Wednesday 04 May 2022, 07:00

Nzonzi: France were so relaxed ahead of the 2018 Final

  • Steven Nzonzi won the World Cup with France and Europa League with Sevilla

  • Currently on the books of Al Rayyan in Qatar, where 2022 World Cup will take place

  • In an exclusive interview with FIFA+, he talks about the Zen-like attitude of Les Bleus ahead of the 2018 Final

Steven Nzonzi is composed, calm and thoughtful, or at least that is how he comes across in his interview with FIFA+.

While his eyes light up on recollecting the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, which he won with France, Nzonzi is measured when the talk turns to this year’s edition, scheduled to run from 21 November to 18 December in his new home of Qatar, and his prospects of being part of it.

At 33, the midfielder, who currently plays for Al Rayyan in the Qatar Stars League, takes one game at a time and prefers not to worry about his international future. Asked if he expected to be called upon again by Didier Deschamps this year, he simply says: "We’ll see what happens." As for a possible involvement at Qatar 2022, "Why not?" he replies.

Formerly on the books of Roma, Galatasaray, Rennes and Sevilla, with whom he won the UEFA Europa League in 2016, Nzonzi was happy to talk about his memories of Russia 2018 and the atmosphere within the France squad there. He also shared his memories of the Final against Croatia, where he replaced N'Golo Kante for the final 35 minutes, as well as the footballing role models who inspired him as a youngster.

Steven Nzonzi, world champion with France at Russia 2018

How does it feel to be a world champion?

It's a dream – albeit one much bigger than anything else. As children, the thought of playing a World Cup is extraordinary. But winning one… well that’s almost unimaginable.

What was the atmosphere like on the eve of the Final at Russia 2018?

What struck me was that the players seemed really relaxed in the run-up to the Final. Maybe everyone was stressed, and no one wanted to show it, but it really felt like just another day. It didn't feel like we were going to play a final the following day.

There was an energy that emanated from the group, something the young players brought with them. Players like Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele brought an air of insouciance and self-confidence with them and freshened up the squad at that time. And they laughed a lot too… There was a strength, a complicity, that the squad exuded which made everyone relaxed in the run-up to this final.

What memories do you have of the Final itself and the moment Didier Deschamps tells you that you’re going on?

We were completely focused, albeit with a lot of excitement and adrenaline. During the warm-up, you really sense the pressure, but it’s a pressure that also allows you to raise your level of play and concentration. And then afterwards, once you’re on the pitch, you have to use that pressure to help the team and give the absolute maximum.

These are the kind of games where you sense that you have to seize the opportunity. When you have that feeling, and when you can manage the pressure in a positive way, it's beautiful. And then there’s the excitement. These are emotions that you can never relive.

How do you handle that kind pressure?

[For me] it comes naturally, although you need to have character and be brave. You also have to ignore what's going on around you, even if it's difficult. The moment you run on to the pitch, it's a football match, and we’re used to playing football matches in front of fans, often for high stakes. So, you just have to shut everything else out and stay focused.

Steven Nzonzi with France at Russia 2018

How does it feel to actually touch the World Cup Trophy?

[Laughs] Even before taking to the field, you can see it up close by the side of the pitch. It generates a lot of sensations. You're like, 'Oh yeah, there it is… the real thing.' You’ve seen it thousands of times before, when you’re small, and when you grow up too. It's the ultimate trophy, the Grail, so just to see it right there is already extraordinary. Then moments later, you have to get yourself ready to win the game… there’s simply no alternative. Then you win it, hold it, share it with family, with the other players... It's amazing, extraordinary.

How would you describe your coach Didier Deschamps, and why do you think France have had such success with him in charge?

One of his greatest strengths is his competitive side. It’s something everyone can sense. In other words, we have a coach who is there to win, and not there to please anyone. He really wants to win. I’ve not met many people in my career with his degree of competitiveness. It’s in his DNA and is something few people have.

Also, I think he knows how to manage a group very well, which is another of his strengths. He’s close to the players and can joke with you, but he also knows how to command respect. We know when it’s time to work, be serious and win.

Steven Nzonzi celebrates with the Sevilla fans

At 33, you’ve been a world champion with France and won a European title Sevilla. Have you achieved all your career goals?

No, because I'm a competitor and would’ve liked to have won more trophies and appeared in more finals. I think you can never be entirely satisfied when you’re a player. When you’re given a taste of football at the highest level, it creates a kind of addiction, because you always need it after that, especially if you get a taste of victory.

With Sevilla, I got to experience finals, Copa del Rey finals, a Europa League final, which we won, and also compete in the Champions League. That makes you want to feel that again and again, and to taste victory more often. So no, I haven't achieved all my goals, but I'm very proud of the one I did achieve.

Have you given up on being recalled to the France squad? If not, do you have a plan of action to get back in contention by November?

I haven’t given up on rejoining the team because physically I feel good. But what does it take to be selected for the national team? Can someone playing in Qatar be called up for France? That poses a lot of questions. You have to be honest, however, and say it's very difficult. Even playing in Europe and being selected for France is very difficult.

Right now, I'm in Qatar and I'm playing. I'm also very professional and so we'll see what happens. Today, I’m quite far from being in the France team because of the championship in which I play. But we’ll see in the future, depending on what happens and where and how I play. But why not? The national team is dear to my heart.

I don't have a plan of action. I’m a simple player who does all he can on the field. I'm not a star or anything. I play but I’m not stressing about it. What I’ve already experienced with France is very beautiful and something I’m very proud of.

I was called up very late [to Russia 2018] and my participation was not a foregone conclusion. But being called up was a wonderful opportunity, and taking part in the World Cup was amazing, so I cannot complain. Things have already been extremely good for me. As for the future, be it short or long term, if the opportunity arose to rejoin the squad, I’d do so with pleasure.

Jay-Jay Okocha with Paris Saint-Germain

As a young lad, which players gave you a love of football?

The first player who had that effect on me was [Jay-Jay] Okocha at PSG and Nigeria. I liked attacking, technically gifted players who could dribble, which is not my style of play. Then there was Ronaldinho and Zidane, No10s who made every player of my generation dream. But, first and foremost, it was Okocha. For me, he was an exceptional player. I loved everything about him: his running, his dribbling, his shooting. At the time, he was with PSG, where I was a youth player, so I saw him play almost every weekend. He was my player, followed by Ronaldinho.

What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

France ‘98, as a 10-year-old. The match against Croatia, when Thuram nets a brace. That, or extra time against Paraguay, when Laurent Blanc scores. I have so many memories. Then the Final… the 3-0. My memories of that World Cup are incredibly detailed. It was the first one I watched, the first one when I was old enough to understand it and support a team. So yeah, that tournament is my first World Cup memory.

And finally your all-time Top 5 players to have graced the World Cup?

Top 5? That’s easy. Pele, Maradona, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Zidane. They’re all players who have won the World Cup so an obvious Top 5.