CHRISTIAN Karembeu was a trailblazer of sorts A man who left his home in the South Pacific island of New Caledonia at the age of 17 to pursue a career as a professional footballer, he became part of the France national team that won the 1998 FIFA World Cup on home soil.
In a career in which he relentlessly pursued his goals, he also lifted the European Championship in 2000 whilst also twice winning the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid and at one point in his career he had all three titles at the same time.
Now, as he travels the world on the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour, he wants to inspire others with his unique journey to the top. Especially when he’s going to countries that have a minor presence on the global football map. Countries like Pakistan, where the World Cup Trophy is going for the first time this year and where the game has been stuck in a quagmire for the last several years.
“[Winning the World Cup] seemed like a culmination of a long journey,” Karembeu told Dawn in an interview arranged by Trophy Tour sponsors Coca Cola on the flight to Lahore from Chiang Mai in Thailand. “Also because I moved to France from my island at a young age to become a professional footballer and eventually got into the France team before winning the World Cup. It showed anyone could achieve that. It is amazing to talk about it and tell that if you can add all the tools and challenge yourself, you can achieve all the goals you’ve set for yourself.
“This year, the World Cup Trophy Tour is going to 24 new cities and it’s always pleasing to go to new places because there so much excitement is generated and there are so many stories of football and achievements of winners.”
Karembeu’s greatest achievement came at the Stade de France on 12 July 1998 when a France squad that was lauded for its multiculturalism thrashed Brazil 3-0 in the final. Apart from Karembeu, it had Lilian Thuram — born in Guadaloupe — and Marcel Desailly — born in Ghana. There was also Youri Djorkaeff, who had Polish-Armenian roots, and one Zinedine Zidane who had Algerian ancestry.
“There were egos but we all became united since the World Cup was at home,” remembered the 47-year-old. “We had been criticised prior to the World Cup because we had been drawing too many games but we knew our assets and that brought us together. The fans too were a unifying factor. I felt that after the quarter-final [victory against Italy], the whole country was pushing us forward. It also added pressure but it was a great feeling.”
Having played just one game in the group stages, Karembeu was a regular starter on the right side of the French midfield from the quarter-finals onwards. He put a solid hour against Italy before playing the opening half hour against Croatia in the semi-finals. In the final he, along with Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit stifled the Brazilians into submission. By the time he was substituted by Alain Boghossian in the 57th minute, France were already leading 2-0 courtesy two superb Zidane headers.
“It had required a great commitment to reach at the summit and we needed to conquer it by winning the final,” Karembeu said. “We were leading 2-0 at half-time but we knew it wasn’t finished yet. [France coach] Mr. Aime Jacquet told us to be careful in order to delay that result and play as if it was still 0-0. Then I got a yellow card and the coach said might be dangerous and so I was substituted.
“It’s normal,” added the dread-locked Karembeu. “When we talk about FIFA competitions, we need to think as a collective unit. That’s how we challenge ourselves to win it.”
Working as a unit, Karembeu, Deschamps and Petit also had to work together to bring the best out Zidane, the undisputed star of the tournament and France’s creative force.
“We all knew our roles and in midfield we tried our best to support him and provide him all the service,” Karembeu recalled. “We knew the more we give the more he would give. Overall also, we had the best defenders, best midfielders and the best coach. Most importantly, we also didn’t concede many goals.”
DESCHAMPS’ SELECTION HEADACHE
Looking ahead to this year’s FIFA World Cup, Karembeu believes the current Les Bleus are well-equipped to emulate the feats of the class of ’98. In particular, he points out to the mercurial talents of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba as crucial to their chances in Russia. But he also warns that head coach, his former midfield partner Deschamps, faces a tough choice in finalising the 23-man squad for the tournament.
“Didier has built a competitive squad and knowing him, his main goal is to win the tournament,” Karembeu informed. “He would’ve really worked hard on identifying what went wrong at the final of the 2016 UEFA European Championship and correcting that over the last two years.”
That final loss to Portugal denied France a chance of winning another major tournament on home soil. And for Karembeu that defeat would still rankle the players and motivate them to go one step further at the World Cup.
“After the last World Cup and the Euros, the team is now more mature,” he said. “Some of the players have already had four solid seasons in elite teams and are therefore rich in experience. Also there is such great depth in talent that Didier will have a selection headache when he finalises the squad. But I think the players are ripe to deliver in Russia. I believe France are ready to win the competition.”
It’s difficult still for him to find parallels in the current team with the class of ’98 though. He attributes it to the way the game has changed in recent years — the tactical shift that the beautiful game has undergone in over a decade since he hung up his boots.
“The game has changed a lot, there is even Video Assistant Referee (VAR) now,” Karembeu said. “In the current French team so many players can play in so many different roles. Players like Pogba, Griezmann and Mbappe and even [Blaise] Matuidi. They can play wide, through the centre and up front. Even the goalkeeper’s role has changed. In our times, there were fixed roles. The new way of playing football is riskier than ours was but they deliver and this new generation fit for television.”
Among the proponents of this new generation of football is Mbappe. Having burst onto the scene last season at AS Monaco, the 18-year-old Mbappe has been a revelation and having earned a big money move to French giants Paris St Germain in the summer, he’s going from strength to strength.
“He’s already shown his world class ability, playing in the Champions League and for the national team,” Karembeu said. “At Paris St Germain he is playing like Neymar’s twin. He’s also getting to play with [Edinson] Cavani while previously at Monaco he had the opportunity to play with [Radamel] Falcao. It’s good that he’s observing the best to be the best. And at the moment, he’s the best French player there is.”
Having last year urged Real president Fiorentino Perez to sign Mbappe, Karembeu’s happy that his compatriot stayed in France and along with Neymar and Cavani has become the emblem of PSG — a club that is going global with the amount of money they are spending in trying to become Europe’s best. A proof of PSG’s ambition came when they splashed world record 224 million euros to sign Neymar from Barcelona last summer.
“Today, PSG are inspiring all of Ligue 1 by bringing in so many stars,” he said. “The television rights contract has improved and the attractiveness has increased. PSG is going global and Ligue 1 has a global appeal because of the stars playing in it. You need to thank them for their commitment to spend at a time when the French economy isn’t that great. You can see other teams trying to follow suit.”
PSG play Karembeu’s former club Real in a Champions League round-of-16 cracker with the first leg next week. While PSG have been flying high in Ligue 1, Real have been inconsistent in La Liga and are 19 points behind leaders Barcelona. But Karembeu has faith in his former France team-mate and current Real manager Zidane to turn things around, especially in the Champions League.
“What crisis are they in?” he asked. “Real are fourth in La Liga table, still in the Champions League and are the reigning world champions. It’s normal that people want to ratchet up the pressure but Zizou has been trying to rotate the players because of injuries and suspensions and that hasn’t helped in the consistency.”
Karembeu reckons the PSG tie could provide the turnaround Real are looking for.
“It’s just two matches [against PSG] and if they win no one will say Real are struggling,” he suggested. “When Zidane took over as coach [in January 2016], we were struggling but he took us to the Champions League title. With his experience, talent and management skills he just fit the group altogether to deliver the best. The players responded and Real won the La Liga and became the only club to defend the Champions League title last season. Knowing Zidane, I know he’s will go for another one and an unprecedented Champions League hat-trick.”