Former French international right-back and ex-Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur player Pascal Chimbonda sat down with Get French Football News for an extensive interview about his ambitions to become a 1st team coach as well as a look back on a playing career full of twists and turns.
Last we heard from you, you were playing for Ashton Town, in the 11th division. Are you still playing for them?
No! As the club chairman is a fan of Wigan, and I played for Wigan, and he’s promoting a charity match in May against Manchester United, he asked if I could do him the favour of playing four matches. I did that and it was a pleasure.
In recent years you’ve played for various clubs in lower divisions, whereas others of your age have retired. Are you playing for pleasure or is it an addiction?
No, I’m not addicted but it’s for pleasure. I’ve always loved playing football and as long as my body holds up and I’m able to play 90 minutes and to play matches, I remain a huge fan and I still love playing football.
I heard that you agreed to play for Ashton as long as you were able to play further forward than usual?
Well at my age I can no longer play right back, covering the whole flank, so midfield fits my age more, fits my reading of the game and my ability to cover without running so much. But I’m doing OK, I haven’t put on weight – I’m still the same weight as when I was playing professional football. So physically it’s all fine, mentally, energy-wise, when you know how to play football you don’t lose that – it’s with you for life.
Ashton is up north but I believe you live even further north?
Yes, I live in Newcastle.
So no plans to return to France or to Guadeloupe?
Maybe later I’ll return to Guadeloupe but no, no plans to return to France.
And in terms of what you’re doing right now, I know that you have plans to move into coaching. You have your UEFA A Licence, right?
Yes I have my UEFA A Licence and I’m working to gain experience in order to get to the highest level. So for the moment I’m training youths, I’m coaching in academies, in scholarship football. So I’m building experience to go higher, and after the A Licence I want to obtain my pro licence.
So for the moment you’re not working with professional clubs?
Yes, I do part-time work with Tottenham’s 18-year-olds. I go once week, a couple of times a month. But otherwise it’s mainly football scholarship – 18-23-year-olds who can play football but at the same time work on their academic level, so that if they don’t succeed in football, they have a way out. I don’t work in schools but in an academy, and there are players from all over the world who come. We give them an opportunity and if they’re good they can find a club, and if not, they’ll have the opportunity to study for their BTEC and level 1 and 2 for coaching. But my ambition is to join a professional club, to become a first team coach.
Going back to the beginning of your career. You came through the youth development and began your pro career at Le Havre. You were there at around the same time as Payet, Mandanda, Boumsong, Le Tallec, Sinama-Pongolle, Diawara.
Yes, I played with Souleymane (Diawara), Le Tallec, Boumsong, all that.
Why do you think it is that Le Havre has such a great reputation and record of producing talented players?
Because they have the best scouts. And when you have the best scouts allied to the best youth coaches, it makes it easier.
And where did they scout you from?
I was in Guadeloupe and the club I played for there had a partnership with Le Havre, so they spotted me during a scouting visit in Guadeloupe and then signed me.
Out of interest, talking of Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle, I remember when they first came onto the scene, particularly in the France youth teams, they were talked of as the new Zidane, the new Henry. Why do you think they never quite lived up to their potential?
They were young and I don’t want to say they made a mistake joining Liverpool but for me they left too soon. But when you’re a footballer, you’re young and Liverpool come calling, it’s hard to say no. You know you’re going to train with great players, you know you’re going to develop quickly. But at Liverpool they didn’t get many chances to play or to express themselves. They played a few matches.
But Liverpool is Liverpool – they only took well-established players and at that time I think they were a little young and immature. But football has evolved since then and if it were today I think that they would have been given their chance, because now Liverpool put more confidence in youth, rather than then when the emphasis was more on experienced, seasoned players. But they were excellent players and when I played with them they showed great maturity.
After Le Havre you moved to Bastia…
Yes, and the first year went well. But then I had problems with a minority of my own supporters.
You’re talking about the incidents of racial abuse during matches against Istres and Saint-Etienne.
Yes, and after that I’d had enough. And that’s why I left France – to discover something new and put all that behind me.
Was it the racist incidents themselves, or the fact that you didn’t receive the support of your president and teammates?
Yeah I didn’t really have their support, because while I was still there, they said we support him, we’re behind him. And then once I left a player said that it’s my fault that I was insulted, because of my character and my attitude.
But at that time it was difficult. I was being insulted and every black player who came to play at Bastia or in Corsica was subjected to insults. That’s how it was at that time. Then it calmed down a bit and now the racism issue has come back into the news. And if the authorities don’t makes decisions, don’t come up with sanctions, it will never change, it’s a plague that will just continue.
And it’s a shame for football, it’s a shame for those who go to matches, it’s a shame for parents who take their kids to the stadium and have to experience that. But it’s not for us, the players, to make these decisions. It’s up to the authorities, to FIFA or UEFA to make the calls. And as long as they do not, it’s never going to calm down and it will always be this way.
That’s true, but if you were in their place, what would you do?
I would give huge fines to the clubs. Financial penalties and also points deductions. And if it still continued, I’d go to big sanctions – playing a whole season behind closed doors.
And are the players justified in –
When I was a player, I wanted to walk off the pitch and the guys – mainly Christian Karembeu, who was playing for Bastia at the time – said no, it’s not good to do that. But I think that now, if I was playing today, I’d walk off the pitch and see if my opponents and my teammates would follow suit and walk off too.
Just to let you know, tonight [after Amiens captain Prince Gouano was the target of monkey chanting] all 22 players were prepared to walk off.
They were prepared to. But they didn’t! Being prepared to do so and actually doing it are two very different things.
You said these incidents were what pushed you to leave Bastia. Are they why you left France too, or was it just because Wigan came in with an offer?
It was a bit of both. I wanted a change of dimension, a change of atmosphere, a change of country. And the English league was always one that I wanted to try. So when Wigan gave me the opportunity to come to England, it was the perfect time, so I went for it and it was a successful decision.
And it was during your season at Wigan that you really came to public recognition. You were voted the best right back in the Premier League. Would you say that that was the best season of your career?
No, not necessarily my best season. But in France I was only really known for the racist stuff that happened to me. I had good seasons in France, among my best too, but I became recognised just for having been the victim of insults, whereas in England I was spoken about in connection with football, not with racism. And being voted best right-back in the league – it’s not something that happens to everyone!
And how was your relationship with the Wigan fans?
Oh it was marvellous, it was mad. In the space of a few matches I became loved – it was crazy. When you have everything going right and the fans behind you, you can’t help but play good football.
And is it still a good relationship, because it didn’t finish so well [Chimbonda handed in a transfer request on the last day of the season]?
Yes I left on bad terms because of a big mistake on my part. At the last match against Arsenal I stuffed up and it left a bad taste in the mouths of the Wigan fans. But it’s a minority of the fans and I’m always welcomed back there now, no problems. I was badly advised and if I had the chance to do it again, I wouldn’t do it.
And that last match was the last match at Highbury so it must have been a special occasion?
Yes – but it’s a bad memory for me!
You moved on from Wigan to Tottenham and when I told Spurs fans that I’d be speaking to you, the most common question was why did you leave for Sunderland, only to return six months later?
Well in the first place I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave Tottenham. But I also wanted to play. And they signed a right-back and it was certain that he was going to be played ahead of me. So I left, but then it was going badly at Tottenham – they had a terrible start to the season – and in December the coach called (Harry Redknapp) and asked me if I was keen to return. I said yes and I came back. But Tottenham is like Wigan – it’s one of the clubs that I carry in my heart.
You recently played for Tottenham in the test match for the new stadium. It must have been a real honour to be asked – I saw for example that Chris Waddle was a bit annoyed that he hadn’t been invited?
I don’t know how they decided who was invited but yeah, to play in a stadium like that is amazing, with players like that – and against Inter Milan too – it was marvellous.
And it must have been special to play alongside Gazza?
Yes it was tremendous. All these players who played in a throwback style, even though they weren’t all pros during the same period. But yeah, playing in Tottenham’s stadium was wonderful.
And it was with Tottenham that you won the League Cup, so you must be well loved by the Spurs fans –
Yes, because we are the only Tottenham team for years to have won a trophy.
-although it was noted that you stormed down the tunnel after being substituted in the final!
Well I’m a competitor. I love being on the pitch. That’s where I feel at home. So that’s why. But afterwards the joy of winning obviously overrode the disappointment, as it should.
What was the pressure like at Tottenham? Because with all due respect to Sunderland, Wigan etc, Tottenham consider themselves a top 5, top 6 club. Did you notice a different kind of pressure, of expectation?
It’s different because in teams like Sunderland or Wigan you’re not competing for European places, you’re playing to retain your place in the Premier League. While at Tottenham you’re playing for the top 5 places and qualification for Europe. So there’s pressure, but it’s a good pressure.
I’ve seen you talk about one of your teammates at Tottenham – Adel Taarabt – who is another who perhaps didn’t quite live up to his potential.
I think it’s because he was young, he came across very young from Lens, there was also the language barrier. But he was overflowing with talent. It’s a pity that his time at Tottenham wasn’t better. You know how it is – you’re young, you’re discovering the world, you’ve left your cocoon – and then football moves on quickly.
We get loads of help, when we’re in England. We’re helped in all areas. You don’t need to do anything – you ask for something and they give it to you. You’re not left to your own devices – you’re really supported. Then it’s up to you to appreciate the position you’re in and up to you to succeed.
And in cases like that, as you have more experience and speak the same language, do the bosses ask you to help him?
I would give him advice. But I’m not his dad. I’m his teammate and his friend so I give advice, but then you either listen to it or you don’t. But it’s a pity because he was a nice guy and packed with talent.
And skills-wise was he the best player you played with at Tottenham?
Yes, technically he was definitely one the best players I played with there.
At what point in your career did you feel you were at your strongest?
I’d say when I was at Wigan. When we finished 10th when no one expected us to be that high. I felt good, and then joining Tottenham was the reward for the work that I’d accomplished at Wigan.
Who is the craziest player you played with? You played with the likes of Jimmy Bullard, El-Hadji Diouf?
They were players who were full of life, those who are chatty and approachable when you get to training in the morning, who you know you’re going to have a good time and a laugh with, who know how to live life to the full. They create a great atmosphere in the changing room, when things aren’t going well for you, they’re good friends. They’re bons viveurs!
So did you get on with Bullard, for example?
Yes, we got on well, we’d joke and have a laugh together. Same with El-Hadji Diouf. He’s one of my best friends – when people say he’s arrogant or whatever, it’s not true – he’s someone with a big heart, someone who helps you, who talks to you a lot – he’s a leader. So those who say that he’s arrogant are those who don’t know him. When you meet him, you think – s*** – everything people say about him is untrue. He’s a great guy on lots of levels and someone you can easily become friends with.
But then there have been incidents, including spitting at opponents. Is it some kind of white line madness?
No but these are incidents that sometimes happen on the pitch and maybe if he has been insulted, that’s his reaction. It’s like if someone gave me a knock or something on the pitch and it wound me up, maybe I would have reacted like him, or hit them back, I don’t know. That’s his way of reacting, and each to his own.
You played under Roy Keane at Sunderland. He carries with him a certain reputation – as a player, a coach and a pundit – as someone very hard, very serious. How was he?
It wasn’t that he was hard – but he liked players to work hard. As a player he was always a hard worker with a strong character. So he wanted his players to have the character of winners on the pitch, to be leaders. So yeah, it was good with him. I’d learn lots from him and coaches like him – who make sure they get their message across, who really push you to give more on the pitch. And when you have people like that around you, you can only do well.
I’ve heard you say before that he was never there. What did you mean by that?
He was one of those coaches who was more a manager. So he’d come occasionally onto the training pitch but generally it was his assistant who took training, and we’d see him maybe 2-3 times a week. But he picked the team and did pre-match team talks. He was maybe a little less technical, but was great in terms of pushing, of exigence.
Who is the strongest player you’ve played with and against? For club or country.
For country, although I never played with him, it was Zidane [they played in the same match, but Zidane had been substituted before Chimbonda came on]. And for club, Dimitar Berbatov.
Is it fair to say that the two of them have a similar personality?
They both stay in their corner, don’t speak too much, and let their talent speak for them on the pitch.
And the best player I played against was Thierry Henry when he was at Arsenal.
Speaking of Henry and Zidane, we must of course talk about the 2006 World Cup. There’s various stories about how you came to be picked for the squad. There were jokes that you’d asked Domenech to be the squad mascot; or recently Domenech said that he had no idea who to pick as cover for Willy Sagnol and just picked you on a whim. What actually happened?
First of all, I didn’t ask anything of anyone. To be considered for selection, you need to do the business on the pitch. I did that. But being picked for the France squad didn’t even occur to me. I was just thinking about going on holiday once the league was finished. Then I got a call from Thierry Henry, saying that the France coach wanted my phone number and was it OK to pass it on. So i gave it.
Then Domenech rang me saying “listen, I know you’ve done whatever this season” – and I know he never saw me play, he’d just heard that I’d been voted best right-back in the Premier League for the season. But he phoned and said there would maybe be two surprises in the France squad – Franck Ribéry and me. Then he asked what my plans were and I said I’d booked holidays with my family. And he said that I should hold off until he’d announced his squad. So if the coach calls you when he’s never called you before, it means I’m going to be in the squad – I’m not an idiot. So he picked me. And in France there’s lots of jealous people around who don’t want certain people picked. But I don’t care – I was called up, I went and that’s it. I didn’t buy my place, I didn’t ask for my place – I was picked.
You mention jealousy. I don’t know if it’s a question of jealousy, or rather ignorance, but –
Yeah well people talking about surprise. How am I a surprise? I was surprised that I was there. But it was no surprise to me that I have ability, and if I’d been called onto the pitch, I’d have done a good job. As I always have done.
I get the impression that it annoys you that, every two years, when the squad announcement approaches, the media always asks who is going to be the Chimbonda of 2010, 2014, whatever.
(Ironically) Well I’m pleased. It means people like talking about me. And if that’s what makes them happy, I’ll leave them to it.
But how do you feel about it? Is it frustrating?
No, not frustrating. The only thing that I hold against the coach is that he never recalled me after the World Cup. That’s what I’m angry about. Because had he picked me again, it would have shut a lot of journalists’ mouths. But the fact that he only picked me for the World Cup, with no sequel, that annoyed me a bit. But after all, going to a World Cup is every footballer’s dream.
You mentioned your frustration at not being called up after the World Cup. But in your place I’d have been just as frustrated about before and during the World Cup too. You had one three-minute appearance [in a warm-up match] against Denmark and were never really given the opportunity to show what you could do?
Exactly, if I’d played, certain people might have shut their mouths. And the coach never gave me the opportunity to shut those mouths. And that annoys me. Because the majority of players played at least 45 minutes, so why did I only get 3 minutes? OK I can say look, at least he picked me and I was there – and I was pleased to be called up. But as I’ve always said, I’m a competitor and if I’m there it’s to add something, not just to carry bottles of water. That’s what made people talk, that and the fact that he didn’t follow up with anything after the World Cup. He never selected me again, and that’s where the frustration lies.
And he never came to see you play after the World Cup either?
No, not before, not after, he never saw me play a match. But that’s the past. You should never regret anything, you should always look ahead, and I do that, no problem. These are life experiences. And no one can ever take away from me the fact that I went to a World Cup. There are a lot of people who have played football and never been to a World Cup. I was lucky enough to participate in a World Cup – and to nearly win it – with some great players!
Being a “coiffeur” [non-starting squad member] was particularly well-publicised in 2006 because of Vikash Dhorasoo’s book [Substitute]. What’s life like as a coiffeur?
It’s the World Cup. You can’t put all 23 players on the pitch. I think if we’d won our first two group matches, a few of us might have played the third match. But in a World Cup, featuring the best players in the world, not everyone can play. So I understand Vikash’s frustration, but some players were better than others, that’s how it is.
What are the responsibilities of a reserve during the World Cup?
You’re there, you encourage your mates, you’re ready in case you’re brought on, your services are required. You’re in a group, you have to be unified. It’s a big competition. There’s always going to be some sulking, but you have to put that to one side and think of the collective. As I said, you can’t play with 24 on the pitch. I understand the frustrations, but I was cool, I had a great World Cup.
And was the squad atmosphere generally good?
Yeah, very good. No problems, we had a laugh together, we really shared a great time. It was a wonderful month. Those who had been there said it was a better atmosphere than in 1998.
And when you say that there was a good atmosphere, does that include Domenech? Because there were always stories about how, at a certain point after a couple of matches, it was Zidane, Thuram, Vieira who took over the running of the team?
It’s not true. It was the coach who ran all the training sessions, who remained in charge. I mean, once you’re at the World Cup you don’t need to do much training – you play matches, you do warm downs and that’s it. And in terms of tactics, there was no issue of tactics – everyone knew who played where. Look at the players we had – you can’t tell them you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that. They’re not kids. And you’re not going to tell Zidane how to play football!
So does Domenech deserve a bit more respect for what he achieved in 2006?
Yes maybe, because no one was expecting France to get to the World Cup final, so he deserves respect for that. As for the man – well everyone is different, everyone has their own way to behave. But you can’t take away what he did.
Wasn’t there a story of you leading Zidane in dancing in the changing room after the Brazil match?
Well, we were all dancing, with us two on the table. We’d just beaten Brazil who were the favourites. It’s the World Cup – you have to dance, laugh, have fun. And then focus on the next match.
And the final was obviously very eventful. From the bench, did you see the headbutt?
No, honestly, I didn’t see it. I saw everyone – well, the keeper, Buffon, running to the linesman or the fourth official or whatever to tell him something had happened. But I didn’t see it.
And how did you experience the penalty shoot-out?
It was very frustrating. I thought that we were going to win it – with Zidane still on the pitch it might have been different and we would have won the match. Or maybe we would have lost anyway, but it certainly would have helped still having him on the pitch.
Although Trezeguet would have taken a penalty in any case, so you never know.
No, you never know. But these things happen, even to the greatest players. And Trezeguet was a great goalscorer. But there you go. We were all disappointed. But then you have to move on. That’s life and no one died, so that’s just how it is. It was a great disappointment not to be able to lift the Cup. But we still got to the final, which wasn’t expected. So it was still a great run.
So looking back at your career, any regrets?
No, I’m very happy with all that I did, the way I did it. Regrets – you should never live with regrets! Living with ifs… Like I said, you must always look forward. Even if there are things that you’d change, they’re done now so you have to move on. It makes you stronger and pushes you further forward.
And if you could have one wish for the future?
It’s for my family to always be well, for my children to remain in good health, that’s all I ask. For my friends to be close to me and their families well. As for me – that I continue to experience good things and to keep doing what I love most – which is being in football and coaching to the highest level.