Player Profile: Robert Pires
Date of Birth: 29/10/1973
Height: 6 ft 1 in
National Team: France
International Caps: 79
International Goals: 14
A World Cup-winning footballer and an integral part of Arsene Wenger’s French revolution at Arsenal, Robert Pires is remembered fondly by the footballing world. A dynamic player who could play as both a winger and as an attacking midfielder, Pires enjoyed an astonishing 22-year career in which he won nine trophies at the very highest level of the game.
A virtuoso with a magnetic first touch, kaleidoscopic range of passing and crystal clear vision, Pires turned out in the colours of six different clubs throughout his career. His impact was felt most significantly in the United Kingdom with Arsenal. But, his trailblazing approach to the game was hugely influential in France, Spain and latterly India too.
Born in October 1973, Pires began life in Reims, a city in the Grand Est region of his native France. The son of a Spanish mother and a Portuguese father, Pires’ allegiances were divided primarily between two teams, neither of them French. His father supported Benfica, two-time Champions League winners and the most successful club in Portuguese history. His mother’s roots lead Pires into adopting a loyalty for Spanish giants Real Madrid, and it was a long-held, but ultimately unfulfilled dream of Pires’s to one day player for Los Blancos.
After growing up surrounded by football, it was predictable than a young Pires would forge a pathway into the beautiful game. After finishing his mandatory studies at school, Pires embarked on a two-year sports course at a college in Reims. The cutthroat world of football meant that there were moments that Pires considered abandoning his pursuit of riches within the game. But, on the advice of his family, he persisted.
Pires was rewarded for his tenacity when he signed for Ligue 1 club Metz’s academy in 1992. He stayed within the youth system of the academy, the coaches there proficiently nurturing his precocious talent, until 1993 when he signed his first professional contract. Pires made his debut that year too, scoring his first career goal in just his third senior appearance. He would go on to play 162 times in total, scoring 43 goals. The highlight of his stint with the club, however, was not the goals but the silverware. Metz lifted the Coupe de la Ligue at the close of the 95-96 season.
Clearly hungry for more trophy success, Pires made a big-money £5-million switch to Marseille in 1998. However, his dreams did not quite materialise as his new Marseille side finished as runners-up in the league in his first season with the club. There was more heartache to come; in 1999, Pires was part of the Marseille side who, after a superb run to the final, finished as runners-up again in the UEFA Cup. They lost 3-0 to an excellent Parma side featuring, among others, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo and Juan Sebastian Veron.
A myriad of pernicious problems off the pitch would result in Pires missing the majority of the following season. With contract discussions with the club’s hierarchy not progressing, Pires was seeking a way out of the club. Far from being purely motivated by finance, however, Pires sought a new challenge and a bigger club which reflected his personal ambition. One that could facilitate his growth into becoming one of the world’s best. His career had undoubtedly stagnated with Marseille, and he needed a shot in the arm; that shot in the arm came in the form of Arsene Wenger.
Wenger had been in charge of the Gunners for four years when Pires arrived in 2000 for a £6-million sum. They had won the double in the 97-98 campaign, but since then, like Pires, they had plateaued. A spate of signings saw Pires joined by Lauren, Sylvain Wiltord and Edu at Highbury. Already there were a number of truly remarkable, generational talents. Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Freddie Ljungberg, Tony Adams, Ashley Cole, David Seaman, Nwankwo Kanu – the list goes on and on. He had big boots to fill with Marc Overmars leaving for Barcelona during the same summer window.
At the start of his burgeoning Arsenal career, Pires blew hot and cold. There were glimpses of his talent, but nothing in terms of consistency. Like many foreign imports to the Premier League, he struggled to adapt to the intense physicality of the Premier League. But, once the Frenchman had adjusted to his surroundings, his career really began to take off. His first season was a trophyless one, Arsenal losing in the FA Cup final to Liverpool and finishing as runners-up in the league as well as ducking out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
His second season was not nearly as unfortunate. Pires was an integral part of the Arsenal team which swept all before them in the league. He was the league’s top assister in that campaign and was voted the Football Writers Associations Player of the Year – one of the most prestigious awards in the English game. His success was achieved despite missing two months at the end of the season through injury. Fully fit or not, Pires was rapidly establishing himself as a fan favourite at Arsenal, no mean feat considering the depth of talent in the club’s ranks.
The next season, his third in England and his first as a truly household name, brought another trophy. The early 2000s were an era in which the Premier League crown was the subject of a constant and almighty tussle between Manchester United and Arsenal. This time, Alex Ferguson’s side got the better of Wenger’s.In the FA Cup, however, it was a different story as Pires scored the winning goal against Southampton in the final.
It was the 03-04 campaign, often known simply as the ‘Invincibles’ season, which really set Pires and company’s legacy in stone. Arsenal became the first team to go unbeaten in a Premier League season and one of just two teams to have achieved this feat in the entire history of the football league, the other being Preston North End in the 1800s. Of course, football was a different beast in the early 2000s than it was in the 19th century. The intensely competitive nature of the Premier League made going unbeaten something which did not seem possible, and yet Arsenal and Pires did it.
This, apart from his glories at international level, was the unparalleled high-point of Pires’s career. He would win just one more trophy with the club, the FA Cup once again in the 05-06 season, before leaving for a new challenge. Though Pires left Arsenal with a hugely enhanced reputation, there was one major regret. This was the 2006 Champions League final loss to Barcelona. Arsenal had led 1-0 before going on to lose 2-1 with two goals from Eto’o and Belletti coming in the last 15 minutes in Paris, less than an hour’s drive from where Pires grew up.
This defeat, it transpired, would be Pires’s last match as an Arsenal player. He left for Spain and Villareal in 2006 and would go on to spend four years with the club before moving back to England. He scored 13 goals in 103 appearances for the club who, at the time, were a consistent force in the Champions League and La Liga. But his time at Estadio de la Cerámica came to an end with no medals or silverware to speak of. His days as an elite level footballer were behind him.
He had a brief stint back in the UK with Gerrard Houllier’s Aston Villa but made only a handful of appearances before hanging up his boots. Pires came out of retirement briefly in 2014, three years after he had left the game, in order to play for newly-formed FC Goa in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League. He was made a free agent after less than ten games with the club and, with that, called time on his career once and for all.
Club football’s top prize, the Champions League, may have eluded Robert Pires, but he more than made up for this shortcoming in his international trophy haul.
Pires was part of the France team which won two major trophies in succession: the 1998 World Cup on home soil and then the 2000 European Championships in the Netherlands and Belgium. In 2000, Pires set up David Trezeguet’s famous golden goal which won France the tournament in extra-time against Italy. He was a relatively young player at the time and had not yet reached his Arsenal superstardom. But the prestige afforded to a World Cup-winning player must have given him a huge confidence boost.
He missed out on the 2002 World Cup through injury but returned for Euro 2004. The latter turned out to be a disappointing tournament for the defending champions France as they lost out to Greece in the quarter-finals.
Pires’s international career might have gone on longer had he not had a major fallout with manager Raymond Domenech. He played his last game in 2004, bringing his total to 79 caps and 14 goals.
Where is Robert Pires Now?
Though his old boss has now left the Emirates Stadium, Arsene Wenger brought Robert Pires into the Arsenal fold once more in 2016 when he made him a first-team coach. Pires remains in this role to this day, despite the fact that two managers have come and gone since he was given the job.
He rarely gives interviews but is involved in a great deal of football-oriented charity work in his native France and in Africa.