DUBAI // "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine," said Zinedine Zidane in 2003 after learning that Real Madrid's newest Galactico David Beckham would never appear alongside the Chelsea-bound Claude Makelele. Born in the Congo, Makelele's name in his native Swahili translates as "noise" and, in his first three seasons in London, he helped the Blues make plenty, winning back-to-back league titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup. The gold Bentley meanwhile, with Beckham but without an engine, failed to win a major trophy for three years.
Chelsea let Makelele leave for Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer in 2008 but the 36-year-old is confident his former club will not experience the same barren spell that befell Real. Far from it, in fact. "For me, Chelsea have a great chance to win the Champions League," said Makelele. "Manchester United, Inter Milan and Real want to win this competition, but I think the team with the best chance is Chelsea. I have lots of friends there and I think this can be the year they can finally do it."
The Blues have won the FA Cup since Makelele departed and have looked unbeatable for much of this season under the tutelage of new coach Carlo Ancelotti. But while the Italian has a formidable record in Europe's elite competition - he led AC Milan to three Champions League finals in five years - Makelele says it will be the players rather than the coach who will propel them to victory. "For Ancelotti, it is a new team, whereas at Milan he had a chance to build his own side. But he has inherited a lot of good players and the club have wanted this trophy more than anything for two or three years now," says the man widely regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
"For me, the Champions League is the biggest trophy after the World Cup and I know a lot of the players want to win it: guys like Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba. They have never won it." Makelele was looked over by France coach Aime Jacquet for the country's successful 1998 World Cup campaign on home soil. Yet, eight years later, when Les Bleus progressed to the final again in Germany, the tough-tackling midfielder - who was coaxed out of international retirement only months earlier - was a vital cog. And while Raymond Domenech's side may have been beaten by Italy in Berlin, Makelele will use such experiences to motivate and inspire future generations of Frenchmen.
In Dubai to promote PSG's sponsorship deal with Emirates Airline, he says there is a renaissance beginning with French clubs doing well in Europe. "My objective is to give all my experience to my teammates and the young players at PSG," said the Paris side's captain. "I have done a lot in my career: I have won a lot of trophies, played in three different countries and played for some of the best teams in the world, but sometimes I think you have to think about the young players and give something back to your country.
"I started my career at Nantes and it was France that gave me the opportunity to do everything that I have done. Playing for Paris Saint-Germain is my way to give back to France, by passing on my experience. This is my way to repay them." Ligue One sides Bordeaux, Marseilles and Lyon have all performed admirably in this year's Champions League. Makelele says that while England and Spain are stronger, the French are catching up.
"When I started playing in France, it was the best and I learned my trade there. Then I moved to Spain where I got a great education and then to England, which I believe is the best league in the world. But you can see now that the French teams are getting stronger - all the French teams are now fighting with the big clubs in the Champions League. They know how to win in Europe." PSG narrowly missed out on European football last season after finishing sixth behind Lille; one solitary goal separating the two teams. For now Makelele continues to dominate the midfield at Parc de Princes and hopes to help take PSG back into Europe.
So long as the engine is purring, he will continue to play, he says. But after that, who knows? "Paris Saint-Germain are one of the best teams in France. Four years ago they were down in the middle of the table, but now they are good again. I need to finish my career first, then I will sit with the PSG president and see what he wants to do with me. But for now I am just concentrating on my football."