURO 2000’s final, when France defeated Italy in a dramatic way. 2000 was a year when Valencia CF was UEFA Champions League’s most spectacular team, Luis Figo betrayed FC Barcelona for Real Madrid and Jordi Cruyff was a Man United player. Players like Rivaldo, Michael Owen, Andriy Shevchenko or Oliver Kahn were among the best in Europe. It was a time when the Emirates Stadium was only a drawing on a piece of paper while Jose Mourinho was still helping the Barcelona players in training.

From that European final, everyone will remember David Trezeguet’s screamer but I will never forget the setup for that Golden Goal. In the last minutes of the extra-time, a short-haired guy knocked the ball past the right-flank Italian defenders and hit a perfect cross inside the box. It was strange for me to see such direct dribbles from a right-footed player on the left side of the pitch but it was going to be a trademark move for Robert Pirès, one that was going to delight the Highbury crowd for the next couple of years.

Right after the European Championship, Barça signed Arsenal’s winger Marc Overmars for a record £25 million fee which meant that the gunners needed a quality replacement. With France freshly crowned as European kings and with a French manager in charge, the solution was an easy one for the North-London club. Robert Emmanuel Pirès was signed for £6 million, after stiff competition from Real Madrid and Juventus. At the beginning, Pirès struggled to adapt to the pace of the Premier League which he thought was too physical. Wearing the legendary number 7 shirt, previously assigned to Liam Brady and David Rocastle, Bobby’s career in London kickstarted on a tragic day: the 31st of March 2001. The gunners defeated Tottenham Hotspur with the winger scoring the winner and his first Arsenal goal but everyone was saddened by the news that earlier in the day, club legend “Rocky” passed away.

With Vieira, Henry, Bergkamp and Ljungberg already at the club, the signing of Bobby completed the famous “Invincibles” squad.  Arsenal became a joy to watch. I still remember those fascinating Wednesday nights from the early 2000s when I used to watch the gunners on my black and white TV. There were nights when the Champions League was still something special, there were mornings when I was excited to tell my class-mates about Ray Parlour or Ashley Cole although they only had Raul and Real Madrid in their heads. There were days when I saved money to buy a pair of Puma shoes just because of the TV commercial starring Robert and Sylvain Wiltord. I can still remember how it was being an Arsenal fan those days. It felt like every other fan was one of your mates. You walked taller in the street because you were a gooner and you really felt you were part of something special. It really was this way. Then there was the day when Andy Gray started to clap live on-air after Bobby’s wonderful goal at Villa Park and produced the famous “Take a bow, son!” : both a lesson in football and a lesson in commentary.

But there weren’t only joyful times in Pirès’ career. The Frenchman was the type of player who was skillful but one that could not avoid frequent injuries. The saddest moment of his playing days happened in 2006 in Paris. On Stade de France’s famous field, the Arsenal number seven’s Champions League final ended after only 18 minutes. Jens Lehmann was sent off by the referee and Arsène Wenger needed to adapt his game plan. Being outnumbered against the Catalans, ‘le professeur’ substituted Bobby for reserve goalkeeper Manuel Almunia. I can still remember how I stood up in my room looking empty at the TV while he was leaving the pitch. However, I still think that it was the correct substitution. With only ten men on the field, the gunners sat deep and needed workload and pace not creativity. One year after the final,  he revealed his heartbreak: “When I saw my number on the fourth official’s board to be substituted, I couldn’t believe it. It was my last game after six years at the club, a Champions League Final in front of all my family in Paris where I became World Cup champion and it lasted just 12 minutes. That was very hard to take.”

And for the story to be completed, 3 years later, the Frenchman came back to London for a Champions League match, this time, as an opponent. His team, Spanish outfit Villareal was defeated but Pirès received a very warm welcome from the gooners in the stands, who sang his name throughout both ties.

After he retired, Bobby could have been anywhere he wanted. He could have gained 20 extra pounds living on a beach far away from the urban bustle. But no. He is frequently seen at Arsenal’s London Colney training centre, side by side with Arsenal’s first team. If you are not a football person and you’re looking at the guys in training, you can’t recognize which one of them is now 42 and no longer in the game. Bobby never lost his modesty and recently, when asked about the way he shares his experience with the young lads, he was once again decent: “For me, it’s very interesting. I hope it’s also interesting for the players. I talk a long time to them. I don’t know if I give them some tips and advice but I have a good experience for the guys to learn from.”

A few years ago, after visiting London and inevitable the gunner’s home ground, from the multiple images and messages from the stadium’s wall, only one remained in my mind. It was a short story from a fan who was in the area and visited the Highbury Stadium after it had been developed into luxury apartments. His intention was to have a look around but mainly just to reminisce. The rest of the story speaks for itself: “Can you imagine my surprise when I say that the only person I was sharing the pitch with was Bobby Pirès? He was resting on a bench on the old Clock End left-wing! I’d like to think he was replaying in his mind the destruction The Invincibles had caused down there. I couldn’t resist passing him to say ‘Hello!’. I should have said ‘Thank you!’ “

Chapeau bas, Bobby!

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