When you have been a prodigy since the age of eight and you come from one of the most famous cities in Europe for producing great footballers, it is little wonder that sitting in Thierry Henry’s favourite seat in the team bus is no big deal. So it goes with Samir Nasri, the man from Marseilles now at Arsenal who still believes that his club can make an impact this season.
This is Nasri’s first interview since he came to the Premier League although he has grown accustomed to being in the spotlight for longer than might be expected of a 21-year-old. When he was still just a kid in Marseilles’ youth ranks, a documentary on his junior team made him a star all over France. He has been identified by the French press as being the young player who said “Non” to Henry and William Gallas during Euro 2008 over – of all things – the seating arrangements in the team coach. Add to that, he even has a famous tennis star girlfriend.
From Saturday, a crucial four days await Arsenal. They play Sunderland at home, a game they need to win to take advantage of their nearest rivals Aston Villa and Chelsea playing one another. Then on Tuesday they face Roma in the first leg of their Champions League first knock-out round tie. Nasri may be the new kid, a £12m signing in July, but he is central to Arsène Wenger’s plans. Even more so recently when he has started the last 11 games.
Above all he is confident about Arsenal’s season, despite the five point gap to Chelsea in fourth place. “Arsenal like to play football so when we play against a skilful team who also like to come out and play it is easier to play because there is more space to exploit. When Manchester United came to the Emirates we had the opportunity to play well ourselves. When we are at home to teams who come here and keep things tight we have found things more difficult.
“I don’t think it is a central midfielder that Arsenal have been lacking. What we have really been missing is the injured players and when they come back you’ll see a different face to this Arsenal team.”
He grew up in the Gavotte district of Marseilles and he was training at Olympique Marseilles from the age of eight. During those formative years he watched from the curving terraces of the Velodrome as Marseilles conquered Europe under their corrupt owner Bernard Tapie. The same team that, it was later proved, denied Wenger’s Monaco at least two French titles through their match-fixing.
“I was a big fan and I saw that great side of the 1990s, in particular when we won the Champions League in 1993,” he says. “I am the only player who has turned pro from Gavotte but from Marseilles and the area there are lots of famous ones, especially Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona. We all love football in Marseilles and everyone plays it. The kids play it in the street so it is quite easy to get yourself noticed as a player. What makes a Marseilles player special? The thing that struck you most about Cantona was his temperament and his impulsive side on the field.
“His level of skill and technique on the ball are the things that are most evidently from Marseilles. This street football I was talking about gives you this ability that you need for the short-passing game.”
Most importantly for Arsenal, however, Nasri buys into Wenger’s theory that this Arsenal team will succeed given time. His own season has been punctuated by some thrilling highs, the two goals he scored that beat Manchester United at the Emirates in November stand out, and there have also been the usual frustrations of Arsenal’s season.
When he was ready to leave Marseilles, Nasri says that Arsenal were not just his first choice, they were his only choice.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision because I had played for 12 years at Marseilles and I had lived there for 20 years,” he says. “I had taken things as far as I could. Arsenal was a perfect place for me to come to. They had a manager who knew all about me and who also put faith in young players. If it hadn’t been Arsenal it would have been a much more difficult decision to leave.
“I think a lot of young French players all feel the same. The look at the work that Arsène has done with the French players who are at the club. They have all really come on as players. There is a really strong feeling amongst French players that Arsenal are the ideal club to join. Lots of people in France admire the work he has done here and all the managers in France also they think he is the model to follow. A lot of French people hope that one day he will manage the national side.”
When Nasri talks about young players he mentions Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa with whom he won the under-17 European title with France in 2004. Nasri and Benzema were among the youngsters in France’s Euro 2008 squad last summer. It was there that, as France failed to make it out the group stages of the tournament, rifts were alleged to have grown between the older guard of Henry, Lilian Thuram and William Gallas and Nasri and his peers. The allegations, of course, came from Gallas himself.
The accusation was that it was Nasri who sat in Henry’s seat in the team coach and refused to move. Ignoring for a moment the absurdity of Henry demanding a specific seat on the coach, was this true? The fallout from the incident continued long into Arsenal’s season when Gallas’s allegations in his autobiography about the insolence of an unnamed 20-year-old French player during Euro 2008 – widely identified as Nasri – appeared. For that, and other graphic descriptions of unrest at Arsenal, Gallas was stripped of the captaincy in November when the book was published
Nasri says: “It was all over something and nothing. People said I showed a lack of respect for Thierry Henry. Quite simply when I started out in the French national side, Henry had been out with a back injury and I had been sitting in a place on the coach which in his return turned out to be where he sat. As soon as I discovered that I got up and let him sit down. Maybe people were looking for excuses because we had done badly in the Euros but certainly I don’t think you can blame that on the fact that I sat in Thierry Henry’s seat.”
As for Gallas himself, Nasri will admit that there was a difference of opinions in the summer but claims that they have been able to put it behind them. “We had words at the Euros but it was during a training session and immediately forgotten,” he says.
“Since I came to Arsenal there has been no problem. We have got on well in my time here. They are just the type of things that can happen in training. It was just something that we didn’t agree on. It was all forgotten that night and we had a chat at the hotel. I don’t know why it had so much coverage.”
Nasri has settled in Hampstead, north London, where he lives with his girlfriend Tatiana Golovin, a French tennis player of Russian heritage, who has been ranked as high as 12th in the WTA tour. They are something of a celebrity couple in France (Arsenal’s first football/tennis partnership since Sol Campbell and Martina Hingis were rumoured to be an item) but in London, Nasri appreciates the fact that they get left alone.
“Tatiana is injured at the moment so she is at home all the time. When we first started going out it made a big splash in the papers back home but now it has calmed down a bit. It’s incredible how little attention there is here. Back in Marseilles all the supporters are really fervent and passionate and they don’t hold back when it comes to speaking to players, especially when things aren’t going well they’ll ask you what’s going on. Here people keep their distance, things are calmer and people have more respect.”
Nasri has been compared to Robert Pires insomuch as, like the French winger, he too should be given a year’s grace to adjust to English football, although he has never looked as overwhelmed as Pires occasionally did in that first season in the Premier League in 2000-2001. Pires was 27 when he arrived at Arsenal from Marseilles, seven years older than Nasri was at the time of his transfer in the summer. Like his manager, Nasri pleads for more patience.
“I think a team that is kept together for three or four years grows and progresses together gains experience during that time. Experience that you only get by playing together. I played against [Andrei] Arshavin when he was at Zenit St Petersburg and I was at Marseilles, he’s an excellent player. He will give us that little bit more penetration and incisiveness which the team have been lacking recently.”
Since we spoke, Eduardo Da Silva is back from injury and Theo Walcott is ahead of schedule on his recovery from shoulder surgery. Cecs Fabregas should be back before May. If there is to be a surge up the table then it will have to come soon, although you get the feeling that Nasri believes that the best is yet to come.
French toast: Samir’s statistics
Born: 26 June 1987, Marseilles
2004-08 - Marseilles: 145 games, 11 goals
2008 to date - Arsenal: 26 games, 5 goals
2007 to date - France: 14 caps, 2 goals
* He was named French Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year in 2007, ahead of Karim Benzema.
* Nasri was the last player to score a Premier League goal against Manchester United, his second coming after 48 minutes of Arsenal’s 2-1 win on 8 November 2008.
La Marseillaise: Other local heroes
Mercurial and often controversial, ‘King Eric’ won a host of trophies with Leeds and Manchester United, including two doubles, although it was his style as much as his success which cemented him as one of the greatest players to have graced English shores. Spent three years at Marseilles between 1988 and 1991.
Had the 2006 World Cup ended differently, there would be no doubt that the Marseilles-born midfielder could have laid a substantial claim to the title of greatest footballer the world has ever seen. His career was littered with trophies and personal accolades, including three World Player of the Year awards, and World Cup, European Championship and Champions League medals. He also broke the world record transfer fee in a £48m to Real Madrid in 2001.
Alongside Michel Platini, Tigana formed part of “the Magic Square”, one of the greatest midfield foursomes of all time, helping secure the European Championship for France in 1984. Along with his 52 caps, Tigana helped Bordeaux to repeated domestic glory and is fondly remembered as one of the great French midfielders of the modern era. Represented Marseilles between 1989 and 1991.