Looking back on 2006: Gallas' year of living dangerously

From hearing Zinedine Zidane apologise for his World Cup final headbutt to leaving Chelsea under a cloud, Arsenal's William Gallas has had an extraordinary 12 months. By Sam Wallace
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The Independent Online

When William Gallas turned up for his first day of training at Arsenal, he arrived in some style: chauffeured by the club captain himself. Not every new signing gets a lift from Thierry Henry, but then not every new signing is William Gallas. For the man who played in a World Cup final, defied Jose Mourinho and left Chelsea all in the space of one summer, 2006 has been a year to remember.

Gallas, 29, has left south-west London behind now, but it is in a studio just a few streets away from Stamford Bridge that we meet for an interview and photo-shoot for ICON, Jamie and Louise Redknapp's magazine aimed at professional footballers. A French television crew are there too to see Gallas, who has scarcely spoken in public since the summer and has granted only a handful of interviews since he arrived in England in 2001. The man himself is composed - clothes and fashion form one of his passions and, from the picture, you can see this was no ordinary photo-shoot.

It is hard to think of a player more central to the biggest stories of 2006: he moved from Mourinho's Chelsea to Arsène Wenger's Arsenal and was one of the few in the dressing room when Zinedine Zidane made his apology to his France team-mates in the aftermath of his extraordinary red card in the World Cup final. Gallas will miss today's match against Portsmouth after almost one month out with a thigh problem - the only respite he has had in a remarkable year - but is nearing a return.

Arsenal have missed his influence considerably, and never more so than when they visited Stamford Bridge on Sunday with a defence that Wenger described as "Under-21". The harsh reception Ashley Cole was given by the Arsenal fans was no surprise; how Chelsea's support would have reacted to Gallas is a different matter. In charge of the photo-shoot is Peter Sidell, from the famous independent clothes store The Library on Brompton Road, a lifelong Chelsea fan, supplier of designer clothes to Premiership stars and a friend of Gallas. "We're devastated he's gone," he says.

He is not the only one. "No matter what's gone on between Willie and the club, that's between them," John Terry wrote in his programme notes on Sunday. "Let's not forget he was a great player for Chelsea, a great man in the squad and he served us fantastically well for five years. He was great to play alongside and I miss him."

But life moves on. Now Gallas is looking, with Henry's help, for a new place to live north of the river. His connection with the Arsenal captain goes right back to the age of 12 when they were selected to join France's elite youth academy Clarefontaine among a generation of brilliant young footballers. And it was Henry who, 17 years later, called round to drive him to training in south Hertfordshire on his first day at Arsenal in August.

"It was strange because I had been with Chelsea all that time, I had gone to the World Cup and there I was going to the training ground with Thierry," Gallas says. "I was very shy because I didn't know the players and that's what I am like when I don't know people. I arrived in the dressing room, I said 'Hello' to everyone and I went to sit in my corner. After a while I started to speak with them and blend in.

"The club, manager and players have helped me to adapt. It is really important when they want to make you feel at ease. After that you just have to think about football. I am still in London, maybe a little further away from where I live, but all I needed to do was think about football.

"Arsène Wenger is a very good man, he has a lot of personality and what I like is that he tries to help the team all the time. When one player isn't playing, he speaks to him. I think that is very important for the squad because sometimes when you don't play and the manager doesn't explain it to you, you don't feel great and you lose your confidence."

It has been an ambition of his since the age of eight, Gallas says, to wear the No 10 shirt - and one he finally realised at Arsenal. But he could hardly have imagined the circumstances in which he would achieve that. His departure from Chelsea went right down to the wire - the clubs only officially announced that the deal of Gallas plus £5m for Cole had gone through in time at 1.30am on the morning of 1 September.

But even the twist at the end paled in comparison with the rest of the story. Gallas' departure from Chelsea was one of the most distinctly uncivilised transfers in history, even by the standards of the Premiership. It came to a head when he withdrew from Chelsea's pre-season tour of America and Mourinho responded by giving his No 13 shirt to Michael Ballack. Once the deal was finally done, Chelsea released a statement in which they accused Gallas, among other things, of threatening to score an own goal or getting himself sent off if he was not allowed to leave the club.

It is clearly still a difficult issue for Gallas and he is well aware of how his words will look on the pages of a newspaper, so he chooses them carefully. He has not ruled out some kind of reconciliation with Mourinho. Would he shake the Chelsea manager's hand? "Why not?" he says. "I think something happened and maybe I will shake his hand, maybe not. Maybe if he came in here now I would do it. I don't know.

"It was not easy after the World Cup because I was very tired and I went back to Guadeloupe [where his parents live] and I spoke on the phone with Jose. He knew I wanted to leave and I told him the reason. When I came back to the training ground I still wanted to leave. He said, 'No'. I said to him, 'We will see'.

"Maybe one or two days before the end of the transfer window I told myself, 'Oh maybe I will stay for the next season' and I thought: 'OK, it doesn't matter, I just want to play. Maybe I will or won't play, but I will give the maximum.' And then I was in France and my agent called me and said, 'Arsenal want to sign for you'. I said, 'Oh good'.

"I've seen Ashley Cole once but I never spoke to him about it. One day I will have the chance to say goodbye to Chelsea. I don't know when. Sometimes when I am on the street a Chelsea fan comes up to me and I can tell they think it is a shame I left. They don't know why. I will have to say why I left Chelsea, but not now. I thought it was a shame because I wanted to leave Chelsea the proper way - but that is football," Gallas adds.

And what about the allegations that he would sabotage Chelsea if he was not allowed to leave? "It's their problem, and it's my problem as well because they have talked about me and I am very disappointed they said that. I have to answer what was said but I have to pick the right moment, not now.

"When I go back to Chelsea I don't know what the reception will be. Maybe I will have the both - the booing and the cheers. When I was at Chelsea I played for them for five years and I was happy to play for them every game and I gave them the maximum. I have been there [before Roman Abramovich] and I was there when we won titles. I saw the difference - that will be a good, good memory. I have some friends who are still there, people I have known for five years."

He has bumped into Frank Lampard and Shaun Wright-Phillips when he has been out in London and he says that he stays in contact via text with a few of the Chelsea squad. But life has changed. His performances for Arsenal have been startling this season; a much more attacking element to his game has been developed, as if he feels he has something to live up to in that No 10 shirt vacated by Dennis Bergkamp.

Gallas says: "I was a striker when I joined Clarefontaine but there they thought I was not good enough in attack - they asked me if I wanted to play in defence. I thought, 'Why not?' The No 10 shirt is very important to me because my daughter was born on 10 November and my wife on 10 May. It was important also because when I was eight years old I played with that number. When I was young I always told myself if I had the chance to have that number I would take it."

Most young footballers have to leave their families when the academies of big clubs beckon, not many are left alone while their parents move to another part of the world. The choice facing Gallas aged 12 was stark. His parents had decided to leave Paris, where he had grown up, to return to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. They were taking his brother and sister too, but for Gallas a future in football meant keeping his place at Clarefontaine academy 30 miles south-west of Paris.

"I thought only about football and becoming a professional, but it was not easy - it really was not easy," Gallas says. "I didn't want to go back to Guadeloupe because I didn't think there would be anything for me there. I was 12 when they went back. During the week I was in Clarefontaine and at the weekend I went back to Paris to stay with my uncle.

"I was strong in my head. I knew I wanted to be a professional even when it was difficult for my mother to leave me. She cried and I cried too. But I knew what I wanted to be. After a while it was OK. I even felt good because when you are young sometimes you make a mistake and your parents shout at you. When they left I thought, 'Oh well, if I do something wrong, they aren't here to tell me off'."

Not all his class-mates there, however, have become such crucial figures as Gallas in France's team. He started all seven World Cup games this summer and was outstanding in defence, especially in the shock quarter-final defeat of Brazil.

In all world sport over the last year there has been nothing to match the drama of Zidane's headbutt on Marco Materazzi at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on 9 July. So what did Zidane say to his team-mates in the aftermath of defeat to Italy? "He was really sad when he made the mistake," Gallas says. "After the final in the dressing room he talked to us. He said, 'Sorry, guys, I know I have made a big, big mistake. Maybe some of you don't care if I say sorry. I don't know what happened, my head just switched off and I just want to say sorry.'

"I think it was good that he said that. Everybody respects him. You can see he's a big player because he made a mistake but he could still say sorry."

Gallas still regards Zidane as a star, and describes him as a "simple guy" who does not seek the limelight. It is an approach that Gallas sticks to himself. With his wife and two children he goes back to Guadeloupe for his holidays and tries to get back to Paris to see friends when he has time off in the season.

"With Jose it was different because I had to show him I was better than the players coming in and I liked the challenge," he says. "With Arsène it is a challenge as well. He bought me and I have to show everybody that I deserve to be in that Arsenal team. Sometimes players think, 'I will play in all the games'. I am not like this because every game I try to justify myself.

"I like life and I like to smile. I am a man who is shy when I don't know people. I like London because you can do what you want, you can walk down the street and people respect you a lot. When people say to me, 'You are a star' I say, 'No, I am not a star'. Yes, it's true, I'm a footballer, but I am like everyone else."

On the move: How William Gallas swapped Chelsea's left for centre stage at Arsenal

January Demands that he be played by Chelsea at his best position, centre-back. Juventus show an interest in signing him.

February Warns Chelsea that he wants a pay rise, in line with the top earners at the club.

March Scores injury-time winner against Spurs but is sent off against Fulham. London rivals Arsenal show interest in signing him.

April Scores as Chelsea beat Manchester United 3-0 to seal the Premiership title.

May Possibility of a swap deal with Milan becomes more likely as the striker Andrei Shevchenko is linked with move to Stamford Bridge.

June Hopes to captain France one day once the current captain Zinedine Zidane retires after the World Cup.

July France lose World Cup final against Italy and Zidane is sent after amazing headbutt incident. Gallas absent from Chelsea tour of US. His No 13 shirt given to new signing and midfielder Michael Ballack as punishment.

August Amid allegations that he threatened to score own goals for Chelsea, Gallas makes last-minute transfer to Arsenal in exchange for Ashley Cole.

September Given Dennis Bergkamp's No 10 shirt at Arsenal and makes his debut against Middlesbrough at left-back. Continues in this position. Scores first goal against Sheffield United.

October France lose 1-0 to Scotland in Euro 2008 qualifier.

November Scores against Liverpool. Struggles to overcome thigh injury.

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