At 16, Graeme Le Saux was working part-time in Gerald Durrell’s zoo in Jersey, a tiny island off the coast of England, where he was born and grew up, contemplating a university degree in environmental studies. Just four years later, he was playing for Chelsea in the English Premier League. Le Saux quickly became one of the best defenders in the game, winning trophies with both Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers, making 36 appearances for the English national squad, and becoming the most expensive defender in English football in 1997 when he left Rovers to rejoin Chelsea. But behind the success story there was also a darker narrative—of being isolated from teammates in the early part of his career because they thought he was gay, and then being publicly abused for it every time he stepped on to the pitch.
An ambassador for Chelsea since his retirement in 2005, Le Saux was in New Delhi recently to attend the International Football Arena’s second Indian round table to discuss the future of football development in India. He spoke about abuse and success in football, his passions and interests, and the dominance of Barcelona. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You faced relentless abuse from fellow players and spectators because they thought you were gay, and homosexuality is still such a taboo in football. How did you succeed despite this unfair pressure?
In my autobiography (Left Field: A Footballer Apart), I make it clear that I wouldn’t have changed anything. This was my career and I’m proud of it, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.
Sometimes, you get into situations where you just don’t fit. I was this naive boy who was popular with his friends in Jersey, which is a small island with a population of about 80,000 people. Suddenly, I’m in the dressing room in Chelsea with all these guys who are experienced footballers, and I just did not know how to blend in. My interests too were different—I liked reading, going to museums, and it had become quite easy for the odd player to start spreading rumours about my sexuality. Before I knew it, the rumours were in the public domain. The homophobic taunting that followed was relentless and I did feel like giving up football. Once, at a match, a boy who could not have been more than 10 was shouting abuses at me, and his dad joined in.
Goal setter: Le Saux says Chelsea have a programme called Find an Asian star, especially aimed at pushing Pakistani and Indian communities in Britain to train at their facilities. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
I’m a parent myself and I can’t imagine anything like that coming out of the mouth of my children, and it’s worrying to think that this child is growing up thinking it’s okay to say that.
Do you think you would have been an even better player ifyou had not been subjected to this abuse?
I’m stubborn and somehow I did not give in. As my career progressed, I got better, more experienced and respected for what I did on the pitch, people within the game became more accepting. I had no problems in the dressing room for many years, especially when I returned to Chelsea as an England international in 1997—that was the happiest dressing room I’ve ever been in. It was a really good mix—people came from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures, and the atmosphere was broad-minded. Invariably, you do think that with more support you could have succeeded more. But I’m satisfied with my career and I feel I’ve overachieved in some ways—playing for my country was beyond my wildest dreams, or to win the premier league. Like any prejudice, it’s about ignorance and you need to educate people about it, and not in an academic way. Whether it’s race, religion or sexuality, there is a need to have a continuing effort to battle prejudice. The football environment should be mature enough to say, whatever your sexuality, if you want to be a football player, you will have the same opportunity as anyone else.
What do you think of the new style of play that Barcelona and the Spanish team have had so much success with? How can you counter that kind of possession football?
Barcelona made Manchester United look like an average team at the Champions League final (2011). United were not allowed to play at all. Barcelona is an exception and to try and emulate them is wrong. They have a unique group of players, especially the trio of (Lionel) Messi, (Andrés) Iniesta and (Xavier Hernandez Creus) Xavi. They play this incredible football which is fast and dictates the tempo of the game and is also amazingly technical. They suck the energy out of the opposition players and fans. They can go to Bernabeu and insult Real Madrid by keeping the ball as long as they want. Then the opposition gets frustrated and starts chasing the ball. Then they are vulnerable because they are leaving spaces open—spaces which the Barcelona players are moving in to exploit. They are so fluid, and their awareness is incredible. Unless you score first against Barcelona, it becomes really difficult to overcome them because they can keep doing what they want, the way they want it.
Power play: Graeme Le Saux (in blue) of Chelsea challenging Lauren of Arsenal during the FA Cup final in 2002. Getty Images
As a defender, how would you have handled Messi?
The first thing as a football player is that you have to be aware of distances. If you’re too far away, you are in trouble whether he has the ball or not because he will be free to move into whichever direction he wants and accelerate away, or have the time to play the right pass or shot. If you’re too close, he’s going to dribble past you and embarrass you.
I’ve played against (Luis) Figo and (Zinedine) Zidane and you are constantly fighting to structure this information in your head: Where is he? Where am I? Where are my other defenders? It’s only by being in the right position that you can deny him what he wants.
Do you think it’s important for a team to stick to a single coach for success? Like Alex Ferguson, who has been with Manchester United for 24 years?
Sir Alex is almost irreplaceable; he is so established in every aspect of Manchester United. But he’s the last of his kind really. I don’t think many modern managers have that opportunity and clubs don’t see that having one manager for a long time is always the best way. One of the signs of modern football is that you don’t necessarily have to rely on the manager as the backbone of the team the way Sir Alex is.
Arsenal, for example, had a fantastic early period with Arsene Wenger but they haven’t won anything for four-five seasons, so there needs to be a change if they want to win. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho came in and changed everything and he was successful. His successor Carlo Anceloti won the double (Premier League and FA Cup) in his first season. So Chelsea, despite changing managers, have had a lot of success because the club sticks to its own philosophy no matter who the manager is.