With some huge games against our biggest rivals still to come this season, the matchday programme caught up with Alex Lacazette, who reveals how he was brought up to appreciate the importance of coming out on top against your local enemies.
Alexandre Lacazette has a love for the game that extends beyond playing it – readily admitting he watches football most evenings when he’s relaxing at home. And when you watch him in action, it’s not difficult to see that spirit of a supporter shine through when he’s on the pitch.
A passionate, whole-hearted player who says he feeds off the energy of the crowd, it’s therefore no surprise to hear that, just like any fan does, Laca particularly relishes the showdowns against our biggest rivals.
Nowadays, local rivalry means the north London derby – a fixture in which he has scored four times – but for the early part of his career, the big derby for his boyhood club Lyon was against St Etienne.
“There’s one story of when we played them that stands out for me,” the 30-year-old striker begins. “We were playing the derby, away at St Etienne, all my family were there as usual to watch me, my parents and my brothers as well. We won the game, and afterwards I went over to the fans to wave to my parents, but obviously the home fans didn’t like this.
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“And one of the St Etienne fans was really angry, insulting me, then insulting my mum to me. But they didn’t realise my mother was right there, and heard everything. My brother was right there too, and let’s say he’s quite big! He’s a tough guy, so he turned round and said ‘my mum is right here.’ She was scared because she saw how furious my brother looked. My dad had to calm everything down because otherwise it would not have finished well for that fan!
“But that’s how it was in the games against St Etienne – it’s like Arsenal v Tottenham. But I have to say I really like those big rivalries and the games with the big atmospheres.
“I grew up with that rivalry in the academy,” he continues. “Every year we would play against them three or four times, so you learn very early on that you have to win that game – every time.
“I remember we lost it once in the academy, and we were punished on the training pitches the next day. We had to run more, we didn’t have time with the ball, we trained on a dirty pitch. It was all to show us how important those games were. That’s why when I grew up and played for the first team, I understood everything about the rivalry.”
Born and raised in Lyon, the third largest city in France, it’s no surprise that Laca – and indeed his whole family – have Olympique Lyonnais in the blood. It’s the club he joined as a child, and the first team he ever watched live, before going on to become a club legend, scoring more than 120 goals over seven seasons.
Laca’s love affair with Lyon started before that though, as he explains: “I’ve always watched a lot of football. Now I watch the French league, Spanish league and of course the Premier League. Sometimes the German and Italian leagues too, depending on what games are on, so basically I still watch a lot! I try to watch as much as possible. Most nights I’m watching football.
“As a kid I always wanted to watch football too, but that was more difficult because most of the games were on at night time so I couldn’t stay up that late all the time, I had school the next day.
“So when I first got to go to a game, it was really special. I can remember that first game. I was around nine or ten years old, it was Lyon versus Strasbourg. I loved it! I went with my dad or my older brother, I can’t remember, but the game was really good – I remember there were lots of goals.
“At the time I didn’t really realise how special it was, because I was just a kid, but I remember really enjoying the day and wanting to go again.”
Soon Laca wasn’t just supporting Lyon, but playing for them as well, joining the academy aged 12. A big moment not only for him, but the whole Lacazette family.
“When I started playing for Lyon in the youth team, my family would come to every home game to watch me,” he says. “There were always lots of people from my family, then my friends as well and their friends. Every game I played for the academy, I think I had more than 20 people there to watch me!
“I loved it, and we were used to playing in front of a crowd early on because in the academy games there are always people’s families there, and scouts and things like that, so I enjoyed it.”
Three weeks before his 19th birthday though, things would be turned up several notches, when he made his debut for the first team.
“We always had a lot of people watching us for the youth team, but if you talk about a real crowd in a stadium – then that’s completely different,” he says.
“That brings a pressure with it and then you know it’s real. It’s completely different.
“I remember that first game (a 2-1 home win over Auxerre right at the end of the 2009/10 season in which Lyon finished runners-up in Ligue 1). I came on as a substitute late on. But the one I remember more was my debut as a starter, which came a bit later.
“It was a night game, I couldn’t see any of my family or friends in the crowd, and I felt so much pressure. Normally, for every game I played I always knew where they were in the stadium. So every time I warmed up I would wave to them and see them. I want to see where they are every time because that gives me a bit of power before the game.
“It was against Bordeaux, the season after I first got in the team, and if I have to tell you how well I played… well let’s say if we compare it with how I am now – then not very well! No it was OK. I was really, really nervous though.
“There were some of the older players helping to make me feel comfortable, but it still comes down to you and what you can show on the pitch. At the end I was a bit disappointed because I thought I could do more, and basically I was scared that I might not ever get another chance. But then I played more and got more comfortable in the team.”
He certainly did become more comfortable, becoming a mainstay of the Lyon attack, winning Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2014/15 when he top scored with 27 goals. He spent a further two seasons at the club after that, scoring 37 in 45 appearances in 2016/17, triggering his club record move to Arsenal in July 2017.
It was the first time he had ever changed club, and playing in a new league and a new city meant getting to know the neighbours…
“When I came to Arsenal I wanted to understand quickly what it meant to play the derby games, and to know how important those games are.”
So how does playing in a north London derby compare with those Lyon v St Etienne encounters down the years?
“For me the big difference over here is that I don’t really understand everything that the away fans are trying to say to me in those games. I can guess it’s probably not very nice! I can understand about 20 per cent of it I think, but I can’t really be insulted or affected by it because I don’t know what they are saying. I don’t know which part of my family they are trying to have a go at!
“In France though, I understand it more when they try to intimidate you, so it’s probably easier over here. But it’s part of the game as well. If there is nothing bad between each other, then it can’t be a derby. You need those rivalries in football.”
That makes winning and scoring in those games even sweeter, something Laca has experienced several times so far. And with a trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium still to come this season – the first derby there at which our fans will be present – our number nine knows he will forever have a place in history as the first ever goalscorer in a north London derby at that stadium.
“It’s true that it’s also a part of the game that when you score in those games you maybe enjoy it more,” he grins. “You have a bit more pride and maybe a bit of arrogance in the celebrations too. That’s how it is, and it makes the rivalry bigger.”
Laca is now in his fifth season in English football, and seems completely at ease with his surroundings, enjoying the presence of the fans again after the behind closed doors era.
“I love the atmosphere in English games, because you know the fans will be loud until the end, whatever the score is,” he says.
“Look at the Leeds game for example. They supported their team and sang until the end. That’s similar in France as well though. Mostly they get behind their team even if they are down, and that’s the football I like.
“I think all the players like that, and need it as well, because of course there are some games when you are not at your best and that’s when you need the energy of the crowd. You need your fans with you to keep pushing you. There have been lots of games when teams have come back from two or three goals down, and that’s because of the fans.
“I can see that with Arsenal as well. The Emirates is full again after the lockdown, and you can see the results are better for us. That’s because the fans are pushing us, staying with us, and there have been games when we have scored because of the pressure of the fans.”
One thing he particularly loves to hear from our fans is when his name his sung. Whenever the Emirates faithful sing ‘scoring goals is what he does best, and he goes by the name of Lacazette’ our striker swells with pride.
“It’s true, I get goosebumps just when I think about it,” he beams. “It’s really, really nice to have your own song. When you hear it in the stadium it’s just a great feeling. For some reason in the past week the players have been singing it to me a lot, I don’t know why! Bukayo keeps singing it to me, but it’s really nice. I had a song in Lyon, and I have one here, so it’s a big honour for me. To have a song from the fans at a big club like Arsenal is really, really special.”
That relationship Laca has built up with the Arsenal fans has grown over the years, from when he first arrived as a 26 year old, to regularly captaining the side now.
“I meet a lot of fans when I go out,” he adds, “but recently I’ve been staying at home as much as possible with covid, so maybe I don’t see as many as I did before.
“It was funny when I first came over though, because when I went out in London I noticed how big the club’s fanbase was. Sometimes I would go out and in one day I would meet about 20 or 25 different people, all telling me they supported Arsenal.
“At first I thought they can’t all be Arsenal fans, maybe they were just saying that because they recognised me. I thought ‘are there only Arsenal fans in London?’ But soon with time I just understand that no, it’s just that Arsenal is a huge famous club with lots of fans everywhere – not only in London.”
LACA ON…FAN UNREST IN FRANCE
French football has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons recently, with increasing cases of fan trouble in the stadiums. The match between Montpellier and Marseille earlier this season was stopped for more than ten minutes when Marseille midfielder Valentin Rongier was hit by a bottle thrown from the stands. Then a few weeks later Marseille's game with Nice was abandoned after 70 minutes due to further fan unrest. French football has had similar issues in the past with supporter behaviour in the stadiums – including during Laca's time at Lyon – and he believes it's a very different atmosphere generally in the Premier League to what he was used to back home.
"Yes it's really different, "he says. "Here I would say that the fans are more respectful. You see how it is in France at the moment at the games, the fans are becoming crazy. It looks like they don't have a limit. In France they are desperate to win everywhere, it's very intense, and I would say that's the main difference with the UK. It's definitely more respectful over here. Even if they insult you in the games, the behaviour is usually better in the stands, they don't go as far as in France.
"It's more violent in France, and it looks like it's getting worse. I know they will try to change things over there. There is a lot in the press about it but we don't hear much from the people at the top who can decide what to do about it. I think the problem is that it's not just football, it's linked to society as well and goes beyond the stadiums.
"Everyone can see what's happening and nobody can accept that it's right. There isn't much for us to say. We can't let it happen because you don't know how far it will go. How far do you go before you stop the games?"
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