Some Arsenal supporters at certain times have asked their former midfielder Mathieu Flamini to buy the club. The retired midfield cog – now entrepreneur – retains affection for Olympique Marseille, Arsenal and AC Milan.
“Obviously those clubs have a special place in my heart,” he says. “I never forget where I come from. In life, you never know but it’s all about the right opportunity. I’m a real believer in the right time, right place, right people.”
He recalls how Arsenal lost the Champions League crown to Liverpool.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I got injured in Liverpool. I twisted my ankle, and we lost the game right at the end because of a bit of naivety. Inexperience cost us in the Champions League and in the Premier League. I remember this game in Birmingham; the terrible injury of Eduardo shocked all of us. I don’t believe in excuses: it was our fault we lost out that year, but it was a very emotional time which had an impact on us.”
He is keenly watching the current team in their quest at the top of the table. “I strongly believe they can do it,” he says. “Looking at how focused the team is, how strongly they are approaching every game, it gives me the confidence that they have the quality and mentality to make it happen.
“We still have eight games ahead and focusing game by game is very important. They have managed to bring everybody in around the team – the fans, ex-players, everyone – and the support is total. Everyone is together in this journey and if they can do it, they will make us all so proud and happy.”
Flamini left Arsenal for Milan on a Bosman (free transfer). He was headstrong enough to do things for his benefit, but there was a sentimental reason behind his desire to go to Serie A. His father is from just outside Rome and the Italian heartbeat of the family is strong.
“I always wanted to play in Italy,” he says. “When I had the opportunity to go there, I thought I would grow as a player and as a human being. I would go to Italy where we have roots, so it was a way of discovering myself to go back to my origins.
“People at Arsenal said, ‘But why did you leave?’ I joined a team with three Ballon d’Or winners: (Andriy) Shevchenko, Kaka, Ronaldinho; I played with people like (Paolo) Maldini, (Clarence) Seedorf, (Andrea) Pirlo, (Filippo) Inzaghi. The manager was Carlo Ancelotti, one of the most titled managers. When I moved to Arsenal I met incredible players like (Dennis) Bergkamp, Sol Campbell, (Patrick) Vieira, (Thierry) Henry, with Arsene Wenger. But moving to Milan offered another opportunity for learning. Myself and (Alexandre) Pato were among the youngest in Milan. Most of them were 30-plus and football legends.
“Walking into the dressing room was exciting. I was struck by their humility. I remember arriving and Paolo was sitting next to me. He gave me his number and said ‘If you need anything, you call me’. The humility and kindness of those champions struck me the most. To be a football legend and also be so humble, so open, and act with such simplicity taught me a lot. It was a learning experience every day.”
He noticed many of the older players were entrepreneurs thinking of scenarios outside of football. Kakha Kaladze went into politics. Seedorf was business-driven. “It put something in my mind,” Flamini says.
After five years in Milan, during which he won the Scudetto in 2010-11, he got in touch with Wenger. The Arsenal manager tended to keep an open door to former players who needed fitness for one reason or another. Flamini hoped to sharpen up with a view to finding a new club.
Wenger was not usually keen to re-sign former players but occasionally made an exception. Flamini credits Wenger as a major influence on his life. “Obviously he is someone who has shaped my way of thinking and my way of being. He was for me a bit of a father figure.”
Flamini’s return to Arsenal was made official in 2013. “I like to say it was unfinished business,” he says. “It was the right time. It was great for both of us. It was great for me to go back and join a team I love very much. It was also the right thing for Arsene to bring some experience and some passion into midfield.” He was part of the squad that won two FA Cups in 2014 and 2015 and was a cult figure among fans for his tendency to excel against Tottenham Hotspur.
Flamini cares deeply about climate change, spreading the message and getting on with it as soon as humanly possible. “When you see Greta Thunberg bringing a generation of kids onto the streets, I feel I have this responsibility towards the next generation. We created the problem. We have to be part of the solution.
“What are we going to say to our kids? I meet people every day who are trying to be part of the solution, part of the ecosystem of people bringing innovation to try to make the future a better place. I’m excited about that; to be part of those people I call believers.”
Flamini is also incredibly driven. Not many footballers have become a CEO in a completely new sphere.
“Words cannot express the emotion you feel when you witness climate change first hand. The Arctic is at the forefront of the warming and I’m astounded at the lack of commitment to halt and hopefully reverse this phenomenon,” h says on his Twitter handle.
“What I miss the most from football is not actually playing, it’s more the dressing room. The camaraderie. That connection. It’s total dedication to the team. I always enjoyed sacrificing for the team. Ultimately, you spend more time with your team-mates than your family. What I miss most is the wolf pack.
“So in a way, you try to recreate it in your new life. Here my challenge is different – changing an industry. Every day I have some fights, problems to resolve. It’s a different challenge but it’s the same mindset and the same dedication. It’s also a lot of pressure. So I’ve transferred all this energy from one fight to another. I’m trying to recreate the wolf pack within this ecosystem.
“I’m very lucky to be part of this movement of people trying to drive change and create more sustainability. They’re brilliant people – creative and scientific – making a difference in the plastic industry or protecting the Amazon. They are my wolf pack. When I see one of them, it’s super exciting.”
But he has not totally left football behind. He is wondering about how to harness the power of football and its influence to help to push for more change.
“Football is the No.1 sport, it is driving so much attention, the hot issues of this world should also be on the agenda of the governing bodies,” he says.
Then there is the idea of one day bringing his expertise as a business leader to football. “It’s a world that I belong to. If there is the right opportunity at the right time and the right discussion, if I meet people who share the same vision and mindset and desire to use football for a purpose, I would love to.”
“We’ll see what the future is made of. I’m a believer. If you want something very much, the universe usually brings it to you. Let’s see what the universe will bring.”
- The Athletic report / By Amy Lawrence