"It seems like I am interviewing you, isn't it," says Graeme Le Saux after another question on Indian football. Having played a charity match with Bhaichung Bhutia in Lisbon in 2009, Le Saux does know that Indians play as he does about Baisakhi because his daughter goes to a school which has students of Indian origin.
Here for a seminar organised by the International Football Arena, this was as good a time as any for Le Saux to absorb what he could on football and India. That was one reason why the interview overshot its time slot. The other was that the ex-Chelsea and England left-back loves to explain.
Is it a coincidence that you come from Gerald Durrell country and pursued a degree in environmental studies?
When I was 16, I worked part-time in Gerald Durrell’s zoo and enjoyed it. He’s part of the reason why I am an ambassador for the World Wide Fund. Studying environmental science in the 80s was a bit like being a vegetarian.
But when you grow up in a place like Jersey, you are in touch with the environment all the time. A French oil tanker ran aground for sometime I couldn’t have any seafood. The environment had that kind of direct impact on me. I couldn’t finish the degree because playing for Chelsea left me with no time.
A top-level English footballer who’s also been to university made you stand out, didn’t it?
Actually, it made me a bit queer in the eyes of my teammates. I wasn’t interested in betting on horses and drinking heavily. When I moved to London, I wanted to explore the museums and art galleries and, in a roundabout way, that led to my commitment being questioned.
It was tough initially to not let that affect your confidence.
Have you been able to live down being jeered at for being gay for most of your playing life?
That seriously damaged my confidence. The crowds booed you and teammates were a always little circumspect. And the worst part was that it wasn’t true.
I was told that it was like racism that black players faced in England earlier but those players could turn around and say ‘well, I am black, so what’s your problem.’ It wasn’t the same with me.
Given that you have been labelled a thinking man’s footballer, why didn’t you take up coaching?
A part of me loved the idea of building a team and motivating people. But given the time I played and the amount of time it took me away from my family, I wasn’t prepared to give myself back to football as much as I would have then needed to become a manager.
My mom died when she was 41 and it got me thinking if I too don’t have long to live, I shouldn’t take any more time away from my family. I had done my selfish part by playing football.
Also, I had developed lovely interests outside football (like photography) and wanted to develop them. It would be different if the opportunity came now.
Would you say Carlo Ancelotti was prematurely sacked?
By the club’s standards, it was felt that finishing second (in EPL) wasn’t good enough. It is always disappointing to have a coach go after a difficult season especially when he’s had a fantastic first season (2009-10) but the owner’s got specific targets and they need to be met.
So Guus Hiddink it will be?
Well, he already has a relationship with the players so that would help.
Is the Champions League a bridge too far for Chelsea?
It’s not. In 2008 we came really close and it shows how thin the margin is between success and failure in the Champions League, World Cup and the European championship. As an ambassador for UEFA, I have held the trophy and I seriously feel that Chelsea’s name should be there.
You just have to keep doing the right things and hope to get there once.
Does Barcelona giving Manchester United a hiding show the Spanish league to be superior to the English Premier League (EPL)?
Barcelona are like the Roger Federer of old. It would be unfair to judge the league by their standards.
It will never happen but it would be interesting to see Barcelona year-round in the almost frenetic tempo of EPL where referees don’t clamp down on physicality as much as they do in Europe.
Barcelona and the Spanish national team share the same philosophy and it stems from confidence in their belief and abilities. After Spain lost the World Cup opener, every player said they would continue playing the same way. There was no panic.
Imagine if England had lost their opener!
(Lionel) Messi’s inability to replicate his club form for his country highlights not the failure of Argentina but the success of Barcelona.
Will Blackburn Rovers stay the only club outside the big four (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) to win the EPL?
Yes, though Manchester City could do it. We were a small club and a number of players including myself didn’t cost a lot. It was more a process of judicious selection, the presence of Kenny Dalglish as coach, the whole chemistry. You would walk over hot coals for such a coach.
Injuries blighted your career but do you think you were good enough for the 2002 World Cup?
I think I lost at least 15 international caps due to injury but I was disappointed Sven Goran Eriksson never gave me a chance to show him my ability before Ashley Cole came along. I felt it was unfair.
Having said that, I am honoured to have played 36 times for England. One would have been enough.
Talk us through the night at St Etienne in the World Cup pre-quarter final against Argentina?
My wife’s Argentine so that gave the game an interesting twist. It was an awesome occasion given the rivalry between England and Argentina on and off the pitch. We went in feeling confident; we played with much more freedom and belief and had that youthful quality in players like Michael Owen and David Beckham.
It was a pity that Beckham got sent off but even then we took them to extra-time and had a perfectly genuine goal (by Sol Campbell) disallowed. It was only when it came to the penalties that we lost self-belief.
Chelsea’s been involved with the Asian Football Confederation for long but we don’t see any Asian players at Stamford Bridge. Also, why is it that despite the number of Asian footballers increasing in Europe after the last World Cup, Park Ji-sung seems to be the only regular in EPL?
It’s a long complicated scenario and part of the problem is that a lot of challenges must be overcome for football’s development in Asia. In my time, I also found that there was no real relationship between Britons of Asian origin and football. It seemed they would work for an outcome and working hard at school more than football would provide them that.
There weren’t any big efforts to bridge that.
At Chelsea now, we have a ‘Find an Asian Star’ programme where we open our training facilities to people of Indian, Pakistani, Banglades and Sri Lankan origin with provision for trials at the academy.
That’s Chelsea’s way of opening a door.