On the day that Emirates Stadium welcomed back a capacity crowd in the Premier League for our match against Chelsea, we heard from Nicolas Pepe about the best atmospheres he’s experienced in his career so far, his early days ‘playing in the hood’ and what he loves about the English fans.
For evidence of how much Nicolas Pepe is energised by playing on front of live crowds, just cast your mind back to the final two games of last season.
Our trip to Crystal Palace on the penultimate matchday was the first time we had played a Premier League match in front of more than 2,000 fans for 14 months – back in the pre-pandemic days. Nico marked the occasion in superb style, scoring twice in a 3-1 win.
Four days later the supporters (10,000 of them) returned to Emirates Stadium for our last game of the campaign against Brighton, and Nico once again took centre stage, netting another brace. Two games with crowds – four goals scored. A natural-born entertainer needs an audience.
You’d be hard-pressed to find many players who said they enjoyed the experience of playing in empty stadiums, but Nico admits that he especially missed the buzz and the energy a live crowd brings.
“The pressure of having a crowd makes you play better, for me anyway,” he begins. “You concentrate more and then you play with a higher quality.”
It’s not surprising the winger feeds off the intensity of a crowd – from very early in his career he was performing in front of passionate fans as he took his first steps in professional football. The Ivory Coast international was born and raised in France, in Mates-la-Jolie, not far from Paris, and he began his pro career with Poitiers, in central France. But as for the best atmosphere he’s ever known, that was down south, at Marseille’s infamous Stade Velodrome.
The biggest stadium in the country with a capacity of 67,000, it enjoys a reputation as being particularly unwelcome to visiting teams and fans. But for Nico, it brings back great memories of a game in January 2019, with previous side Lille.
“That was the best atmosphere I’ve played in,” he recalls. “The Stade Velodrome in Marseille. We won the game 2-1 and I scored our first goal from a penalty just before half-time. That was the first time I had a laser shone directly in my face, as I was taking the penalty, which wasn’t great! Then the moment I scored they threw bottles and there was beer landing on us and stuff like that. I just thought it was funny, but you really see how huge the atmosphere is down there.
“When you’re a Marseille fan or if you play for the club, you soon see how important winning becomes. It’s unusual to see that level of feeling because you don’t often get an atmosphere like that in France or even many places in Europe.”
In fact tensions spilled over so much in the stands that day, that the game was suspended by the referee for 40 minutes, with flares being thrown on to the pitch.
Nico – who was a Marseille fan himself as a kid – didn’t do anything to calm the locals once play resumed, scoring Lille’s second late on. Marseille then scored a consolation, but they couldn’t prevent Lille earning their first win there for eight years. Nico had taken his side into the lions' den and triumphed, and you sense the reception the home fans gave him and his team-mates played a big part in his motivation.
“To be honest I enjoyed it,” he smiles. “I would say it’s my favourite-ever stadium to play in, because of that atmosphere. The reaction that day was just because I had scored against them. It wasn’t hostile. In fact I wouldn’t say I’ve ever known a hostile reception especially, I can’t really think of one.
“Maybe at Lille, when I was playing for them, if we weren’t winning the supporters were really aggressive towards us. When we weren’t getting results it was tough, but we just kept going and eventually it improved.
“Actually there was this one game with an unbelievable atmosphere at Lille – as well as the one at the Velodrome. I’d forgotten about it but it’s just come to me. It was Lille against PSG at home and we won it 5-1, that same season.
“I scored in that game (as did current team- mate Gabriel) and that was also one of the best atmospheres I’ve seen.
“Our stadium was at full capacity, it was a great game and a great atmosphere – the biggest I’ve played in.”
Nico has never been one to be intimidated by a crowd though. He grew up playing for a youth team in eastern Paris called Solitaire (mainly as a goalkeeper until his teens) and every weekend he would have a match somewhere around the outskirts of the French capital. And those experiences he tasted some 15 years ago have stood him in good stead ever since.
“As a kid I played mostly in and around Paris,” he says. “We had trips to the 93rd department (an area to the north east of Paris with a reputation for violence and drug trafficking). Pretty much everywhere really. Matches were on a Saturday or Sunday morning with our parents who’d take us and we’d make convoys of three or four cars. We were playing everywhere really: Porte des Lilas, Aubervilliers, Montreuil.
“The first time I played in front of fans was really early. I was 12 years old. We went to play against Clichy-sous-Bois (in the eastern suburbs of Paris). The stadium was in the middle of the hood so the pitch was surrounded by guys from the estates.
“It was a great atmosphere because when you’re young you don’t realise that there were so many people there for a regional match. It was good though, I enjoyed it.”
But whether it’s being in front of a crowd, or part of it, Nico is a huge football fan generally. His first-ever time attending a live match was at the imposing Parc des Princes – home of Paris St Germain.
“I can’t remember exactly what game it was, because I was really young, but I remember that we had our club in the 19th arrondissement, and it was partnered with PSG," he said. "So they gave us tickets for the games which gave me the opportunity to go and see a match. I went along with my childhood friends and it was great.”
He’s never lost the bug since. The last game he watched in person was a youth tournament in Lille just before the pandemic struck in early 2020, but he has no problem finding entertainment on television to satisfy his desire for live sport.
“I’d say I watch about 10 games a week usually,” he says. “If it’s a week with Champions League and Europa League matches I might not watch the whole thing, sometimes I’ll start watching in the middle of the game. But I’ll generally watch matches whenever they are on, especially the Champions League. I love that – one of my favourite games was when Iniesta scored that goal for Barcelona against Chelsea (in 2009). The drama!
“But I also watch La Liga and the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 too. I don’t watch Serie A so much apart from when there’s a really big match on. Sometimes by chance I might watch other foreign leagues such as the MLS but only very occasionally.”
And it’s not just football. Nico is a fan of many sports, mainly basketball and tennis. “Yes I like watching the NBA, I would love to go to an NBA final, I’ve never done that," he said. "But I don’t have a particular team. I don’t support anyone, I just watch all the teams.
“But in tennis I love watching Novak Djokovic. I’ll always watch him and Nadal. If there’s a big game, I’ll watch.”
But now, with the Premier League season restarting, and fans welcome back inside stadiums, it’s once again all about entertaining, rather than being entertained for Nico. And playing in front of a sold out Emirates, he says, is a feeling that just can’t be replicated.
“Frankly, the difference with an empty stadium is that the match feels a bit dead," he says. "You can hear each other on the pitch but it’s the fans that really bring that 12th man. That’s what everyone misses.
“To be honest I played in a lot of empty stadiums before I turned pro, so it didn’t surprise me that much – but there isn’t anything that’s better about playing in an empty stadium than a full one. For me an empty stadium doesn’t have any positives.
“I tried to play the same in an empty stadium as I do when there are fans, but for me when you hear the crowd sing – especially if they call your name – it’s really emotional.
“It shows you the fans really care about you and it makes you really feel part of the club. It pushes you and when you hear them singing your name, it gives you an extra push. It really makes you want to score a goal and return the favour.
“I love the crowds in England,” he adds. “They are closer to the team. In France I don’t think they’re like that. Here they are really close and they truly support the team. They keep going and they push you. Whatever the action is, if it’s an attack or a good pass, it doesn’t matter, they encourage you. That’s the difference.
“I love the songs too – my favourite was the one the Man City fans used to sing for Yaya Toure. ‘Yaya, Yaya Yaya, Yaya Toure!’”
It’s not just inside Emirates Stadium that Nico feels the love from the Arsenal fans though.
“I often see fans out in the street, or in a restaurant maybe. And of course on social media you hear from the fans.
“But the funniest one was when I was on holiday in Miami. I bumped into a fan who showed me his Arsenal tattoo on his calf. He showed me it and said, ‘This is our year!’”
And if it is to be our year, you feel that Nico will be a big part of that, especially if he can once again find inspiration from our 12th man.
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