Football: A football philosopher a la Cantona

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Emmanuel Petit used to think football the most important thing in life. Now he knows better, but as he prepared for this morning's showdown at Old Trafford it was clear he has retained his passion for the game. He spoke to Glenn Moore

SOME players wave to relatives in the crowd, some kick a ball into the net. Emmanuel Petit's pre-match ritual is different. Amid the roar of the crowd at Old Trafford this morning he will stand alone for a few moments and enter a private world. He may pause to cast a few blades of grass into the wind before softly reciting a few words. Then he will join his Arsenal team-mates and prepare to play Manchester United.

The dedication is a poignant memorial to his brother, Oliver, who died at the age of 21 while playing football almost a decade ago. Petit was then a gifted 18-year-old playing for Monaco and already on the verge of international selection. It was a shattering blow to a teenager obsessed with football and he spent years coming to terms with the sport which offered him so much but had taken away so much more.

"When I was young I loved football," he said when we met this week, "I really loved it. It was my whole life. When my brother died my mind changed about football. It was not so important. I had wanted to be a professional footballer for me, now I am a footballer for him." At the time he considered giving up but felt that would not be what his brother would have wished. Now he said he feels his brother, who died from a blood clot on the brain, is watching him when he plays and he draws faith from that belief.

The trauma was made worse for Petit by his living in Monaco while his family were the length of France away in Dieppe. Then, a year later, his father suffered a heart attack while training with his football team. He was rushed to hospital and survived but Petit recalled "for it to again be on a football pitch, it was unbelievable". Petit, himself, underwent many tests to check his health.

We are sitting in the St Albans hotel Arsenal use as a training base and where Petit himself lived for two months before setting up home near Barnet. In the flesh the Arsenal midfielder appears smaller, younger and much friendlier than the unsmiling and intimidating figure he cuts on the pitch. The ponytail is down and his hair hangs loose.

Although an interpreter is with us, Petit uses him just to check the occasional word or phrase. He even does crosswords in English, his desire to absorb the language hastened by his initial sense of isolation after his pounds 3.5m move and Arsene Wenger's habit of speaking English in training.

Wenger was Petit's coach at Monaco and his presence at Highbury obviously encouraged Petit to choose them ahead of other suitors Rangers, Valencia and Internazionale this summer. Tottenham were also contenders with Petit memorably borrowing a taxi fare from Alan Sugar to get from White Hart Lane to Highbury during negotiations.

Apart from the weather and the kick-off times - "what next? Five in the morning?" - he likes it here. "I needed a change after 14 years at Monaco. I wanted to know another country. I always liked the English approach to the game - it is still a game, not like Italy and France where there is so much pressure. The football there so frustrating.

"In England you can win or lose anywhere. In France there are about seven big teams and it is very hard to beat them away from home. So even if we lose to Manchester United it will not be all over, United can still lose games to anyone.

"Sometimes I would like to play more football here, some teams just want to kick it, they don't want to play football against us because we would outplay them. But Manchester United should be good opponents because they always want to play. This is new and good for English football and for the England team."

Petit has never been to Old Trafford before - despite growing up in a Channel port he had only been to England once as a schoolboy - but he is a friend of the local hero. His knowing smile confirms that I am not the first English journalist to ask about Eric Cantona but he is still happy to record his admiration.

"I was very impressed by what he did [in retiring and other matters]. It is rare to meet a player who does exactly what he wants to do, on and off the pitch. He is always thinking. Maybe he is crazy but he knows what he does when he says, 'I f*** you,' or when he takes his shirt off [as when he flung his Marseilles shirt to the ground when sent off in a charity match]. Some players, they go to Japan or America for the money, he say, 'I stop' - and he does.

"When I was in the French team as a young player we would always sit together, Laurent Blanc, Eric and me. Laurent would say to Eric, 'There is your spiritual son'. He did influence me in small ways but no one can be just like him."

Petit, too, is a man of principle. He caused outrage in France when, while still going through the turmoil of Oliver's death he accused Marseilles of being corrupt - an accusation later confirmed. He appears, again, to have fallen out of favour with Aime Jacquet, the French manager, though he was reticent about discussing their relationship and still hopes for a recall in time for the World Cup. However, his belief that the French team should "put on a show, a spectacle, a celebration of football and life with mistakes and goals, as in the 3-3 draw with Norway, rather than boring football like chess", is unlikely to meet Jacquet's approval.

He feels his best opportunity of getting in the French team is as a left- sided defensive player and his best position is central defence. Wenger, however, prefers him in midfield. "When he plays there he links in well with the defence, he understands their needs," Wenger said. "He may appear similar to Patrick Vieira but he is more of an interceptor, Vieira is a tackler. Petit finds forwards with long passes whereas Vieira runs with the ball more." Petit has yet to score in 32 matches but Wenger added: "He has improved a lot offensively and we will get goals from him."

Today's match is the sort of occasion Petit came to England for. "At Monaco," he said, recalling the paltry crowds, "you had to motivate yourself. You had to be strong mentally." He went there at 14 in the belief that he needed to be away from his family to make it as a professional player. "It was strange, going from the poor north to Monaco with all the yachts. You might get recognized but you were only a footballer, not a golfer or tennis player," he added with a rude and dismissive gesture. "Football was regarded as the poor man's game."

Petit is a complex figure, secular but with an interest in Buddhism and, like Cantona, confident but introspective. Unusually for a footballer he asked: "What do people think of me?" and he said: "I am still discovering who I am, for a person it is the most important thing to discover about themselves."

In these moments, and when he talks of his first months here, there is a vulnerability which may stem from having to grow up too fast as a teenager. Few opponents, or referees, see this on the pitch however and this morning is likely to be no different.