x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Malouda's performances for country lost in translation

The midfielder has no doubts: He is in the best form of his career at Chelsea. However, he admits he struggles to replicate it for France.

Chelsea’s Florent Malouda, right, fends off a challenge from Arsenal’s Alex Song.
Chelsea’s Florent Malouda, right, fends off a challenge from Arsenal’s Alex Song.

Florent Malouda was a vital part in Chelsea's first league and cup double-winning side last season as he formed a free-scoring attacking triumvirate with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. Already this term, the 30-year-old Frenchman has scored six times as Chelsea have reasserted themselves at the top of the Premier League.

In between times, Malouda became embroiled in France's descent into self-destruction at the summer's World Cup, when the entire squad went on strike, refusing to train, in protest at Anelka being sent home from South Africa. France finished bottom of their group and came home to a national inquisition. 

In an interview with leading football magazine France Football, Malouda candidly answers questions about his career, the national team, and Chelsea. Here, we present extracts from a fascinating conversation.

The fact that you play in England, for Chelsea, a long way from France. Did that help you to forget the World Cup more easily? 

No. Chelsea didn't care what happened in South Africa. The club want me to be ready, to put my feelings aside, if not I'm not playing. This requirement is always the same, whether we succeeded or not at the World Cup. Even if I am affected, I must be strong. Contrary to popular belief, the French players who grew up abroad care about France. They are ambassadors, and it counts. During the episode of Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland [in a World Cup qualifying play-off match], it was not easy for us to be French in the Premier League. In South Africa, there should have been fireworks. But two months after celebrating twice with Chelsea, I had become a nobody.

How do you explain your fantastic form this season? 

It is a process, it is not something that happens overnight. I think I am in the best shape of my life - at the right time, at the right club. I also realised that my performances are noticed because I score more goals. Chelsea are English champions, but they fail to impose themselves at European level. Why? People are more severe about Chelsea, although it is a fairly young team at the European level. It was on the arrival of Roman Abramovich [in 2004] that the club set those ambitions, which haven't all been achieved. The club have not won the Champions League and you can see that as a disappointment. But the team have been more consistent in recent years: Every year we lose against the winners. We know that we have the potential to win the title. Especially since the final is played at Wembley [this season], a stadium where we succeed.

What do you think of the emergence of Chelsea's young players like Gael Kakuta, 19, or Josh McEachran, 17, who played against Marseille? 

The English season is very intense and young people can help us in terms of squad management. The coach and the club took the decision to give playing time to young players. Maybe that's going to improve the image of Chelsea. 

It seems that Didier Drogba, Chelsea's Ivory Coast striker, makes you better and vice versa. Where does this cohesion come from?

On the pitch and away from it, we have a lot in common. Our families know each other, our children are almost the same age, and we've gone through difficult times together - I think of Guingamp [the small French club where the pair played together between 2002 and 2003. The team is now in France's third division]. We learn more about people in difficulty than in the success. When Didier arrived in Guingamp, he replaced Fabrice Fiorese, who'd gone to PSG. He had to prove himself. At the time, he had the image of a joker, not that of a player who could go the distance in Ligue 1. We struggled to stay up [in Ligue 1, France's top division] and did it on the final day. That kind of ordeal strengthens you and brings you closer. On the field, we shared a lot. He can always comment on something that I could improve, and me the same. We have this humility toward one another.

Chelsea started very strongly. Did you prepare specifically for the beginning of the season? 

In England, there is no time to build up. The preparation is very intense, and I'm not sure, despite the results, that we started at the top-level physically. Our squad has not changed too much, which perhaps explains our good start. Do you regret not having longer to work with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea?

It is hard to know what would have happened if he had remained. Mourinho benefited from the work of [Claudio] Ranieri [his predecessor] and gave another dimension to the club. Since then there have been many changes of coach, but the group of players is still shaped by Mourinho. Players like [John] Terry and [Frank] Lampard tell a story. I did not know Mourinho for long, but I learned things. With him, you're under pressure. He pushes you to your limits. He is hard, but fair. All the players are behind him, that's what makes him strong.

And Carlo Ancelotti? He made me reach another level. He gives me responsibilities, and I think he likes me. I had frank discussions with him. That's what created this special relationship. Last year we had a tough week after going out of the Champions League. We lost against Manchester City, Manchester United were back in front us, everything could have tipped over, and we needed a leader, a guide, and that's what he was. At the moment when we were shaking, he said: "We are in the right, we will succeed in the end." We speak of Jose Mourinho, but it is the first season and Chelsea did the double. Ancelotti has made history.

Chelsea are owned by a Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, who led the transfer market for five years before putting away the chequebook. Is this not a good thing, now that Chelsea are relying on a homogeneous group? 

It's always better to have stability. For me, the club have taken the right direction. Roman Abramovich has invested heavily, not only in players. We have the very latest training facilities. The academy is the same. Chelsea will produce more and more youngsters while keeping players who he has invested in, like Didier, who has been here for six years.

Does Abramovich intervene a lot? 

He follows everything closely, he talks a lot to the players, but he is not very intrusive. He has the image of a slightly distant man, but when you know him a little, he is not. He had a small house near the training centre, now he is building a larger one. He knows everybody. The fans are grateful because he has always kept his promises and leaves the power with the coach. Then, if the coach does not meet the goals, he takes appropriate action, like everywhere else.

People say that English football is the most aggressive in Europe. Do you agree? 

Here, there is the culture of "the duel". This is also what gives English football its fluidity. People think that Bolton Wanderers or Blackburn Rovers are the most aggressive teams. That's not true, they are just more direct. And when you are up against a team like Arsenal, I can tell you, it is best to be ready to at least be able to compete physically.

To the World Cup. Critics say there was no relationship between the players and Raymond Domenech, the French coach... 

It was difficult. I hate to talk about people who are no longer here to defend themselves, it's not my style. Simply, I saw gaps, but I did not have the feeling of being listened to. However, if nobody takes responsibility, everybody sinks... That may be one explanation for the team's ultimate failure. It comes down to a choice for all, but the responsibility of the player stops at a certain time. In short, there was no possibility, during matches, to overcome all the bad feeling that transpired off the field.

What about the coach's methods?

In 2006, we had the same coach and went to the World Cup final. Yes, but that was a team with Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira. A team with or without Zidane, is not the same. But we cannot constantly live with the absence of Zizou in our minds. That's the biggest challenge of Laurent Blanc [France's new manager]: to rebuild a team with young and old players alike, because potential must be turned into performances on the field to be valid.

Against Uruguay in the first game of the World Cup, you refused to play defensive midfield and found yourself on the bench. 

I don't accept that criticism. It was a hard decision to accept, but I said nothing. I did not clash with the coach, as has been reported. Instead, I kept my composure and tried to defuse the controversy. I said that in a press conference. I did not fight with anyone, ask Raymond Domenech. For my honour and that of my family, it was important to restore the truth battered at a very tense time.

Does it not annoy you that you are often asked by coaches to sacrifice yourself for the good of the team?

The first one who asked me that was Joel Bats [the manager and a former France goalkeeper] in Chateauroux. It was he who started the left-back saga. I honestly prefer to have this adaptability. It has served me a lot. I think that's why most of my coaches appreciated me and I've never really depended on my performance in attack. Last year I played left-back in very important games, like against Inter. I score goals, but the coach came to me and said, "You must change your position". I felt no frustration. We talk about the beautiful game, all that, but Jose Mourinho, he asked his attackers to defend. This is the basis. I learned that at Guingamp with Guy Lacombe [the former coach]. At first, I did not understand, but you get the message with his words.

But with Domenech you were less willing to adapt your role, right?

In 2008 [at the European Championships], I got criticism for this and it hurt. It is the French team, so I did it [playing out of position]. But I told him he had betrayed me. From then on, our relationship was not the same. If Laurent Blanc tells me to play right-back, I'll play right-back. But if I am criticised because I did not mark my opponent properly, I will explain the coach asked me to play right-back. In 2008, the moral contract had not been respected. It hurts me when you say at the World Cup that I refuse to play defensive midfield. I can play defensive midfield, but in this case, we must say that to the press. If it is managed intelligently, there is no problem. I'll be happy and I'll put the No 4 or No 6 on my back.

And the strike?

It was a unanimous decision. In the end, we were so cut off from reality, it was a huge mistake. We didn't realise the impact it would have on France or our image abroad. The French Football Federation sanctioned four players: Anelka, Patrice Evra, Franck Ribery and Jeremy Toulalan. What do you think about that? When a group takes a collective decision, it's hard to see some of your teammates being punished. You feel ill at ease. Now, the interested parties have accepted it, although I love that after that Laurent Blanc had chosen to leave out the 23 of South Africa for the friendly match in Norway. There will always be many questions that remain unanswered but it will not prevent the French team from progressing. When the four return, I hope they will do so in a peaceful way and not to take revenge, but simply to make amends. Me, I'm lucky to be able to do it quickly.

How is you relationship with Nicolas Anelka? 

It is difficult to compare the club and France. Nicolas Anelka is a good person, not someone who opens up easily, but I appreciate that. On the pitch, it works almost as well with him as with Didier. We look for each other in the game, we have an understanding. There is much football talk together. The context of the French team is completely different. If you go back a few months, I was not playing for France and Nicolas not all the time. In February, I was fifth choice on the left. I am often asked: "Why don't you do the same for France?" But me, I wish I could translate what I do at club level to Les Bleus.

sports@thenational.ae