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Laurent Koscielny: “I will embrace the president.”

Arsenal’s French defender Laurent Koscielny has given an extensive interview to France Football concerning a multitude of subjects including his relationship with French President François Hollande and more. In full.

Laurent, it has been said that you address the President of France using his first name?

It is true that we have known each other for a little while now. François Hollande is like me, he is from Tulle. I predominantly got on very well with him in 2011, during a youth tournament that I had organised. He tried to score penalties in an inflatable goal. It was nice. He was relaxed… I gave him one of my first ever Arsenal shirts. But he was not yet president.

Have you seen each other since?

At Clairefontaine, just before the 2014 World Cup. He loves football and knows the topic well. He came to have lunch with us before we left for Brazil… Even if he was just as relaxed with me, he asked about my parents, he is still the president of France!

You did not see him again, on the 13th November, during the dramatic events at the Stade de France?

No. The president does not come to see us before or after matches in the dressing room when he comes to watch matches at the Stade de France. At the end of the match against Germany, it was the Secretary of the State for Sports, Mr Braillard, who came down to explain the situation to us.

Right up until the final whistle, I did not think anything was wrong. I had seen strange things, but it was only when I saw the big screens in the stadium giving advice [to the fans] that I realised that something had happened outside. We only realised the seriousness of the events when we went through the tunnel. There, they had two TVs on TF1 with the first terrifying images of the attacks.

On the 29th March, you will return to the Stade de France, against Russia. Will there be a sense of apprehension?

We have to turn the page. We need to find a form of serenity even if we should always have a thought for the victims. I was certainly taken by emotion, four days later, at Wembley, against England. Tears were in my eyes. We had come out of three difficult days, we were only speaking about the events on the TV and in the entire world.

The emotion was strong. Just like the solidarity of the English. Before the game, there was an exceptional moment of reflection, the silence, the French flags, La Marseillaise, sung by the whole stadium, Wembley in blue, white, red. The people were united in pain, but also to fight the pain. It is certainly that which I have taken away from this. It was even stronger for me and the others who play in England.

The fact that you went through those delicate moments as a national team, could that reinforce the cohesion of the group in the future?

All of that touched the men more than the footballers. But it is certain that it will remain a strong moment of unity in the team. These events brought us together and also more the French people. We must feel more combined, even more so with the Euros at home.

EURO 2016, how are you feeling about it?

I long for it. Our group, with Romania, Albania and Switzerland, is approachable. Aside from that, matches, you have to win them! The first aim is to finish first in our group and then to go as far as possible.

It would be amazing to reach at least the final, to win at home. In 1984 and 1998, the previous French national teams did it. So, never two without three?

In the heart of the defence, it seems like you could be set to be a starter…

I am doing everything I can, in any case! I try to be good and consistent with Arsenal to be with Les Bleus. After that, the coach will decide. I am always working with the aim of being a starter. But I am not the type of person to lose his head over the course of two days if I do not play.

In terms of what you have done, aside from maybe Raphaël Varane, who has already won the Champions’ League and the Spanish league title, you have nothing and nobody to envy.

I am very happy with my career. I play regularly for Arsenal, we are in the top four of the league, always qualifying for the Champions’ League and with a very exciting end of the season to compete in. I have played nearly 230 games for the Gunners, which represents a nice little experience. I have also won two cups, in 2014 and 2015, with my club. I am happy with what I have done up until now. I do not envy anyone.

Do you not have the impression that, sometimes, your not so linear career path compared to those of a Mamadou Sakho or a Raphaël Varane could count against you?

Of course, at their age, I was in between Ligue 2 and National, between Guingamp and Tours. My career is different, more jagged, but it is the career that has brought me here today. I had to scrap more in order to get playing time, to get the confidence of the coach and to feel liked in the squad.

But I do not regret my decisions, notably the one which saw me leave Guingamp for Tours, in the National, in order to get a starting spot. All of that allowed me to build, to gain maturity and to appreciate the value of things, of my work and of my sacrifices. I have always valued the game, the football, over the comfort of a situation. When I was at Tours, I had the choice of Lorient and Sochaux in Ligue 1.

Sochaux were offering more from a financial point of view as well as a better transfer offer. But I made the decision to prioritise playing, Christian’s [Gourcuff] project. And I did it well. With him, something clicked. At Lorient, I saw football in a different way and, somewhere along the way it allowed me to catch up on lost time.

My season with Les Merlus at the heart of group enabled me to make a big step. I did not start with the label of a starter. But I had a good season (playing 35 matches) and, after just one year, Arsenal’s offer came.

What did you say to yourself at that moment?

That this is serious! I had signed for four years with Lorient. But the train sometimes only goes by once. You have to quickly get on it! I did not miss the chance. Everything came together to go to the next step, with a great manager like Arsène Wenger, in a club that is very “Frenchy”, one of the biggest in England and Europe. I considered this opportunity as a new extraordinary adventure.

At the beginning, the English must have said: “Laurent who?” 

The fans did not know who I was. I felt that. I arrived on my tiptoes. Arsène Wenger had spent more than £10m in my transfer. But I did not suffer from any integration problems. At the time, there were even more Frenchmen and francophones with the Gunners. I was close to Sagna, Clichy and Squillaci who certainly helped me to adapt.

How does it affect the force of character of the likes of yourself, Olivier Giroud or Mathieu Valbuena who have had difficult routes to the French national team?

Mentally, we have to be stronger. We have had to slog to get there. For me, I had to go down a level in order to go back up again. And when you manage to join the elite, you appreciate what you have seen. But also those you are close to. It is also important to live your career alongside your own. They are with you when you are in the trenches and remind you of certain things when you get a little ahead of yourself.

My journey allows me to put things into context when things become a little more complicated, to refocus on the fundamentals like work, like respect, like humility. It is those values that are dear to me.

Last week, against Southampton at the Emirates Stadium, you were made Arsenal captain. Was that, in your eyes, an accomplishment?

More pride. It was the first time in the Premier League. I have already worn the armband in the Cup, against Sunderland, then against Burnley. But this honour does not add any additional or particular pressure. I think more that each player has an important role in the team and that they have to fulfil that.

However, the armband remains something important in my career. Before me, legends like Tony Adams and Thierry Henry had worn it. It is not nothing!

Do you feel like you are having your best season with the Gunners?

I think so. But I hope that is not finished. At 30, I have reached some form of plentitude. I feel like I bring more calmness to the pitch. I deal with situations better. I have reached another level compared to my first five years in London. I have grown steadily to get to where I am.

Some great players who are still active like John Terry or some prestigious former players who have become pundits like Rio Ferdinand consider you to be the best central defender in the Premier League…

This recognition from my peers makes me even happier. It touches me. They know all the work that has been done to get here, the difficulty of this position in this league. But I do not want to stop here. I want to get even better.

Do you not feel like you are a little underrated in France?

It is maybe because I only had one year in Ligue 1, as well in a “small” club like Lorient, a club which had less media coverage than others, who were fighting relegation. I am not sure that people saw half of my matches at the time, including scouts. At Tours, already, I had a good final season, but only two Ligue 1 clubs made concrete offers. Today, French people see me chiefly when I play for the French national team, notably those who do not have Canal +!

An image also remains of a player who picks up a lot of cards…

I know…. But that is a false reputation in my point of view. At this level, my statistics are not the most telling! Some speak and try to make this label stick. They prefer to have this image of me. It must also put them at ease. I rise above that. I have never seriously injured another player. Aside from that, I might have conceded some penalties, which have stuck in people’s minds.

Notably in Ukraine, during the 2014 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs… 

That penalty, then my sending off in such an important match made an impression on people. It equally and certainly slowed down my progress in the French national team. I could have even missed out on the World Cup.

These circumstances allowed for Mamade [Sakho] to play at the back and to score a brace in the return leg. It was written like that. For me, I had made two steps forward before that sending off, I made three steps back after that. By receiving just a one match suspension, I got out of things alright. I could have missed the tournament. In the end, I had a lucky star above me!

Did this mistake force you to grow further?

I always try to take the positives from my mistakes. There, I have once again gained from a period of reflection. Before, I put a lot more on anticipation, with the desire to get ahead of the attacker, to cut out opposition passes.

That sometimes created dangerous situations. Now, I am more focused on interceptions. That gives me greater security. I pick apart situations better, but still with the desire to bring the ball out properly and to consolidate my recovery.

So not a hot-head on the pitch?

I am a competitor, whether that is on the pitch or in life every day. I do not like to lose a match, a little training game, a game of cards or a video game. I am a very bad loser! In competition, that is multiplied by adrenaline in matches. When I engage myself in a duel, it is to win. Certainly the first of the match, which also has a psychological dimension.

It allows me to mark my territory, to set the tone. It shows the opposition attacker that the match will not be easy, that he will have a hard time. The first duel is the most important. But, in everyday life, I am someone who is calm, composed, who has a calm life. I like to enjoy time with my family and my two children.

Those who are close to you often paint you as an older style of footballer, who likes to play Scrabble and invest in companies that make accordions…

Scrabble, that happens in the family, especially with my stepfather. With the French national team, they are not good enough! I like the game a lot. In fact, I like simple things, things that are not bling-bling. I also helped – with other investors – to save an accordion-making factory, at Tulle.

It was important in my eyes to save a good dozen jobs. We revived this company – the Maugein manufacturers – with a new project. It was also a way to show that I remain very attached to my region.

I am a loyal person who is not playing a game in order to boost his image. I know that I am part of another universe, but everything also goes very quickly. My career so far has taught me to put things into perspective, to remain humble and to appreciate the present.

I know that I am someone who is privileged. But I keep myself in check. I want to be in a good place after my career is over, to help my children to grow up right and to pay for a great education for them.

You have extended your contact with Arsenal until 2019. You will then be nearly 34. It is quite rare for Arsène Wenger to tie down a player who is already 30 for such a long time.

I interpreted this contract extension as another sign of confidence [in me]. If I go until the end of the contract, that would be nearly 10 years at Arsenal! I am truly happy at this club that has everything, in London too…

I have extended three times with the Gunners. You would have to think therefore that both parties are happy to work together!

Now, it would be good for you to win the league title. Is it a case of this season or never?

There is truly a big fight. It is more open than ever. Last season, Chelsea made the gap at the beginning. At the moment, there are four maybe even five clubs still in the race. Now, we are in the fight. We had a very good first half of the season and a more average January. We must not become unhinged and we must win with our attacking realism.

Defensively, you are more solid. The arrival of a very high level international goalkeeper like Petr Cech, does that change a lot of things?

For three seasons now we have kept 80% of the frame of our team whilst making major signings each season. There was Petr Cech, there was also Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. They are three world class players who certainly improve the team.

But lots of other teams can today make these sort of signings with the financial power of the Premier League. Is this league not becoming more and more equal?

The big four or big five no longer exists! Now, there are seven or eight clubs who can compete with each to sign the best players. West Ham or Everton can make signings worth £35m or £40m. It will augment further. The 16th placed or 17th placed Premier League side will soon be able to do several transfers for £25m or £30m during the season with the accompanying salaries.

Look at Leicester! Everyone was saying that they would fall apart after winter and yet they are more than ever in the title race. Anything can happen in the Premier League. A fact which increases its charm and attraction. This league will be more and more tight, and difficult.

You have come from a long way in the Champions’ League, with a qualification by the skin of your teeth from the group stage. Is it a case of mission impossible against FC Barcelona on the 23rd February and the 16th of March?

We started catastrophically but our win against Bayern allowed us to rebound. Then, we put in the performance that was necessary against Olympiakos by winning by three goals. By finishing second in our group, we knew that we were going to face a big fish.

And right now there is nobody bigger than Barcelona! It is a great match to play against the best team in the world. We have nothing to lose, but we could create a great surprise. In football, nothing is ever impossible!

So, if on the 10th July, around midnight, you are in the presidential stand in the Stade de France to lift the Henri-Daulanay trophy with Les Bleus, will you embrace François Hollande (faire la bise: effectively, kiss him on each cheek as a form of greeting).

I will take the bet! Not a problem, I will embrace the president. It would be exceptional for us, for him and for the entire country. I will never forget the images on the Champs-Elysées in 1998. I would like to live those moments. It would also allow people to forget about the grumbles of their daily lives, even more so in the current climate.

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