Saha's song for Europe in right key
Louis living the dream and the sense of disbelief gets stronger
Sunday 22 February 2004
If you happen to spot a Manchester United footballer hovering in the skies and humming the Champions' League theme tune, fear not. It is only Louis Saha enjoying his time on cloud nine.
A month ago, the Frenchman'sraison d'être was to help Fulham maintain their Premiership status. Today, his ambitions are limitless. Not content with having established himself as a regular starter in the Manchester United team, Saha has also earned his first international cap. Typically, he marked his debut for France in Belgium on Wednesday with a goal. "It's all extraordinary," he said on his return to Manchester. "Four weeks ago, I was at Fulham, dreaming of the French team, of a move to a big club, and of the Champions' League. And now look at me."
Having ticked the first two boxes on his wish list, Saha can now turn his attention to the third. The 25-year-old will make his debut in Europe's premier competition on Wednesday, when United take on Porto. "It seems ridiculous that I'm about to play in the Champions' League," he said. "I've always fantasised about this day and I can't wait to be part of the whole ambience. I'm so into the event that my friend Dominico and I often hum the theme tune together, which is not as easy as it sounds."
Nor is winning the competition, although United will be expected to go close now that they have added Saha to their squad. "Having the lad will give us more options in Europe," his club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said. "It will make our opponents wonder how we're going to play and gives us a good chance."
Saha concurred: "The aim is to go all the way and, with the players we have, we should be able to fulfil our ambition. It won't be easy, and we have to make sure we take every opponent we face seriously, but I'm sure we'll be up for every match. How can you not be turned on by the Champions' League?"
Saha's excitement is understandable. For a long time he was viewed as the odd one out of his generation, one of the only members of the Henry, Silvestre, Anelka and Gallas class not to sign for a big club or represent the senior French team. The wait is over. "As a player," Saha explained, "all you want is to play for the best club in the world and your country. The fact that I have achieved those two things almost overnight makes the whole experience that much crazier."
Saha remembers his first taste of club football with United and international football with Les Bleus. "To say that my baptism at Old Trafford was overwhelming would be a massive understatement," he recalled. "It was such a buzz that I still get goose pimples just thinking about it. Talk about the Theatre of Dreams becoming an unforgettable reality." Saha paused for a second, as if to acknowledge that the events in midweek were even more memorable. "I played alongside Zinedine Zidane," he blurted. "I was on the same side as this genius and that will live with me forever."
So, too, will his goal, which was served on a plate by that man Zidane. Not only was it Saha's first for his country, but it also cemented his place in the squad for the European Championship in Portugal this summer. "Oh, I don't know about that," he said modestly. "It's still going to be tough because Euro 2004 is just around the corner and there are some great, proven strikers like Titi [Henry], [David] Trezeguet, [Steve] Marlet and [Sylvain] Wiltord. I'm late on the scene from an age, and a timing, point of view."
Will being a Manchester United player not help his chances? "It's not just because you're at a big club that you automatically warrant a place in the French team," Saha insisted. "Of course, I think of Euro 2004 and I want to be a part of it, but it's not an obsession. After all, I've only just arrived."
Such has been the ease with which he has settled into his new surroundings that one could be forgiven for forgetting that Saha was a Fulham player only last month. "It's easy when you're surrounded by great talents," he said. "You've got guys like Paul Scholes, who is such an influence going forward, and Roy Keane, who is the boss. It's a thrill." And then there is Saha's striking partner, Ruud van Nistelrooy. "With Ruud up front," the Frenchman said, "everything is easy. He's such a class act. Before I came up here, my father and I watched loads of videos of Ruud. He's so good at knowing where his team-mates are that we decided that he must be able to look up three times in one second. His strength is that he's quick physically, but mentally, too."
One man who may not have the pace and yet remains the sharpest of all is Ferguson. Saha is in awe. "Recently, we came in at half-time 3-0 up against Everton. I'd scored twice and was feeling rather pleased with myself, but when the manager walked into the changing room, he pointed at me and said, 'Killer'. He felt I could still do better, and that's why he is so successful."
Saha knows the pressure is on him to justify his £12.825m price tag, but insists he is enjoying the challenge. "If things have gone well," he said, "it's because of the way my team-mates have accepted me. The first time I met Roy Keane, for example, he slapped me on the back, wished me luck and told me to get out there and do my stuff." Wisely, Saha has been obeying his captain's orders.
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