Robert Pires: Arsenal’s Invincible midfield wizard

Football would certainly be a lot less exciting if it wasn’t for the presence of the many fantastic club academies across the globe. Some are, of course, much more successful than others, with the likes of Barcelona and Ajax perhaps leading the way when it comes to player development.

But France is also home to a handful of excellent youth programs, with INF Clairefontaine and Le Havre AC perhaps the two at the top. The former can be credited for helping produce the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Kylian Mbappe, and Olivier Giroud, with the latter nurturing players such as Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, Dimitri Payet and Benjamin Mendy.

But one that may have slipped under the radar is that of FC Metz. Their long list of successful youth academy products includes Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Emmanuel Adebayor, Miralem Pjanic and Papiss Cisse. And one name also among those stars is that of Arsenal legend Robert Pires.

The early years

Starting out with Reims, Pires made his name during his time at Metz, with his 174 displays producing 46 goals. Five years and one Coupe de la Ligue trophy later, French giants Marseille came calling. In a frustrating two-year spell in the south, the club narrowly missed out on silverware on two occasions, losing out on the 1998/99 league title by a point to Bordeaux, and falling to defeat in the 1999 UEFA Cup final at the hands of Parma.

The Invincibles

The heartbreak in France quickly faded, with Pires immediately hitting the ground running upon his switch to Arsenal in the summer of 2000. The goals and assists came straight away England, with Pires playing a crucial role in the following campaign as the Gunners clinched the Premier League title.

But of course the best was saved for the incredible 2003/04 season, where Arsenal stormed to another league title thanks to their ‘Invincibles’ squad. Henry and Dennis Bergkamp have gained much of the plaudits for the goals scored, but Pires was the club’s second top scorer that season with 14, while joining Bergkamp at the top of the assists standings with seven.

His silky style and incomparable elegance on the ball stole the hearts of Arsenal fans worldwide, with Highbury falling in love with their wing wizard. But all good things come to an end and, with his Gunners deal set to expire, he agreed a move Spanish outfit Villarreal in 2006. The Premier League legend left a hero, with 85 goals and 58 assists from 284 games, with the small matter of two league titles and two FA Cups also going his way.

A disappointing farewell before moving to Spain

The Arsenal story certainly has a sad ending, with Pires becoming increasingly aware of his lack of game time in north London, taking the early substitution in the 2005/06 Champions League final particularly hard, with the midfielder chosen by Arsene Wenger as the player to be sacrificed after Jens Lehmann’s 18th-minute red card.

The move to Spain was then marred by a cruciate ligament injury that kept him out of action for the majority of the season, but he marked his return in style, with the left-midfielder netting on his first start for the club in a victory over Barcelona. He became a regular from that moment onwards, guiding his team to fifth place in the league and thus a spot in the UEFA Cup. The club fared even better the following year, placing second in the 2007/08 La Liga campaign, their highest ever finish.

International patience

Not only did the man from Reims enjoy a stellar club career, but he was also a well-established member of a special France national team. His debut arrived in an international friendly against Mexico in 1996, giving him just enough time to make a name for himself under Aimé Jacquet, in the hope of securing a spot in the 1998 World Cup squad.

Despite the huge talent he came up against from several compatriots, Pires did just that, and at 24 years old was one of the youngest members of the group. Legendary figures such as captain Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Youri Djorkaeff were the leading men, with Pires linking up with other younger, inexperienced players like Henry and David Trezeguet. The versatile midfielder may have only featured in 139 minutes of France’s ultimately glorious tournament, but the experience put Pires in good stead for the future.

And that bright future came to light just two years later at Euro 2000. Again, he found himself among the substitutes more often than he would have wanted, featuring in just two of five matches as his country made their way to another final. Forced to watch a tense encounter with Italy from the sidelines until the 85th minute, his moment finally came in extra-time, with Pires going on a dazzling solo run, before picking out Trezeguet, who smashed the ball home in the 103rd minute to clinch the trophy for France.

Allez Les Bleus

He soon became a regular on the international scene, playing all across the midfield to help his country secure further success with back-to-back Confederations Cup trophies between 2001 and 2003, with Pires himself winning the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe in the former.

But his international career certainly wasn’t without hiccups, with the first of those arriving in 2002, when he missed out on the World Cup through injury. The second was, however, much more worrying, with Pires dropped from the national team setup by manager Raymond Domenech, with the pair reportedly coming to blows due to differences in opinion. The boss later claimed the player was suffering a decline in form, with Pires blaming his erratic behaviour on the divorce from his wife of six years. Fortunately he returned to Les Bleus soon after, captaining his country before eventually retiring from the international scene in 2004 with 79 caps to his name.

The latter years

After his Spanish venture, the Premier League warmly welcomed their French star back for one last season, with the midfielder linking up with his compatriot, the late, great Gerard Houllier at Aston Villa, helping the Midlands club to a ninth-place finish. This was followed by a different adventure entirely, with a 40-year-old Pires joining Indian Super League outfit FC Goa. He enjoyed a handful of appearances as the club’s marquee signing, before finally hanging up his boots in 2016.

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