Nicolas Pepe | In my own words

My family sacrificed everything to make sure I could become a footballer. And when I say everything, let me tell you that I mean everything.

My family emigrated from Ivory Coast to France in 1995 and used to tell me about how difficult that was, especially when we were at school. They used to tell me that we had everything and they used to have nothing.

They would tell us stories of how they’d walk 10 kilometres barefoot and we were lucky to be able to go to school by bus. When we grew up, my mother and father stopped working and came to live me with just because of football, and just to make sure my dreams came true.

They were there during the toughest times and the best times and they are still here right now. That is what they have done to this day. They helped me make this dream come true and they will continue to be by my side to support me.

Nico signs for Arsenal

Let’s go right back to the start, when I used to play in goal. When I was a goalkeeper, I think we used to win six or 7-0 and I asked if we could change it so I could play on the pitch because I was bored in the goal. So then I swapped and moved on the pitch and I would even score.

Playing in goal back then helps me a lot now. I know how a goalkeeper moves in relation to the position of the ball. That means I have a different way of analysing the position of the goalkeeper perhaps in comparison to others who might not understand how a goalkeeper moves. I know very well how they think and move in relation to the position of the ball.

I loved playing in goal when I was really young but when I was 13 years old, I moved outfield. That’s when I started to imitate Drogba and his celebrations. He began by playing for Marseille and we would watch him there. That or when he played for the Ivory Coast squad where he did the coupé-décalé, a type of dance. That is something we would often do with my friends. It is something I will never forget.

Didier Drogba

Didier Drogba celebrates scoring against Libya in 2004

After spending some time at Poitiers, I began my professional career at Angers. I remember when I signed my first professional contract, I had to make the sacrifice of dropping down to the third tier, the National, and play on loan at Orleans, at a much lower level than I wanted. 

It was tough because I had just signed a contract at a Ligue 1 side but then immediately had to drop down to develop my game and come back a stronger player. After a tricky first couple of months, that’s exactly what I did.

After all, at Angers I was definitely not always on the right track and had a lot to learn. Actually, on a day I arrived at the training centre at the start of pre-season, I had this big mohican and the coach asked me to get rid of it. I did not get rid of it straight away. I kept it but, the longer I kept it, the less I trained. So, in the end, I cut the whole thing off.

Nico in his early days at Angers (via nicolas.pepe19 on IG)

Of course in those early days I had lots of people who were close to me, and my agents, as well as Abdel Bouhazama who managed to set me straight. These are mistakes that were very useful to me to avoid making the same mistakes again.

They were childish really and they were mostly on the pitch. There were times when I would be really blasé. For example, I remember an under-19 game against Guingamp when the coach, Bouhazama, shouted at me. 

I answered him back and he took me straight off the pitch and we lost the game. He told me off for that little incident. Those were things that I did where I then had to apologise to the group because I had penalised the team. I learned a lot from these episodes and I had to become a lot more mature to really avoid that kind of incident happening again.

Abdel Bouhazama (back row, second from right) was a big inspiration for Nico

Bouhazama was a big influence in terms of my training. He is a coach who meant a lot to me, not just in terms of football but in terms of everyday life. He taught us a lot, both to me and the young people at the training centre. I think he teaches them a lot because, as he says, there is more to life than football, there is also life.

If you do not have football, you need to knuckle down in life. For example, he would make us run at six o’clock in the morning to show how things really were in normal daily life. We would see binmen picking up rubbish at six o’clock in the morning while we were on the pitch. 

He showed us that we were lucky to be there and so we had to make the most of it. These were things that we began to be aware of. It used to be a bit of a joke to us but then, as we saw that every day, we definitely took our work very seriously. Because being a football player is actually all about the profession. This is something he really taught us a lot about.

Nico in action for Angers against Montpellier in 2016

You see, it’s not been easy for me and that’s why it’s so emotional for me to be here. I have come a long way and struggled a lot, so signing for this great club is a big reward.

My family, my agents and I talked a lot about it during the Africa Cup of Nations. It was so important for me to make the right decision in the next stage of my career, and I’m convinced that Arsenal is the right choice. 

When I think of this club, I think of all the French guys like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. Then I also think of Mesut Ozil, the world champion, Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and many more. 

Auba and Laca spring to mind because I used to watch them when I was at Lille. Also, Laca used to play for Lyon, so I had the opportunity to play against him and it will be an honour to play alongside him.

I also think about the Ivorian players who have represented this club before me. I am following in the footsteps of Kolo Toure, Manu Eboue and Gervinho. They are the major players from the Ivory Coast. We talk a lot about Gervinho, for example, who played for Lille and ended up at Arsenal so I am on the same path. They are definitely examples to us young Ivorians and I hope we will continue to follow these examples.

Kolo was with us on the national squad as an assistant coach. He spoke to me a lot about the very high level, how he got to Arsenal and how you always have to work hard and really graft on a daily basis to try and get right to the very top. 

I have made mistakes but I’ve learned from them. I’ve got to where I am through hard work and dedication. I’m ready to do that here at Arsenal. 

Nicolas Pepe

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