Salomon Kalou leant back in his chair at the Hermitage Hotel in Lille, took a deep breath and became the first of the African players who were at Chelsea when John Terry was accused of racist abuse to speak publicly about the case. In declaring that his former captain is not a racist, but also backing zero tolerance on the issue, he illustrated the difficult position of black players who have worked with Terry.
The full judgment of the regulatory commission that found him guilty of abusing Anton Ferdinand stated: "A significant number of those who are, or have been, involved in the game of professional football have provided character references for Mr Terry. They include black players who attest to the fact that as Chelsea club captain he welcomes every player to the club and looks after them, irrespective of skin colour, race or ethnicity."
As the first of those players to discuss the case, Kalou – an unused substitute in the relevant game away to Queens Park Rangers – says: "Do I think he's a racist? No, because I never have that experience with him personally. I enjoyed working with the guy, a fantastic guy. A guy always there for the team and always fighting for the team, a really good example for the club.
"We never asked: 'why did you say that?' We never talked about it. I judged him for how he acted with us. We don't know what happened on that pitch. I saw the person I go training with every day, how he treated me, and I didn't have a problem with him, and no other player did.
"We are still in touch and I respect him as a man, as a captain, as a player," he adds. "I think that during my six years, he was always there for me. And to be honest I think he's a great guy, a great player. For me it's a pity he stopped playing for England but that's his decision."
Thus Kalou, who left Chelsea on a free transfer for Lille in the summer, underlines the ambivalence felt by many who have worked with Terry, or supported him from the stands. For some it means their disappointment with him is all the greater. The furthest the Ivorian will go is to acknowledge that Terry, according to the commission's judgment, used words that would have been better left unsaid. "What I can say is that it's just maybe a wrong word to say. But does that make him a racist?"
It has been a week in which racism once again raised its ugly head and leapt to the top of the football agenda, just as the English game was preparing to celebrate its annual anti-racism weekend. The Kick It Out movement has at least seen abundant publicity for the issue, even if much of it centered on unsavoury events and heated debate, stoked further on Friday when Sir Alex Ferguson criticised Jason Roberts' decision not to wear a Kick It Out training top because he wants the organisation to take a stronger line.
This weekend falls exactly a year after the whole Terry incident arose and a few days after the deplorable scenes in Serbia, where some of England's Under-21 players were subjected to racist taunts. It is easily overlooked that one of them, Bolton's Marvin Sordell, believes he was the victim of similar abuse a little nearer home, at Millwall, this very month.
Kalou, however, says he only ever came across such abuse occasionally in Holland, never since. "It's kind of hard because you think people should come and enjoy and watch a beautiful game. As a young player you have to distance yourself from that. And if that's going to bring you down then maybe you should not be an athlete because you are always going to get that. It is tough but that's how it is. But I think it should be zero tolerance on the pitch and also with the fans."
Playing for Feyenoord toughened up Kalou before he signed as a 21-year-old for Jose Mourinho, whom he rates the best of his seven Chelsea managers in six years. "When you're not doing well then, for sure, he's going to be hard on you because he knows you can bring something better to the team and that's a good thing. When you're doing well, he's always going to mention that. He's not the kind of man who will call you behind a door and talk, he's the kind of man who will talk to you in front of everybody. And I think that honesty brings to him the respect he deserves.
"Every time I got to the level where I had convinced a manager I should be in the team and play regularly, the manager gets sacked. So you have to go back to the beginning, convince the new manager and, when you convince him, he gets sacked again."
Thanks to constant changes at the top, he was only partially successful in establishing a first-team place.
There is ambivalence, too, in his feelings for Roman Abramovich, the owner whose unceasing quest for, first, success, then later, success with style, prompted all the instability. "If you see the results it is positive. He wanted to win the Champions' League and then he won it, so it was worth it – doing all that.
"Maybe if he backs off, it won't work. Sometimes you have to remind people, 'I'm the one doing that'. It was so easy to hide behind the manager and say 'it's not the players' fault, it's the manager'. But as players we had to take responsibility and know it wasn't right what happened to a young manager like AVB [Andre Villas-Boas]. It wasn't right because he had ideas where he wanted to go. Maybe at another club it would have worked perfectly, but because the group of players had been there for eight years, they expected him to work alongside the players.
"He is showing he is still a great manager at Tottenham. We can all blame the manager. But as a player we have to take responsibility and that's the role of the owner to remind everyone the only boss is him and we should be working for the best interests of the club – not individuals. Roman always reminded us very well and it worked every time. He came twice to tell us – once in Carlo Ancelotti's time and we won the Double, and he came again after AVB and we won the Champions' League."
Few are the Chelsea players who even dare to speak about Abramovich. Kalou says: "We weren't scared. He doesn't talk a lot, so when he does you listen. I like Roman as a person. He was very reserved and quiet and loved being around his players. He was excited around the training ground and he always made sure whatever we needed we had it.
"You cannot ask more from an owner than what he did for us. He always brought the best manager and players to the club, and he helped everyone to win something. I won whatever a player could expect to win, so that was the best experience of my career. Any other player would dream of having that experience at any other club."
'Now I'm the main man'
After 254 appearances for Chelsea – more than 100 of them as a substitute – Salomon Kalou was ready to accept a new challenge at Lille, winners of the French League and Cup two seasons ago, where he is taking on greater responsibility. "My stature as a player has changed," he says. "I'm seen as more of a main player. The players count on you to make a difference all the time, to bring that little something that can change the game."
After scoring on his home debut, a hamstring injury has restricted him recently. He hopes to return on Tuesday against Bayern Munich in the Champions' League, in which Lille have suffered defeats by BATE Borisov and Valencia.
More fancied to make an impression are Paris St-Germain under Kalou's former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, of whom he says: "PSG are the Manchester City of France. Carlo has the experience of Chelsea and Milan and he knows how to handle pressure. But in the Champions' League, you need good experience."
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