Emmanuel Petit is a self-proclaimed rebel, but now he wants to make a difference. As a player, he won the Premier League and Cup double with Arsenal, he scored a goal in France’s victorious 1998 World Cup final and helped his country win Euro 2000. This week, Petit announced his candidacy to run for French football federation president, but not in this year’s elections, which are in December. No, instead he wants to run in 2016. As with a team ahead of the World Cup, he has given himself four years to prepare.
Not that he plans to be idle during that period. He has become a supporter of Eric Thomas, president of the Amateur French Football Association who stood in last summer’s FFF elections though won less than 0.5% of the vote. The pair co-wrote a letter sent this week to 15,000 amateur clubs, which make up 63% of the voter base, noting that nearly 500,000 members have left the FFF in the last five years, with 3,000 amateur clubs going out of business. “To change things,” the pair urged, “you need to express yourselves.”
But they might have to wait a while. Thomas isn’t sure if he’s going to run again in December. The AFFA have a meeting next week to decide whether to put forward a candidate to challenge the trio in contention: current incumbent Noel Le Graet, former journalist-turned-Marseille president Christophe Bouchet, and DNCG (the financial body that monitors French clubs’ finances) ex-president Francois Ponthieu.
“The federation is not only a showcase for the national team: it is like a big train and behind it, a lot of carriages have come loose,” Petit told France Football this week. “The federation is trying to cope with the economic crisis but it also has a social mission: sport must find its place in the social nucleus. There is not enough sport in education.”
Petit has been doing his bit for social responsibility too. He is a supporter of the Anti-Obesity Foundation, Jersey for Life and Handicap International, he also helped set up sponsors for the Homeless World Cup. Spurs fans may not agree that his social conscience is outstanding: after all, he admitted that in 1997, he took a pre-paid cab from contract talks at White Hart Lane straight to Highbury, where he signed a deal with Arsenal.
That conscience was tested at Stamford Bridge; his time there (2001-04) coincided with the takeover of Roman Abramovich as owner. Petit was uncomfortable with it at the time. “The arrival of Abramovich didn’t upset me in itself, it’s where his fortune came from which put me ill at ease and is something I can’t stand,” he wrote in his 2008 autobiography A Fleur de Peau. “He is one of these people who got his hands on what belonged to the people; in a country where people were still queuing up to buy bread, that’s something that troubled me.
“When Abramovich came to visit us at the training-centre, I had the impression of seeing a mafia godfather turn up, surrounded by his bodyguards. I used to imagine all sorts of scenes in my head: wondering if there was a sniper hidden in the hedges. His attitude bothered me, I can’t help thinking that he bought himself respectability and impunity by investing in Chelsea. In this way, Chelsea became the symbol or the caricature of this football business which didn’t exist, at least in that form, at the start of my career. In these current conditions, is football still just a game?”
Petit is still beating the same drum and his election manifesto, which he is concedes is still being considered (though he is pro-artificial pitches and wants to improve the promotion of women’s football) is based heavily around closing the gap between amateur clubs and their professional counterparts.
“I fear for the future of social order, of course, for my kids, but also for the future of football,” he told So Foot. “Finance has the power in football. But treating amateur football with so little consideration is like sawing off the branch on which we sit. All the pros are from the amateur world.”
What about Financial Fair Play, though? “The system works that the clubs who receive the most TV rights are the most indebted. So it’s a bit the snake biting its own tail [he loves his metaphors, does Manu]. Financial Fair Play is to stop the bleeding with plasters. If Uefa try to sanction the big clubs, they will find ways to get round it, or can threaten to leave and form a Super League. At the amateur level, hundreds of thousands of volunteers have lost faith and clubs are being killed off…”
Petit is a smart guy—he’s a successful businessman with investments in Kentaro marketing agency and Netco Sports, a successful App provider—but he might be biting off more than he can chew here. Is he cut out for politics? He claims to have no skeletons in his closet but will his habit for speaking his mind, while refreshing and enjoyable, win him votes in four years?
After all, this is the guy who once said of his rebellious streak: “I like rebels, I like people who have balls, they’re the ones who get things done. Don’t blame anything on the rebels and marginals of our society just because you don’t have any balls: just stay the sheep that you are, I don’t give a fuck. I tell you to fuck off with a capital ‘F’.”
France Football asked him if he’s ready to be back in the firing-line. “I spent 20 years of my life there. I’m not scared, and I don’t want to muck around. I want to help French football.”
Petit once explained that he had a cameo role in now-defunct British TV police drama The Bill in which he walked into a hospital ward carrying a bunch of flowers for an Arsenal fan (he thought he was going to be in Bill and Ben but he still said yes). “I have been offered loads of roles in films, some serious, but the problem is I can’t act,” he once said. “I can only be Emmanuel Petit.” That is his greatest strength, but it’s also his weakness too. It’s going to be a fun ride.