The new Paris Saint-Germain striker opened up to L’Équipe in an exclusive interview on his busy summer and the football business. In full.
It is early Wednesday afternoon, during a crazy and unforgettable day for the new PSG star, who was loaned with a 145 million euro (+35-million-euro bonus) buyout clause in case of Ligue 1 survival. Between his press conference organized by his new club in the Parc des Princes, while surrounded by two hundred journalists, and the inauguration of a small new sports complex in Bondy (Seine-Saint-Denis), the new Parisian striker hosted L’Équipe at the back of the bus made available by his sponsor for his close family and professional entourage, in order to make the trip across the city where he spent his childhood.
Relaxed and cheerful despite all the contact and requests made since the morning, he found time to joke in his opening, saying “I’m red-hot and ready to go.” He took the opportunity to send out a few clear messages, without settling any scores. He did not say it, but he knows that his relationship with Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim, has deteriorated more during these last few weeks.
What have you felt since August 31st between the announcement of your transfer to PSG, your first goal for the French national team against the Netherlands, and, (since then) your arrival to your new club?
It is a great pride and joy to know that all this is finished and that I can finally play again. I have to play, I have to play (he insists a third time). This signature came at the right time because I was meeting with the national team, playing again and the good news did not seem to stop. It really was a great week.
Did this month of August seem long for you?
It is not really the negotiations which seemed long, it is the fact that I did not play. The negotiations started a while ago, as early as the month of June. But starting from the moment where I was not on the pitch, it seemed endless. It only lasted two weeks, but for me, it is as if it lasted the whole transfer period.
Despite the ongoing negotiations, did you prefer to keep playing for Monaco while waiting for the outcome of the transfer?
Of course. The coach knew that I was available for the team, that I could play all the matches, and that the question around my future would not affect my performances, even though, it is true that they were not as good early on in the season*. But I do my best to not come up with excuses and to always give my best, regardless of what happens. This transfer could have very well not happened, then meaning that I would have stayed in Monaco. If it were to have happened that way, I would have lost three matches. It was really foolish. That is why I wanted to play. I was sad. But, it is the club’s decision. You have to respect all the club’s decisions.
*After having scored 26 goals in 44 matches in all competitions last season with Monaco, he had quiet games during his two starts against PSG in the Trophée des Champions (2-1 loss) and against Toulouse for the first game of the Ligue 1 season (3-2).
You did understand though, considering the sums discussed, why Monaco would be scared that you injure yourself severely?
Yes and no. On the one hand, I put myself in their position and told myself that I maybe would have done the same. On the other, I was in my own position and did not understand. I was still an important player in the team. And denying yourself of an important player is never… (he did not finish the sentence). That’s how it is, it is a respectable decision.
Is this period the hardest experience that you have come lived since arriving in the top flight?
Yes, of course, because it is a world that I am not too familiar with. It is a world that I am discovering, and honestly, I would not want for anyone to discover it. That is not the true face of football. But, what is most important, is that I am back on the pitch.
Were you actually surprised? Did you not think the football business was like this?
No. I had imagined it my mind, and people also spoke about it. But when others speak about it, you do not pay too much attention – it goes through one ear and comes out the other. But when it happens to you, it is not same thing, it is a whole other world.
Initially, it was widely reported that your wish was to stay in Monaco. Was this really the case?
Yes, of course. When I finished my season in May, I pictured myself staying. When I met coaches like Pep Guardiola – and they can also confirm this – Monaco was my priority. And that if Monaco kept doing what they were doing, then I would stay. It was out of the question that I look elsewhere. Certain things happened afterward, and I changed my stance.
Was your change of heart down to AS Monaco selling too many of their players or were they not ready to play you the salary you wanted?
As I have said before, I will explain that in the future. It is normal that everyone ask the same question about why I changed my mind from one day to the next. So it is important to clarify these things to everyone. I will do it soon.
You simply wanted to start playing again?
Yes, that was the most important. As footballers, we are not only here to talk.
Your relationship with the AS Monaco vice president Vadim Vasilyev seems to have remained on good terms.
(Cutting him off) It is on very good terms. He is a remarkable man. He even sent me a text message to congratulate me and I thanked him.
Was there anyone in Monaco that you were frustrated with?
No, no one at all. I do not know if it is a quality, but I am able to put myself in other people’s positions. And maybe I would have done the same in their position.
Why did you choose Paris over Real Madrid?
Because it would allow for me to continue progressing and playing. That is what I want, to play. So from the moment you know that playing is what you want, you go to club that can allow for that to happen. Simple.
In Real Madrid, would you have not been guaranteed playing time?
It is not a matter of being guaranteed because there is never that guarantee. This is nonsense. No one is going to write that you are guaranteed to play here or there in your contract. But I felt at Paris, it was more likely than in Madrid.
You could have also played for FC Barcelona or Manchester City…
Yes, but I am French and I chose a French club. People should be happy to see a good player stay in Ligue 1. Moreover, in the best team in Ligue 1.
Monaco would have preferred to sell you to Real Madrid instead of PSG. Did this bother you?
I have no idea. You will have to ask them. You surely have more reliable information than me… I have no idea.
During the summer, with all the commotion around your transfer, an incident occurred with Andrea Raggi in training. Could you give us your version of the events?
(Smiling) These kinds of things happen in all locker rooms, all the time. He spoke to me, I responded, then he responded, and it was done. But because it was Kylian, at that moment in time, it blew up. In the future, I will surely get riled up with another one of my teammates. And I think it will happen to him as well.
Last spring, you had the image of the perfect boy – well-mannered, polite, eloquent – and then all of a sudden, during the summer, you were considered a bad one. Did that hurt you?
No. I was prepared for this at the very best level. And when you are prepared for this kind of thing, you are prepared for the better and the worse. If you are ready to hear people say you are the best, then you also need to be ready to hear them call you the worst of the worst, even if that really is an extreme example. It was a step like any other. I knew what was going on and the people in the field also did. If people want to think otherwise because of the lack of information, I can understand that. The saga shook up the summer period. But soon, people will know what really happened. In any case, it did not break me more than that.
But even your friends and family – including your mother who is active on social media – reacted.
Yes, because eventually it went too far. So they had to react. But it was not something that affected us. It affected my grandparents more than anything because they lived this from the outside. They are from an older generation, and they are not used to all this media coverage. But the rest of my family most notably my close ones, no, not all.
One day, when giving an interview, after a French national team game, on the topic of your spontaneity, you said, “in any case, it seems to please you.” Do you still have the impression that you please just as much?
I am myself, I do not try to act like someone else. I come as I am. I think that people like that. If I am unhappy, likewise. I do not make a fuss with my facial expression or my statements. I say what I think, what is on my mind, all while respecting those around me.
During the summer, you were backed by some, criticised by others and we also sometimes heard it was the salary that – rumours talking about an €18m gross salary per season – made you choose PSG. How did you feel about that?
As I said earlier, it does not hurt me as long as I and those who matter to me have all the information. I will say it again, the saga shook up the whole summer. New information had to come out, but from the moment there is nothing left, you have to undo everything. I can not blame people. Those people turn on their TV hear about that and then believe it. If I were in the position, even I would say “Who does he think he is?” But those who do know, think differently.
But even if you seem mature for you age, it can not be that easy to cope with.
Honestly, no. Where I find it difficult to cope with is when I am told I can not play anymore. That is when I am in difficulty. In that situation I tell myself, “Oh wow, it has gone this far?” In my case, all I wanted to do was play and help the team till the end. But the critics, I ignore them. This will not be the last time I am criticized.
You are often spoken of as a footballing genius. Conversely, is it easy to cope with that kind of praise?
It is easy because I am seen by others as having talent. Admittedly, I still hake to work because I am still far away from where I want to be. The route is never simple and there is still a long path ahead of me. So the praise is a supplementary form of motivation for me.
How far will you go till?
I want to become a great player. Win every title. That is what I want. I do not want to be an extra. A player who has completed lesser seasons amongst the mid-table teams. I want to win something every year.
What was your first image of Paris Saint-Germain?
The first thing that comes to mind is the picture from my press conference. I had already visited the stadium when we were in touch when I was a youth player. That is the first souvenir.
What about from a footballing perspective?
Oh, Paris is a legendary club in French football. My first memory is from when Ronaldinho was here (PSG from 2001-2003 during Le Classique against Marseille, in which he scored a double on October 26th 2002, in a 3-0 victory).
Did you choose PSG because you thought it would be even sweeter to win a Champions league with a club that has never lifted it before?
To begin with, the club’s project would help me progress all while staying in my country. It was important for me to not leave the country like a “thief”, so to speak. If you play for six months and then leave, you are not really worthy of the greats. The great players win everything wherever they play. In France, I do not feel like I have gained this respect which would have made me a great footballer.
The Champions league has been a big objective for PSG since 2011 and the arrival of the Qataris. Do you dream of winning it this season?
No one can stop you from dreaming. Of course I have dreamt about it since my arrival, but it is up to us to show ourselves in the big moments. It is easy to talk in the month of September, but what really matters, is also being to talk in February in the round of 16, if we qualify of course, and so on and so forth.
Beyond dreaming about it, do you think it is possible?
Of course it is possible. No one can take that away from us. We have a great team, amazing players, one of the best players in the world in Neymar, if not the best. We really have a team built to try reach the top. On paper, it is one thing. On the pitch is where we have to prove ourselves.
Paris has Neymar on the left. Cavani down the middle. Do you see yourself playing on the right hand side, if the system does not change?
Of course, there is no problem at all. Paris Saint-Germain is a team that keeps possession, where you can play in spaces. It is play with a lot of movement, and players that feel football. It is not the same thing as a team which plays very directly, and you are stuck in one spot on the right. In Paris, there are not really wingers, but narrow midfielders. It is just on paper to have a shape. I can adapt myself. I am a striker. Not a right striker or left striker. Just a striker. And a striker should know how to play everywhere.
The other big objective for the season is the World Cup. Does it seem possible to pull it off? Is it a personal objective?
A world cup is a very special competition. I go off the assumption that all big nations can win it. We should not lack ambition to reach that goal.
Apparently, there are videos of you between the ages of 4-6, in which you describe career path. You imagined yourself singing La Marseillaise in front of Les Bleus’ game etc. Do you remember those videos?
Yes, of course, it was part of my childhood. I was a big dreamer when I was younger. I dreamt of being in the same position as footballers, when I saw them on TV. All those memories, I keep them in my mind, and even if I wanted to forget them, the cassettes would still be there to remind me (smiling).
At this age, does it seem certain to you that you will be a great footballer?
I do not know about a great footballer, but a footballer, yes. I could not see my life going towards anything else. Had I not been a footballer, I would have done the necessary diplomas to become a coach or do something in the field of football. I get out of bed in the morning for football. When I was in school, which I was not fond of, I told myself that this would maybe help me in football. Everything that I was doing was in order to be the best as possible in my field: football.
Apparently, you were quite talented in school, but not too interested.
I was interested in the beginning, but as soon as football came in my path, I chose football. Football is more than just a passion for me. From that point onwards, I was disinterested in school.
We spoke about those videos even though you were very young. Your parents must have smiled when they heard you.
(Smiling) Yes, my parents used to make fun of me, so to speak. They use to say I was a bit crazy. But that as time went along, they said that less and less. And now, the tables have turned! (smiling)
Money was spoken about a lot this summer. Do you remember your reaction to when you find out your older brother Jirès Kembo left to play in the Gulf. You were 13 years old and apparently, it really struck you that your brother made a solely financial choice….
That is true, yes. It was his choice, but if I were in his position, I would not have accepted it. It was really hard for me to accept it. He had just come off a god season with Rennes (10 goals in 32 matches at the age of 24), and was not far from the French national team (he has 13 caps and three goals in the youth categories). I thought he could have done something. I cried over it – it was brotherly love… At the time, I did not agree with it, but you always have to accept people’s decisions. I backed them, and I always will back him.
Alain Mboma, one of your close family friends, that you consider like an uncle, told us in a documentary that we are making about you, “At the age of five, he spent time watching interviews on TV, and repeating what they said after. As if he were responding to journalists. He surely asked himself: What would Cristiano Ronaldo’s response to this question be?” Is this true?
That is true, yes. And with my friends after matches, we would always do interviews in the locker room for kicks. We would take turns being the journalist, then being the player. A footballer’s job really interested us when we were kids. We put ourselves in his shoes to know what emotions were felt. It really was a wonderful childhood (smiling).