Louis Saha: I"ve been nearly great

Saha's verdict on 13 years in England: 'Yeah, I've been nearly great'…but this is no ordinary footballer



22:08 GMT, 27 April 2012

Louis Saha was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in 1978, which is why he requested the No 8 shirt at Everton. Eight is something of a lucky number to Saha.

Yet he has too often been hobbling proof of the absence of luck.

This is why, when asked to sum up his career in eight words, Saha's first choice – without any hesitation – is 'paradoxical'.

It is an illuminating selection, one that kicks against the footballer stereotype.

Still fighting: Saha (left) scores against Bolton Wanderers

Still fighting: Saha (left) scores against Bolton Wanderers

It recognises his good fortune at being a professional footballer in an era of economic bounty, but also the yellow card that ruled him out of the 2006 World Cup final and the injury that robbed him of a chance to play in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow.

But then it turns out that 'fighting cliches' is one of Saha's motivations. It is one reason why he has penned an idiosyncratic, intriguing memoir, Thinking Inside The Box, that has just been translated into English.

Another was that he had time on his hands, being injured again.

But back to the opening question: after 'paradoxical' Saha went for 'honest', then came 'up', 'down', 'emotional', 'competitive' and 'maturity'.

Thoughtful and paradoxical: Louis Saha is no ordinary footballer

Thoughtful and paradoxical: Louis Saha is no ordinary footballer

'That's maturity as a man,' he adds. 'How many is that' he asks.

It was seven and there was not to be an eighth. In its own way that was appropriate.

A common view of Saha is that of a 'nearly' player, a talent undermined by injury, not quite getting to the top of the mountain.

When expanding on his career summary, he agrees.

'Nearly great, yeah,' he says, 'something missing in some ways. Some really good moments, but then at times I feel it's unfinished, incomplete.

'But I still feel I've managed to do something amazing and, even with all the injuries, I'm still fighting. I still managed to play 500 games. Which is not bad. I don't think there are many players who have experienced these injuries and still come back at this level. It's demanding. To be here still, it's good.'

Saha is 33. It is more than 13 years since he first appeared on the English radar, an untried Metz teenager on loan at Newcastle United playing alongside Alan Shearer for manager Ruud Gullit.

Fulham, Manchester United, Everton followed. Now it's a six-month deal with Tottenham Hotspur.

Saha has proved his longevity but needs to impress in the last four games of the season if there is to be an extension at Spurs.

He understands the paradox.

'I hope I can stay,' he says.

The striker came out of left field when he suddenly appeared at St James' Park in January 1999. Yet this was a young Parisian prospect so good he was a boarder at the French Football Federation's famed Clairefontaine academy.

He may have felt like a wildcard to us but he was not one in France.

Talk of the Toon: Saha made a name for himself with Newcastle in 1999 under Gullit

Talk of the Toon: Saha made a
name for himself with Newcastle
in 1999 under Gullit

His background is one with which we have become familiar: the son of immigrants, growing up on an estate on the outskirts of Paris, and like Thierry Henry or Patrice Evra, finding his way to England, stardom and the France team – Saha has 20 caps.

There is an anecdote about a young Evra standing alone on an Italian train platform that might change the opinion of those who think status and wealth have come easily to this group.

Empathy: Patrice Evra was lost in Italy

Empathy: Patrice Evra was lost in Italy

Evra was on his way to join SC Marsala in Sicily but could speak no Italian.

He was alone, he missed his connections. Italy is no place for black teenagers at night.

Saha quotes Evra: 'I was like a little illegal immigrant from Senegal lost in the middle of Italy.'

Somehow out of nowhere came an older man from Senegal.

He gave Evra food and shelter for the night in a room with eight others, then put him on the correct train the next morning. It is a scene of Biblical empathy.

'What a beautiful sense of solidarity,' said Evra.

But many of his and Saha's sceptics come from closer to home.

They are within France, where the National Front has just done very well in the presidential election – worryingly so for Saha.

In an optimistic moment, the overlap of race, politics and football was personified in the name of Zinedine Zidane and the France 1998 World Cup-winning team, but that does feel 14 years ago and while Saha says he is not pessimistic about the mix today, he is 'realistic'.

After the debacle of the last World Cup, when Nicolas Anelka was sent home, Saha says French football needs an uplifting European Championship.

They are England's first opponents in June.

Harry Redknapp's future was off the agenda, though Saha expresses disbelief at England's managerial state: 'I find it strange. It seems like every year of a competition the English find some way to put a bullet in their foot.'

In his book he touches on matters as varied as anorexia, the Leveson Inquiry and Nicolas Sarkozy's 'double-talk', and in conversation, Saha moves seamlessly between the personal and the political.

From a remark about feeling alienated from academic study as a boy, Saha says: 'When I was young I didn't want to learn. I found the system in France not relevant to me. There needs to be change. But I still regret.

'My brother and sister say to my parents that they “don't understand us”, language such as “lol”. I do understand but I still think my parents are right.

Political animal: Saha has plenty to say about the current climate in France

Political animal: Saha has plenty to say about the current climate in France

'Now youngsters do not listen to the older generation. The world is going too fast, the internet is causing a massive gap. Part of me feels like an alarmed parent, when you see the riots, things like that.

'I have a little 10-month-old girl now (he also has two older sons) and I can't imagine the future being better for her – it doesn't look good across the world. It's pessimistic, but fear is a good weapon for improvement. If you're not scared, you're lazy. In France there are narrow minds, that's what I mean if you don't inform yourself. The world is moving fast. A problem there is they find a scapegoat, the easy option – “It's the foreigners!” “Close the borders!” I don't see solutions.

Loud: Saha's also proud of his country

Loud: Saha's also proud of his country

'I'm realistic about racism in France, I know why they vote for such a party. People are angry.

'Deep inside French football there's a problem. I'm really proud to be French – I won't let people talk badly about France – but at the same time I'm realistic. I see unpleasant things.'

The disciplined influence of Saha's parents runs like a stream through the book. But he was also a twenty-something in football's post-Bosman era and he clearly appreciates the meaning of hedonism as well as paradox.

In the preface, he writes: 'At times football has disconnected me from real life . . . The world of football spins on an axis of money and sex.'

Sitting amid the capital in Canary Wharf, Saha has adjusted, but he recalls how it was.

'It is disturbing as a young man to try to adapt to what is not normal for a working-class young man. And it's not normal working class any more, it's fame, success, bigger money. It disturbs you and you are not mature enough.'

He sees contradictions, quite often in himself. He rails against his sons' materialism but buys fast cars.

He says he is 'not macho' or homophobic but there is a lot about women and sex and his anxiety about wearing Everton's pink away kit.

'People think in general that footballers are cold – especially when you see the top players who have to be that way, focused. They don't deliver much emotion.

'So we have to convince people. The real players aren't shown enough. I don't see enough interest in where it goes wrong for players and what can happen. The real players are the majority. What we are given is a lifestyle cliche. The public gets tricked.'

From the word 'trick' Saha instantly swerves into the European currency.

'Look at the introduction of the euro,' he says. 'You could buy things for 10 francs; now 10 francs are worth about €2.

Productive: Saha was always among the goals at Everton

Productive: Saha was always among the goals at Everton

Productive: Saha was always among the goals at Everton

'People agree with me when I say things like that but then they forget and we get the one-dimensional cliche again. But I'm interested because I have to educate myself so I can educate my children. If I don't inform myself I can't teach.'

The book is entertaining and contains contributions throughout from Zidane, Henry, Evra and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Saha recounts how in only his second game for United, at Goodison Park, he felt the wrath of Ferguson even though he had scored on his debut and two in the first half.

Eye-opening introduction: Saha felt the wrath of Sir Alex Ferguson (right)

Eye-opening introduction: Saha felt the wrath of Sir Alex Ferguson (right)

'At half-time at Everton I walked off with my chest out. Proud, yeah, I'd missed two sitters but I'd scored two. When I sat down I saw someone yelling at me. I couldn't understand. He must be mixed up. But, no, it was me. He was really unhappy. He made me understand that. I realised there and then that he always wants more. He has the competitor's virus. From that shock, I realised.'

Even in his finest hours, it's been paradoxical for Louis Saha.

Thinking Inside The Box (14.99) is published by Vision Sports Publishing.