NAIROBI, December 5- He may have left Arsenal in 2006 a two-time English Premier League and three-time FA Cup winner but the allure of French winger and Gunners legend, Robert Pires was still much alive on Saturday when he joined select Kenyan fans in watching his former team labour to sink Sunderland 3-1.
Together with a stellar cast that included compatriots Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, Dutch maestro Dennis Bergkamp, Swede Fredrik Ljungberg and the rest of the 2004 ‘Invincibles’ team considered to be Arsene Wenger’s best Arsenal side, Pires earned a cult following among local Gunners faithful.
Fans of other key rivals of the day, Manchester United and Liverpool loathed the untold suffering he unleashed on their chosen teams on the right but nonetheless, acknowledged the mastery of the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winner with France.
And it did not take long for the handful of local supporters treated to the Barclays Premier League experience at a Nairobi hotel in the presence of the legend to understand why the man who returned to train with Arsenal this year after playing in the fledgling Indian Super League side, Goa FC, commands such huge adulation even in his post playing career.
He easily won over even rival teams’ fans with his easy going and charming demeanour that belied his legendary status and global super-stardom.
“I’m so grateful for the welcome I’ve received in Kenya and enjoyed my stay. I’m a bit surprised by the huge support the Premier League and Arsenal have here,” he said of Kenya after arriving on Thursday night for a weekend of Barclays Bank sponsored activities.
“Arsenal will win 3-0 with Olivier Giroud, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey scoring,” he predicted pre-match, nailing two of the three scorers on the day and bar Giroud’s own goal, also getting correct the Gunners goal count.
“The team has been hit with three critical injuries in the last week, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny but it’s good to have Laurent back. I’m not in a position to know what Arsene Wenger is planning but he needs to strengthen in January if Arsenal are to win the title,” he added.
He also backed his side to reclaim the title they last won when he was a player after going the whole 2004 season without a league defeat should they strengthen in the winter transfer window in January.
“We need additions especially in the defensive midfield where Francis Coquelin and Mikel Arteta are injured,” Pires added.
As the game went on with injury ravaged Arsenal making a heavy meal of beating Sunderland, the roller-coaster of emotions that gripped the invited Goon mob coursed through him like the guy next door, jumping up to celebrate Joel Campbell’s opener and putting hands to head when Olivier Giroud scored the own goal that levelled the match in despair.
His compatriot atoned for his blunder with a fine header that brought life to the room and when Aaron Ramsey sealed the win, he was up on his feet like anyone else. For the moment, it was lost on the gathering there was a star in their presence.
“Good victory and for me, the man of the match is Koscielny because he had a great game in defence. Per Mertesacker was also good and Petr Cech showed why he was bought because he is a top goalkeeper because Sunderland put pressure,” he remarked after the match.
When photo opportunities arose at half-time and post-match, Pires, 42, patiently engaged each and every fan who took turns to pose for a photo, take a selfie or ask for his autograph with the same grace he effortlessly glided through the flanks in his playing days.
Despite encountering them for the first time in his life, Pires made everyone who approached him feel like they’ve known him for years.
Tons of praise, many thanks and admiration from his star-struck audience who grabbed most of the opportunity to stock on their collection of unforgettable memories did not faze the player who returned to the Barclays Premier League with Aston Villa in 2010 after a successful stint in La Liga BBVA with Villareal.