Speaking in an interview with L’Équipe, Arsenal central defender William Saliba rued the fact that he will not playing alongside his St Étienne colleagues in the Coupe de France final on Friday.
Why are you going to be at the Stade de France on Friday night?
I couldn’t miss this. As I am not able to play, I want to at least feel this final as much as possible, by supporting my team in the stadium. In front of the TV, it would not be the same. It was important for me to be there, hoping to see Les Verts win. It will also allow me to say goodbye to my teammates properly. Because I left like I was a robber.
Because you thought right until the end that you would be able to play in this match?
Yes. It would have been my first final, my second year as a professional. Of course I hope to play other finals, but you are never sure of anything. On top of that, it would have been my last match with the club that formed me. I hoped, hoped. Truly. Even when it became impossible. The two clubs did everything for me to play. But they did not reach an agreement. I was very disappointed.
Do you feel the same way as last year, when you could not play in the Coupe Gambardella final?
I don’t have the same feeling. Honestly, I preferred to play with the 1st team. We had the aim of qualifying for the Europa League, matches were becoming important and I wanted to play them all. Now, this is a Coupe de France final, at the Stade de France, at my hometown, against PSG. There would not have been a better way to leave. It would have been a climax, after a very difficult year. Our very good semi-final against Rennes (2-1, 5th March) allowed us to put our heads above water. Aside from that, there was COVID-19 and nobody could imagine that football would not return in France.
As a Bondy native, which team will you be supporting?
St Étienne, 3000%. When you wear the Les Verts shirt, you become a supporter naturally. From the U16s, you start to love the derbies and hate Lyon. Even when you come to Paris. I was not born when Les Verts were exceptionally good. I was not yet a supporter, but I liked St Étienne. The badge, the story, all that speaks to me.
Did the club meet your expectations when you joined?
Yes, I made the right decision. St Étienne is more than a club. It is a big family. The fans have been supporting me since I was very young. As the town is small (172,000 inhabitants), we all kind of know each other. You are renowned. The youth academy, it is truly of the highest level. My coach, Jean-Philippe Primard, who was a central defender (for St Étienne between 1980 & 1996), taught me a lot in my first year. When the club suggested that I sign a professional contract just like that, which was my aim, things were a bit uneasy (in the 1st team), with the departure of Oscar Garcia (manager between June & November 2017), coach Sablé (who replaced Garcia as manager, lasting for just 6 matches) and coach Gasset (who was made manager until May 2019).
The club was in the process of trying to avoid relegation and couldn’t give youngsters a chance. I was calm, believed in my qualities as well as knowing where I needed to improve, but I wanted to play as a professional early. I could have already moved abroad. The club was firm: “You will not leave.” When I saw that coach Gasset, a superb manager, was taking over the team, I stopped hesitating. Thankfully I stayed. My third year at St Étienne was the best because I tasted professional football.
The best, despite the difficult start?
At the beginning, I was just due to train on a daily basis with the pros. I said to myself that were I to play three or four matches in the season, that would already be good. But coach Gasset put absolute faith in me from the first day, even after matches where I was too weak, notably giving away penalties. It was hard for me. I thought: “He is never going to put me back in.” But the following day, he came to speak to me. “You are great, I don’t want to set you back.” Coach Gasset always believed in me. He never put me to one side and managed me perfectly. I will never forget that.
How was your first match in Le Chaudron, against Rennes (1-1, 21st October 2018)?
Well, well, well! After having replaced (Neven) Subotic at the break, I didn’t even want to receive a pass! You nearly crap yourself because you are under so much pressure. At the beginning, I only wanted to play away from home. I was scared of “Geoffroy” (the home stadium). But after, all I wanted to do was play at “Geoffroy.”
To the point of staying another year on loan with Les Verts?
After a good first season with 19 matches (in all competitions), I need to confirm my potential. I was not yet ready to go to Arsenal. But I was unlucky, because I endured a year of injuries (groin and 5th metatarsal). It was truly difficult, when I was not able to play very important matches, notably in Europa League. At least, it forged me mentally and showed what I could face in the future.
Are you hoping to experience the same atmosphere at Arsenal?
I fell for Arsenal from the start. A number of French players have been there. Arsenal has not been at the top of its game for the last three, four years. But, like St Étienne, its badge, its history and its fans made me want it. I have a crush on Arsenal. What it gives off speaks to me. I had no hesitation. I am discovering another world.
Will we see you in France again?
I have always had football in me. People warned me that I had very little chance of becoming professional, but I never had a Plan B or Plan C. I stayed focused on my dream. Either you go all out for it, or you fail. Now that I have achieved my dream of becoming a professional footballer, I want to do what Raphaël Varane has done, the best French defender: continue to go to the next level, play for the French national team and win all titles possible. That is also why I am disappointed to not be playing this final. As I hope to attend a match with a crazy scenario and witness a 2-1 victory for St Étienne.