x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Searing pain was like an electric shock, recalls Louis Saha

The France and Tottenham striker talks exclusively to Andy Mitten about the advice, life lessons and injuries that shaped his career.

Louis Saha says he does look back in frustration on his career but has made peace with it.
Louis Saha says he does look back in frustration on his career but has made peace with it.

The irony is not lost on Louis Saha as he notes that saha, in Arabic, means "health".

The France and Tottenham Hotspur striker has seen his career blighted by injury. In four-and-a-half seasons at Manchester United he averaged just 16 games per campaign. In 2007/08, his last season at Old Trafford, he was available for only 17 of the club's 38 league games.

"I am injury prone, yet each time I come back fighting stronger," Saha says with a smile in a London hotel against the backdrop of glass towers and grey skies of Canary Wharf.

"It is a miracle. Life, like sport, is not without contradictions."

Saha, 33, has seen enough of life and football to be familiar with its slings and arrows. His career has seen success at the highest level with the trappings to show for it, yet he has suffered considerable heartache and missed out on the two biggest games in football.

"The 2006 World Cup final and the 2008 Champions League final," he says, shaking his head.

"I received a yellow card in the quarter-final against Brazil and another in the semi-final against Portugal. I realised that I was banned from the World Cup final. I was frustrated, disappointed, shamed and angry at the same time while still on the pitch."

He recalls that teammate Lillian Thuram "yelled angrily" after an awkward tackle on Luis Figo. "But my ears had disconnected," he says. "All I could see was a hazy silhouette and a wildly contorted mouth. The message did not get through."

Saha had to continue playing know he would miss the final.

"Twelve thousand volts had hit me with that second yellow card, but I could not lose face," he says.

The final whistle saw his French teammates celebrate, but Saha could not.

"I was overwhelmed with disappointment, which played havoc with my usually calm, controlled temperament," he remembers.

"I slumped into a depression for days. I was meant to be on holiday but it was hard to smile, especially when France lost the final. I finally snapped out of it 72 hours after the final when I became a father for the second time."

The birth of his son, Enzo, gave him a sense of perspective.

"He was my trophy," Saha says.

Zinedine Zidane, the French midfield technician, was sent off in the final for butting Marco Materazzi, providing an inglorious end to a glorious career. His retrospective advice has helped Saha.

"Accept discipline and rules because they are a fact of life on the pitch," Zidane said. "Otherwise, you'll find yourself losing out because the system is so powerful, and you'd be wasting your time."

Sir Alex Ferguson told Saha not to change his approach.

"Do not hide on the pitch," said the United manager. "And have confidence in your teammates. Having confidence boosts your own confidence."

Saha is one of the more articulate and intelligent footballers. His new autobiography, Thinking Inside The Box, started as a series of letters to his younger brother who aspired to be a footballer.

Saha was living in Manchester and playing for United. His brother was still in Paris, close to the notorious suburbs where Louis had been raised. His money from football had allowed him to buy his parents a new family home, outside the roughest parts of the area.

"My brother and I are 12 years apart," Saha says. "He was 16 and he would not listen to me, so I started to write to him. I wanted to write him a guide about how to be a footballer.

"I wanted to show him that football educated me and made me grow up and that it could do the same for him. But I wanted to show him that it was not about the F50 boots, the bling, glory, fast cars and girls.

"Football spoiled me with gifts, money and rewards. It fed me, clothed me, gave me shelter and made me feel beautiful. I appreciated being able to live a privileged life which is very different from my upbringing but I wanted to show him that these things can disconnect you from real life."

Saha always drew on the words of his father, Vincent, who told him: "Choose the people around you wisely because your strength at critical moments partly lies with them. If they are honest and thoughtful, they will never guide you towards bankruptcy.

"Always remember that a career goes very fast, so if you are lucky enough to be paid a good salary, don't forget that it can stop from one day to the next."

Saha's career has followed a circuitous route. He started at the famed Clairefontaine academy near Paris and moved to Metz before crossing the English Channel to play for Newcastle United, Fulham, Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham.

On form Saha is virtually unplayable, marrying lightning speed, a gifted left foot and a well-honed technique with a keen eye for goal.

In four years at United he scored 42 goals in just 76 starts after signing from Fulham for a £12.8 million (Dh75,709m) fee in 2004. But his body felt the strain.

"Nobody wishes to be injured," he says. "I felt that I was letting people down, but if I was injured I could not play.

"Of course, I could have achieved more with United, but then I would not be the person that I am now. Of course, I look back with frustration, but what could I do?"

It was an injury which kept him out of the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea in Moscow.

"Moscow was my highlight as a United player and also my lowest moment," he says.

"I got injured the week before the game. I felt a searing pain at the top of my calf like an electric shock. I tried to hide the injury but it was too serious. It was my dream to play in the game, yet I was having to relive the nightmare of July 2006.

"My personal anguish was immense, but then United won the Champions League, a great moment for a great team."

His family are still based in Manchester but a six-month deal to join Tottenham on a free transfer means that home is currently a hotel room in London.

The game against Fulham tomorrow is likely to be his last game for Spurs.

"I've enjoyed it here," he says. "I'm nearly 34 and not scoring as much as I did, but I really enjoy football because I accept there will always be lows as well as highs. I didn't do that when I was younger."

It also meant being reunited with Emmanuel Adebayor.

"We were both at Metz, in different age groups," he says. "He's a really special guy, always smiling and amazing to work with. He told me that he used to admire me. Now it's my turn to admire him."

Saha enjoyed a dream start to life at Spurs, scoring twice against his former club Newcastle, but Tottenham's form dipped badly in March and April, coinciding with manager Harry Redknapp being involved in a court case and being linked with the England manager's job.

Saha ascribes the loss of form "to bad luck, nothing more". He adds: "I saw no change in the manager, but then I'd only just arrived. We had goals which crossed the line and weren't given.

"We played really well against Manchester United and yet lost 3-1. When things start to go against you the mood changes, your confidence falls. We started to lose or draw games we should have won.

"We've won some games recently, though, and we are fourth which will be good enough for the Champions League" - provided Chelsea do not win the Champions League.

His sixth appearance for Spurs came on that fateful day in March when Fabrice Muamba collapsed following a cardiac arrest.

"We were all focused on the action, then I turned around and saw him lying still on the ground," Saha said. "My mind flashed back to the image of Marc-Vivien Foe", who died playing for Cameroon against Colombia in Lyon.

"It was a shocking scene that made me feel powerless and it was intensified by the silence in the stadium followed by the Bolton fans chanting 'Fabrice Muamba'.

"Thanks to be God that a cardiologist happened to be sitting in the front of the stand. They way he took control infused us with confidence and helped us to keep calm."

Muamba's remarkable recovery captured the imagination of the sporting world and ensured Bolton Wanderers were not mourning the death of a midfielder for the second time in four months, after Gary Speed's death.

"His suicide was shocking," Saha says. "I found it hard to accept the death of such a well-respected, nice guy. He helped me when I was a kid at Newcastle. I was bullied with 'welcome to England' tackles in my first games.

"A split second later, I saw Gary Speed flying in with a massive tackle which was a warning to the opponent. Like he was saying, 'Don't touch the kid!'"

And what of Saha's kid brother?

"The advice paid off," Saha says. "He's 21 and in the third division in Italy. He's realising his dream of being a footballer and it is a dream, this wonderful job I've had."

sports@thenational.ae

Thinking Inside The Box – Reflections On Life As A Premier League Footballer by Louis Saha, is out now, published by VSP (£14.99).
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