To celebrate the 14th anniversary of Arsenal’s 2001/02 double-winning campaign we pulled a classic interview with former Gunner Sylvain Wiltord. This piece first appeared in the Arsenal Magazine in February 2003.
By Steve Stammers
A bright and effervescent character he may be and certainly lunch times at the London Colney training centre are considerably enlivened by his presence. But behind the engaging smile of Sylvain Wiltord lies a steely determination to succeed.
Sylvain is an immensely private person. He loves the company of his team-mates and is a willing participant in the daily exchange of banter but he shuns publicity and prefers the shadow to the spotlight.
He remains the record signing at Arsenal but outside the tight-knit community of the first-team squad, few know what makes muscular and powerful Sylvain tick - and even fewer are familiar with his personality.
“Yes, I have friends and many good friends,” says the 28-year-old from the tough Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur Marne. “The French players at Arsenal, my team-mates and English friends as well. But I spend a lot of time at home relaxing.”
However, there is a word which Sylvain uses with regularity - ‘gnac’. It is difficult to do the word justice with a simple translation into English. ‘Desire’ does not reflect the real intensity that it represents - it is more a ‘rage to win’.
“It is very important that I have this inside me because I want to get better and better as a footballer,” he says. “I still have this determination, this single-minded will to win and to succeed. I have been a professional football for 10 years now and I still have this need to prove myself. I want to be an even better player.”
It is fair to say that when he first arrived in England back in August 2000, Sylvain did not have an immediate impact. After his heroics in helping France win the European Championship with his last-minute equaliser against Italy in the final that set up the extra-time victory, he missed out on the valuable pre-season training on which players rely to give them the stamina for the energy-sapping season ahead.
That showed in his early months at Highbury. He was not the first import to struggle to produce his best form immediately. Thierry Henry needed four months to show his true worth and Robert Pires suffered a similar fate. Even Dennis Bergkamp took seven matches to score the first of the century of goals he has to his name with Arsenal.
And unlike that talented trio, Sylvain is perhaps more steady than spectacular. While Thierry can accelerate into devastating action, while Robert can win a game with a flamboyant flash of brilliance and Dennis can produce a goal from nothing, Sylvain relies heavily on his lung-busting endeavour - and ‘gnac’.
“Actually, my background was not such a hard one,” he says. “I come from the suburbs but I was well supported by family and friends. They wanted me to succeed. It could have been in another sporting area apart from football but I always had their support.
“But I agree that for many young people, the hunger to be successful can be a big motivation to get away from their environment. That is why they are successful.”
Of course success at Arsenal did not come immediately as Sylvain came to terms with his new club, a new country and a new language as well as a new football culture.
“It was hard for me at first,” he said. “But I know the decision to come to Arsenal was the right one. I was made welcome here by everyone and it helped that there were French players at the club and that the manager was French. But it was not always easy. At Arsenal there are so many good players, perhaps 24 in the first-team squad.
“Then on match days the coach selects 16 from that group and from that 16 he picks the 11 to go out on the pitch. You want to be in the 11 because you want to play all the season. But you have to learn to deal with what that and I have tried to do that. In fact, I would say that I am now a more complete player.”
A reference there to yet another example of how Arsene Wenger can recognise qualities in a player that the player himself does not realise he has. Thierry Henry was transformed from an orthodox winger into one of the deadliest strikers in the world. Robert Pires developed into a persistent threat rather than a peripheral figure - and Sylvain became an accomplished midfielder rather than an out-and-out striker.
“At Bordeaux I was an attack, always an attacker,” he says. “But at Arsenal I have discovered a part of my game that I didn’t know I had.” The boss took Sylvain’s raw power and fashioned a midfielder who is perhaps more appreciated by his team-mates than spectators. He runs endlessly, contributes constantly and is always available as a much-needed support act to the more visible talents of Thierry, Dennis and company.
“Now I feel at ease in the position,” he says. “In fact, I play often for the French national team in that position as well. I have played on the left and the right as well. And just as there are players like Thierry, Dennis, Kanu and Francis Jeffers up front, there are players like Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg in midfield. At Arsenal there is competition everywhere.”
Not that in his new-round role Sylvain has forgotten has to score goals. Far from it. He scored many valuable ones two seasons ago when Arsenal were runners-up in the league and in the FA Cup, and indeed he scored one very round until the final when Liverpool won 2-1.
“But I still remember that day in Cardiff at that first final - the colours and the noise from nearly 80,000 spectators. That was a big moment for me at Arsenal.” More - and more pleasurable ones - were to follow last season.
“We went back to the final and this time we won against Chelsea,” he said. And there was of course the night at Old Trafford when Sylvain’s goal clinched the title for Arsenal in a 1-0 win.
“I suppose that has to be the most important moment because the season is so long and if you win the title then you have proved yourself as a team.”
Sylvain has now been paid what is regarded as the ultimate compliment by many players - he has his name sung by the once sceptical Highbury crowd. Okay, so they have borrowed the ‘Super Robert Pires’ tribute and changed the name to his, but it is there all the same. Sylvain feels that the fans have taken to his approach of total commitment.
“If you give 100 per cent for the team, the fans in England respect you,“ he says. “And that has always been what I have done. I always show effort out on the pitch and little by little they accept you as one of their own. You have to prove you are worth the money spent on you - and it is so much better when you are scoring goals as well!”
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