Olivier Dacourt was part of the Leeds United team that reached the Champions League semi-final in 2001 and also played for France, Roma, Inter Milan and several other teams during a long playing career. Now enjoying a role in the French media, we spoke to the former midfielder to get his views on a wide range of topics.
Do you keep an eye on Strasbourg? And what do you remember from your time there?
“I spent nine years there, I got all my education in Strasbourg. I arrived at 13 in Strasbourg and I left when I was going to be 23 years old, so obviously it’s the club that started my career. So yes, I look at all the results, I watch the matches as well.”
How do you think the team is different today compared to when you played for the club?
“Well, I only played in the first division for Strasbourg, so I have not known the second division. We played in the European Cup, so these are different times, we cannot compare. With Strasbourg we played AC Milan in the UEFA Cup, we played Inter Milan, we eliminated Liverpool and Glasgow Rangers, we won the League Cup, we made a French Cup final, so I can only say that it was a beautiful time at Strasbourg. ”
The Strasbourg team today, with the work of Thierry Laurey and Marc Keller etc, has nevertheless recovered well. What do you think?
“Ah yes, the most important thing this year is to stay in the first division. And after that, everything in its own time. If they manage to stay in the first division, they will have done very well because often when a team goes up, it goes down the year after. So I hope they will stay up, and especially that they will evolve in the coming years. Anyway, they will evolve in the first division. In that case, I would say, the bet will be won.”
And if you had to name a player who has distinguished himself in the team this season, who would it be?
“Ah, it’s the left midfielder. I like Liénard because he’s one of the players who knew the team at the bottom, who went up, who allowed the club to go up. We see that, even in the first division, he does not have too many difficulties. It shows that sometimes you need a little luck to make a career.”
France national team
Do you think the choice of starting XI is easy? Is it obvious? Obviously this question, that is on everyone’s lips right now, concerns the World Cup.
“Oh no, it’s going to be complicated, because in France we have a lot of talented players. We saw that during the last match; there was no Bakayoko, there was no Kanté, and we saw Tolisso who was extraordinary. There’s Rabiot, we thought that after Matuidi left Paris, it was going to be complicated, but we can see that he is performing well with Juve. There is Lemar in Monaco, there is Rabiot in Paris, there are plenty of choice in midfield. Up front, I won’t even talk about it…”
What do you think of the attacking positions in the French team? Who are your favourites?
“Well, talking about midfield and up front, we have Martial, there is Griezmann, there is Lacazette, there is Giroud, who else is there? There is Dembélé, if he gets back from injury, we have Coman, there are so many great players. There is Fekir, who is having a great season with Lyon, there is Mbappé in Paris, so there are many people up front. I would not want to be in the place of Didier Deschamps. At the same time it’s good, it’s extraordinary for us, but the choices will be complicated because there really is a lot of choice.”
In the League of Nations, France will play against the Netherlands and Germany. Do you have a prediction on the performance of France against these countries?
“I’d say let’s first see how they perform during the World Cup. That is the first step. After that, we will talk about this new competition. We will have learnt more then. It’s still far away. Germany is always difficult and Holland, they are rebuilding a team and do not participate in the World Cup, which for them is a setback. We can have a French team that has won the World Cup and is full of confidence, which will be promising, or, if it has been eliminated, it will be problematic.”
Talking about this new competition, what do you think of this format and the end of friendlies?
“It’s always a matter of preparation and for the players it is good because these are still big games. But for the moment, I do not know what to say. I do not know the set-up, and when we do not know, we must keep silent. We shall see.”
Do you see similarities between Ngolo Kanté and Makelele, in the sense that Makelele is a player who has created, in a way, his position, and in doing so, really brought his own way with him?
“Yes, he looks like him, except that Ngolo Kanté is Ngolo Kanté, he can project himself forward. Claude, at the beginning of his career, was an attacker but afterwards he was put in defence and he did not show himself too much, he did not score many goals. Kanté has this penetrating force, he can provoke, he can go forward and he is also good in the combination. Claude was really a sentinel, remained well in defence, while Ngolo Kanté likes to participate.”
On the present selection, do you think it was a difficult choice for Deschamps and is there still room for surprises?
“We are lucky to have very good young players who are with big clubs and who progress. So surprises, I do not think so, because we’ve already seen them all, even when players were absent. In the absence of Bakayoko and Kanté, Tolisso returned. He played strong matches with Bayern and he was good. Maybe on the sides but if not, knowing Didier Deschamps, we will see no big surprises. “
Let’s start with the rumours about a transfer of Neymar to Real Madrid. Have you heard any rumours that would suggest he will stay at PSG?
“I think they paid 220 million euros and I do not see Paris letting him go, even if he has his moods…and he himself has denied it. But for the league it’s huge. It’s extraordinary for Ligue 1 to have a player like Neymar because he’s the third best player in the world. It’s all about the show and Ligue 1 is finally watched everywhere. It’s an attraction!”
Talking about Neymar, and also Unaï Emery, are they really under pressure to win the Champions League?
“Ah yes, the coach is really expected to do this because we remember the debacle of last year. Unfortunately they play against Madrid, who are not competing in the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey, they really have nothing left to play for. So they have only the Champions League. It’s going to be a difficult match because it could be an advanced final. Paris played very well in the first round so inevitably, with the purchase of Neymar and Mbappé, we are waiting for them to make a difference. But is it enough to buy big players? Sometimes this does not make a team, so we’ll watch Paris with special interest.”
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Do you think it was an error on the part of Monaco to accept Mbappé’s transfer? Could he be worth more on the market this summer?
“Oh no! I think that selling Mbappé, after less than a year at the highest level, is extraordinary. We must congratulate the club. One sees that there is a strategy on the part of Monaco because they have paid more than 20 million for the young Italian prodigy Pietro Pellegri. Their policy is clearly to attract youngsters who have a potential out of the ordinary and after, they sell them for gold. And that Mbappé remained in France is a beautiful victory, I think. Because he was courted by all the biggest European clubs, and he still decided to stay in France, so that’s good, yes. ”
What do you think of the rumour about Antonio Conte replacing Unaï Emery?
“For the moment we’ll see how the Champions League is going. Conté has a contract, Emery has the same in Paris, and if Emery wins the Champions League, they’re not going to replace him. There’s always speculation, we could add our speculation, there is nothing against that. But, no.”
Youri Tielemans is regarded as the next world star. What do you think of his performances at Monaco?
“For the moment he still has trouble showing himself. He is a young player, he has some pressure, he replaces Bakayoko and he had some physical problems. One thing is certain, he has an undeniable talent but he needs time to adapt, it’s a new country for him, a new league. He will take a few more months to digest all that.”
What do you make of Thomas Lemar?
“Great! For his shooting especially. Since he’s from Guadeloupe, I’ve been watching him a long time. He has a lot of potential. He is in Monaco but he will go to a very big club.”
“Last year Fabinho had an exceptional season. He struggled a little to digest his false start and Monaco did not let him go because they know they need him. I believe that at Monaco, they are not mistaken about the players. They have got back good players, and even having lost four or five players last year, they are still in the top three of the championship of France, so it shows how much quality there is in this club. ”
Mario Balotelli: will he leave the league?
“Will he leave Ligue 1? I do not know. Anyway, he’s having a great season, his second with Nice. He was good last year and this year he’s even better. He broke his goal record: it shows that he has changed, and that he is on the right track. At one point talent is not enough, you have to work, and I think he has understood now that only his talent was not enough. He’s a great talent, Mario.”
Dimitri Payet is back in Marseille, how is he doing for the club?
“There has been a lot of waiting on Payet, a lot is expected from him. He has more than a little bit of trouble, but it’s complicated this year. He has exceptional qualities so I do not worry about him, he has the experience too and I think that, in good shape, he will be important for Marseille. He remains a player of high quality and Marseille need their captain if they want to recover their second place or qualify for the Champions League. They need a great Payet.”
Who do you think are the Ligue 1 players the big European clubs are watching today?
“We know them: Mbappé, very strong, so obviously everyone wanted him already. Neymar, Barcelona cannot get him back. Lemar is exceptional and being watched by massive clubs around Europe. I do not see PSG letting Rabiot go. He is good physically and super strong. Verratti, well, when they are in Paris, it’s complicated now, even for the big clubs. When they play for PSG, they are difficult to get. You’ll have to pay, otherwise PSG will not let them go. The thing is that sometimes you can be very good in a small club then, when you arrive at a big club, it goes less well. There is pressure, it takes character and it takes personality.”
At Leeds you were a very popular player. What are your memories of Leeds United?
“Exceptional! I was lucky enough to win things after my spell there, with Inter Milan, but I never found an atmosphere in the team like there was at Leeds. An atmosphere between the players, everyone was in unison!”
You reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 and Leeds have never returned to this level. Is that one of the most beautiful moments of your career? You alluded to what you did afterwards, but I hear that this was really a special time?
“Yes, because it was a young team. I was only 24 years old and the kids were 19-20 years old, but they had great promise, they did terrific things. At the time, we were unconcerned, we always went out together. This atmosphere in the team, I have never found that back.”
I imagine it is a very difficult question, but who was your favourite player at Leeds?
“The one I liked, because he was Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was Alan Smith. On the pitch he was a mad dog. He spread out, he pressed, I had never seen that from an attacker. For us midfielders, to have Alan Smith was extraordinary because he was doing such a job! Who else? Rio Ferdinand. There were a lot of talented players.”
Do you think that Rio Ferdinand was worth his price as the most expensive player in the world?
“Yes! Rio had a terrific talent; he could have played as a midfielder, he could do anything with the ball, and what’s more, he had personality. At one point, if you perform at big clubs like Manchester United, it’s not only talent, there’s also personality, there’s rigour, there’s work and I am not surprised that he made his career because those things you could already see.”
We remember your differences with Terry Venables. In hindsight, what would you say about it?
“I would thank him. After that, I went to Roma, I went to Inter Milan, I was Italian champion three times. Maybe he was a visionary. I can only thank him. What to say, after all these years and everything…it’s past. If I see him, I’ll greet him. Thanks to him, I’ve played at very big European clubs. It’s a choice, and as I often say, choosing is giving up so maybe he wanted other players. He felt I was not good enough for his team.”
Do you follow the Leeds team these days?
What do you think of their performances?
“They had their heyday, after that it was not so good, I think they must be eighth or ninth. I follow the clubs where I have played because they are part of my life. There is an extraordinary public potential in Yorkshire. And Leeds should be among the clubs that count in the Premier League. It’s a big club! Elland Road is really the 12th man.”
Is Manchester United’s decision to renew Jose Mourinho’s contract a good one, given the results?
“Yes! He remains a great coach, all the great coaches are engaged, and I do not see anyone on the market stronger than him in his place.”
Manchester City have spent a record fee of £57million to sign Aymeric Laporte. Are players really worth this astronomical sum?
“I do not think it means anything, it’s not him who sets the price of the transfer. From the moment Manchester City decides to buy Laporte – and he’s a good player – if Manchester City decides to pay that price, it’s because they weigh the pros and cons. It is to cover themselves. In big clubs, they need to have four or five players of very high quality.”
Manchester United are reported to be interested in Jean Michel Seri. Would he be a good signing for United?
“He almost went to Barcelona, but he did not leave. The problem with those quality players is that they are very good in major French clubs but now we are talking about big foreign clubs. Because of the competition in the big foreign clubs, it is necessary to see how they behave, personality is not enough. The point is not to go to the big club, it’s to play there. A good example is Bernardo Silva. Last year he had an extraordinary season with Monaco – at Manchester City he has more trouble. ”
Do you think Lucas Moura is going to integrate well at Tottenham?
“I do not know, there is competition also at Tottenham, and even in recent years, there is talent. I do not know if he speaks English, so there is all that to be taken into account. If it’s not there in the first six months, well, he signs for four and a half years, you have to give him time, it’s a new championship. When you’re not used to it, when you just arrive in the Premier League, the pace is high, it’s hot.”
Mo Salah is an example of a player who integrated well, did you expect it to be so easy?
“He was with Chelsea, where he was less good, he went back to Italy where he exploded, and now, see what a treat he is back in England!”
Tell us about your recent work on your documentary, where you have really shown something different, brought to light the personality of the players, but also how football can be a very difficult sport mentally. It revealed things.
“Yes, I think we have an image. The footballer is really the tip of the iceberg, there is everything he has done before to get there and often we hide it. We conceal all the concessions, all the sacrifices he makes. We do not realise work before and at the moment, it’s a concept of resilience. We often judge the player, but we do not know the man.”
Do you think there is a real need to educate young people who want to become professional footballers?
“You have to prepare them for failure. There are so many called and very few elected. So inevitably, you have to tell them that among you, three quarters will not succeed. Those who will succeed are those – because often they all have talent – who have the will, are ready to sacrifice. It is about being willing to make concessions. If you aspire to do this job, you must give yourself the best chance of succeeding.”
How did you pick those young players that you interviewed?
“There are some that I did not know and they had an image, they were tagged and I wanted to know how right that label was. And we are all human beings, their stories are the stories of men. That means we all have a little bit of a dark side, not just in football. We all have scars from life. We all lived, we all saw things as a child. And inevitably, it shapes the person we become.”
Do you have other projects?
“Yes, since it was a great success worldwide, we want to continue doing these things. We want to show that ‘OK, you have an opinion on football players, but look, listen to them, look at what they have lived, where they come from, and then you can judge them’. That’s what I wanted to show through this documentary. ”
What is your role ultimately? What should you bring to the world of football as a consultant and ex-professional?
“We have the right to criticise, but we criticise the performance of the day. We must never be disrespectful. We should bring some added value. Something the viewer will not know, cannot imagine. How is a dressing room, how is it at a big club, when there are moments of doubt. We all have our little problems. Take a guy who’s divorcing, for example. That is hard to manage for everyone, but for the footballer ‘the show must go on’. Your problems, you have to leave them in front of the training ground or in front of the stadium. You have to go and play and pick them up again later.”
Will there be other documentaries like the one you made earlier this year for Canal?
“I’m working on it right now so I really want to keep doing this. We can also go one step further, no more talk of football, we talk about men. I think that we all can recognise ourselves in the stories. The uncompromising father, the absence of the father, the sickness, the money, even if it’s not football, it’s about life.
“We do not realise it but you’re 13, 14 and you’re in the job market. You have friends but you are all competing because you know very well that you will not all succeed. It’s talent plus work equals success. Often there are players who have a lot of talent but at some point they do not work. So they cannot succeed. It does not last.”
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