Exclusive | Emmanuel Petit: “It’s our generation that built the foundations for what Arsenal became.”

As Arsenal sit at the top of the table under the management of former midfielder Mikel Arteta, Get French Football News caught up with another former Gunner midfielder, Emmanuel Petit, to talk about Arsenal’s past and present and about his most famous goal.

How did it feel to score in a World Cup final?

It’s funny that you’re asking that now as tonight (4th December) we are having our traditional meal for all of the France ’98 squad in Paris – since we won the World Cup and the Euros we meet up at least twice a year. So how did I feel scoring a goal in the World Cup final?

In my own country and with all my family in the stands? The only emotion that I can compare it to on the same level is the days that my daughters were born. When I became a father. I’ve rarely felt such strong, such intense feelings, such an unbelievable feeling of being alive, in day-to-day life, compared to the goal that I scored in the final. It’s an explosion of emotion in the head, you have the feeling that time stands still. At that moment I wasn’t thinking about it entering into posterity, about the impact that it would have. I know that it’s the World Cup final, I know the importance of it – but when I scored the goal it was like I blacked out. I don’t really have a visual or audio memory of it. But I remember that I thought immediately of my family, of my late brother – everything went so quickly through my head. But to answer your question, in terms of emotions the only time that I’ve felt such strong emotions in everyday life is when my daughters were born – I have three daughters and for each birth, I had the feeling of having done something of worth, something good.

We didn’t change people’s lives – we’re not politicians, we’re not scientists. We brought happiness and pride but as footballers, in terms of impact, it stops there. It’s limited. We can’t change people’s lives in social or economic terms, we can’t cure illnesses. Politicians and scientists have a real impact on people’s lives, we’re there to give them a bit of distraction, a bit of comfort.

Although at the time, with “Blanc-Black-Beur” there was a feeling that you were doing something to affect politics and the view of some minorities.

But it didn’t work though. When you look at the situation in France and around the world… I’m all for emphasising the importance of football in different aspects but as far as I’m concerned – it’s just my opinion – football and the impact of the players stops at a certain point.

1998 was the apotheosis for you with the World Cup following on from the Double with Arsenal. It feels like Arsenal are now poised to hit those heights again. What are your thoughts on the current team and do you think that any of the current team could have had a place in your team?

I am full of admiration for, and very happy with, the work of Arteta and of Arsenal’s Board – of their work on the pitch but also off it. I am very happy with the team’s style of play, which has reconnected to the club’s identity – lots of movement, passes between the lines, overlaps, looking to destabilise the opposition with the speed of movement and of thought. So I’m very, very happy with the style of play of Arsenal, even if I think there is still a lot of room for improvement, collectively and individually. And I’m very happy with Arteta. But I’m not going to compare them with our team – in 1998 it was a different kind of football – even though we played it very well! It was a different style of management too.

But I’ll compare them with us on the day that they start winning trophies like us. One can make all types of comparisons but at the end of the day what differentiates teams is their ability to win titles at the highest level. Arsenal are going in the right direction – I remember when Arteta first arrived it was very complicated for him, both on the pitch and in his management with certain players. He began to take very important decisions, particularly with Aubameyang but with others too. But what really pleased me was the vision that he had on the pitch, how he wanted to see his team play.

Many people say it’s a copy-paste of Guardiola’s Manchester City – well listen, guys, why are you complaining? If you do the same things as Pep Guardiola maybe you’ll get the same results! It’s not easy to say you’re going to copy Guardiola! You know a few years ago, at my time and after that at the time of the Invincibles, Arsenal were often seen as the mini-Barca. If today Arsenal are seen as the mini-City, that suits me perfectly and right now Arsenal are probably the toughest opponent that City has to face in the Premier League – and God knows if there are lots of big teams in the Premier League! I’m also very, very happy with the work between the staff and also the Board, with Edu among others, on the vision, the transfer market, the profile of players they’re going for in relation to what Arteta wants to do tactically on the pitch and how he wants his players to play.

For several years Arsenal made mistakes in the transfer market, spending crazy money on players who didn’t correspond at all to the DNA of the club or to what the coach wanted to do. Now I have the impression – actually not an impression but the conviction – that for two or three years now the club has been gradually rising again to become a major force in the Premier League and will become a major force on the European scene again too. So congratulations to everyone – to the players, to Arteta and to the Board – especially to the Board for giving Arteta the time to put his ideas and his convictions in place, because in certain clubs I don’t think Arteta would have lasted more than 18 months.

You mentioned the Invincibles, which brings me to a question likely on the lips of many Gunners’ fans – do you regret leaving Arsenal when you did?

Regrets? Yes, of course. But there you go, I spent three exceptional years with Arsenal, we won titles, it was the beginning of the Wenger era, the beginning of a new Arsenal – I remember when I joined the club, people often said of Arsenal that it was “kick and rush”, “long balls and win the second balls” – the ball spent more time in the air than on the pitch – “one-nil to the Arsenal”. And with Arsene Wenger and the arrival of lots of foreign players, we started putting our foot on the ball, playing with the ball on the ground. And we started to play brilliant football and that’s when we started winning trophies. So I am very proud, with Arsene and with my teammates, to have been there at the start of that new Arsenal. We placed the first building blocks – in fact, Arsene Wenger said it very well in a recent Canal+ feature on Arsenal – that it’s our generation that built the foundations for what Arsenal subsequently became.

I’d suggest not just Arsenal but the whole of the Premier League, in terms of changing players’ diets, lifestyles…

Exactly. So we’re very proud of all that, and I’m very proud of the Gunners today. And of all that is good about Arsenal and the club today, there is one thing in particular that I really like, that I admire a lot because it really speaks to me. It’s the friendship that exists between the players. There’s a real friendship that you can feel, that you can see on the pitch, you can see in their behaviour. The other day when Ramsdale played, at the end of the match all the players ran over to see him, to put their arms around him, to console him, because it must be very hard for him to be in his situation. The same thing with Kai Havertz when he scored his goal last weekend. You see it when a player has had a bad game – they’re immediately comforted by teammates.

There’s no guy there with a bad mentality, it’s a squad that gets on very, very well on a human level, and you can feel it – that not only do they take pleasure in playing together but also in experiencing these moments together, which for me is very important. There are egos but there isn’t too much ego. It’s always the team that takes precedence, that is the priority – it is not the individual that takes over. And for me you have Mikel Arteta to thank, for his management – which was tough, but he put in place rules in the changing room and on the pitch.

And the players are intelligent enough and have enough quality to have made Arsenal a major force in the Premier League again. And again, in modern football where everything happens so quickly and after five bad results, we change coaches – not just in England but in other leagues too – in France we’re seeing the same thing with Lyon, where you get the impression they’re going to change coaches every two months. Fine – but in modern football, which is crazy, which goes at 100,000kmph, it’s not surprising to see clubs succeed when they have a real strategy in place.

But really, it’s a pleasure, a source of pride, to watch these Gunners play, in their behaviour, in their style of play, but also in their attitude – I have a lot of affection for people in this team – I think that I would have got on well with a lot of the players, on the pitch and off it.

Emmanuel Petit was speaking on behalf of King Casino Bonus.

GFFN | Jeremy Smith

More European Football News