Winner takes all

From a shy, introverted kid to one of football's biggest winners, Emmanuel Petit has travelled a long way quickly. Peter Hayes looks at his career.

As Arsenal paraded their 1997/98 Premiership and FA cup double through the streets of Highbury and Islington, one roadside banner hailed the Gunners with the words: “DUTCH COURAGE...FRENCH FLAIR...ENGLISH GRIT...LONDON PRIDE.”

However, French midfielder Emmanuel Petit might have been forgiven for thinking there had been some form of grammatical slip-up - the words “courage,” “grit” and “pride” are far more appropriate adjectives for describing this particular Frenchman's game of football.

For Petit, the year would hold yet another capital city street party; this time parading the World Cup before 600,000 fans on the Champs Elysees in Paris. When you throw in his goal in the dying moments of the Final, you are looking at a season that even football fiction writers wouldn't dare pen. It was very much a case of winner takes all.

Polls carried out for the magazine Paris Match showed that Petit was voted the fourth best French player at the World Cup by his countrymen. He gained 28 per cent of the vote behind Lilia Thuram (30 per cent), Fabien Barthez (54 per cent) and Zinedine Zidane (58 per cent) - this adds up to more than 100 per cent because three responses were requested.

“I slept for about six hours in the three days following the World Cup Final,” Petit told the media when they finally caught up with him a week later: “The day after the match we all went to the Lido (a famous Paris nightspot) and the day after I went to the beach with Deschamps, Desailly, Djorkaeff, Karembeu, LeBoeuf, Pires and Boghossain and had a party down there - everything was extraordinaire.”

For many years Ireland was as exotic as Arsenal Football Club actually got. Great players such as Liam Brady, Pat Jennings and Pat Rice all came from the Emerald Isle.

Geographically, continental Europe might be closer to Highbury than Ireland, but the logic has always been that European players wouldn't be able to perform consistently throughout the “long and tiring” English season.

The Petit/Patrick Vieira midfield axis has not only won Arsenal their second League and Cup Double (the first was in 1970/71 under Bertie Mee) but they have dispelled such insular myths along the way: English football now knows that commitment and effort are no longer exclusively British or Irish traits.

The man the French call “Le Viking” or “Le Blonde Viking” wanted to be a professional footballer ever since he first played the game against his three older brothers in the small village of Saint Nicolas d'Aliermon in Normandy.

His father, Jean-Paul Petit, was a passionate amateur footballer and fully supportive of his sons' sporting ambitions. Petit senior was so much of football enthusiast that his wife, Evelyne, often complained of being a “football widow.” Having made up his mind to be a professional footballer, everything else came second to Petit, including his school work. However, he proved able to pass exams without the apparent need for study or homework. His excellent English is ample testament to that.

At the age of eight he joined the nearby d'Argues la Bataille football academy and soon gained the attention of team coach Michel Bourgeois who later spoke in his “intensity” and “force of character” and “dedication” - unusual words to be used about a player so young.

This would be the last time Petit looked anything like his true age. He grew up quicker than most of his schoolmates and his natural athleticism and strength soon had him representing the Normandy region and France at schoolboy level. At 14 he was his country's youngest schoolboy player. By the age of 18 he became a full international, debuting against Poland in a 0-0 draw.

A Petit family photo album shot shows the blonde bouffant-haired teenager in his first schoolboy international shirt, but his core character as already sowing on his face: The mouth forms a wide generous smile, but the eyes remain black as coal and pre-occupied. Only away from football, or after the final whistle has blown, does the ace relax and the true Emmanuel Petit show through.

It's easy to understand why he first became a defender. Often bigger, quicker and stronger than those around him, but lacking the true qualities needed to be a striker, he seemed born to play at the back. Or, alternatively, as a corner stone midfield player.

At 13 he crossed France to join the Monaco youth academy and its in-house boarding school. This was to prove a time of mixed personal fortunes.

Petit had all the typical problems of a boy away from home for the first time. He missed his parents, missed his friends and found the new surroundings totally bewildering. Like many youngsters in the same boat, he became depressed and unhappy and took time to settle in.

A natural introvert - although not unsocialable - he has admitted depression to be a problem in his life. This led him to Buddhism to try and gain some insight into his feelings.

While a professional at Monaco he made two statements that made the local press sit up and take notice. First, he rallied against the “corruption in French football,” without being able to produce an real evidence. More dangerously, he lashed out at his own president, Jean Louis Campora, after coach Arsene Wenger as sacked in 1994. Petit claimed that statements made by Campora about “lack of effort and commitment” - referring to Wenger and the squad - would be “best said behind closed doors rather than being expressed through the papers.”

On the field he won the French championship and a Cup with Monaco and went on to reach the final of the following year's European Cup-Winners' Cup where his side met Werder Bremen of Germany.

However Petit made a horrendous - and quite untypical - error in that 1992 Final that cost his side the game. He gave the small away on the halfway line resulting in the Germans scoring the second goal of a 2-0 win.

That mistake aside, Petit's time on the Riviera was satisfying. Life in Monaco can sound like a male fantasy: A millionaires' playground with constant good weather, beaches, good food, luxury accommodation and plenty of places to hang out and meet girls.

All especially true when you are a blonde, six-foot, good looking footballer with money in your pocket. In a local restaurant Petit met his future fiancée, Ariane, a dark and well-proportioned dancer who has followed boyfriend “Emu” to London.

Despite the Cup-Winners' Cup error, the relationship between Petit and Wenger has been long and mutually beneficial. They know each other well. So much so that they need to speak very little - in any language.

On arriving at Arsenal in time for last season (for a fee of around £3.5 million) Wenger told Petit he would have to work hard to win the fans over: “Being a French international doesn't mean anything to the Arsenal fans. They are totally different from those that you get in Monaco. If you are not on your game they will let you know about it straight away,” he warned.

His central midfield playing relationship with Vieira has been the key to Arsenal's success. They are, by reputation, not particular close off the field, but on it they are twin brothers, forming a rock-like axis that many teams foundered on before evening reaching the defence.

In the absence of significant new signings - bar the Argentinean defender Nelson Vivas - Wenger is clearly relying on a “same again” season. Perhaps, with the bonus of one or two more goals from his ponytailed 27-year-old midfield man.

This is just as well because Emmanuel petit only knows one way to play: With controlled commitment and wise caution that many casual football fans will find all too easy to overlook.

(C) Peter Hayes 2003

Last updated 7.3.2007