“If football’s got a soul, that’s where it lives,” David Beckham once said in reference to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach where he had spent an evening playing soccer on the sand with some local kids. And next summer, the world’s most widely viewed sporting event, the World Cup, returns to Brazil for the first time since 1950. In the first of a series of interviews with some of the sport’s rising stars, Life+Times catches up with French footballer Samir Nasri. The gifted Manchester City midfielder has carried a reputation as a bit of a l’enfant terrible in recent years after public fallouts with the press, fans and even his teammates; but the start of the 2013-14 English Premier League season has seen a rejuvenated, more mature return for the Marseille born 26-year-old. A goal in his first game of the season and a recall to the French national team bode well for the extremely gifted player in the run up to the World Cup, so we spoke to him exclusively about his hopes for the new season, why people think what they think about him, and more importantly, why that’s not true at all.
Life+Times: The English soccer season is well underway now, how do you think the first few games have gone for you?
Samir Nasri: Well it’s always a relief to get a couple of wins at the beginning of the season, to start well and to show our ambition to everyone in the league, and on a personal note, of course it’s always good to get a goal.
L+T: How do you rate Manchester City’s chances of winning the English Premier League this year?
SN: I think everyone knows we’ve got a good team this season and that we’re always going to be one of the favorites. Now we have to find chemistry between the new players and the new manager, so it’s a little bit too early to start making predictions. But we’ll see at the end of the season.
L+T: Of course, your club Manchester City have a new manager in Manuel Pelligrini. How has he changed the club in the short time he’s
been in charge?
SN: By bringing more discipline to the team and he’s a guy who has a good philosophy about playing football. He came with his ideas and he’s made us understand what he wants from us. I think he’s a very good manager and he’s proven himself with Villareal, Real Madrid and Malaga, so I think we’ll gain from his experience and I’m sure we’re gonna have a lot of success together.
L+T: It’s been well documented that you and former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini didn’t see eye to eye, what with him saying that sometimes he feels like punching you and saying that you train at 50 percent. So on a personal note is it a positive that there’s been a change in management?
SN: Not really. After all it was Mancini who brought me to Manchester City because he wanted me there. We had our differences, but I think he did that to touch my pride and get a reaction from me on the pitch. Sometimes you can have disagreements with your manager, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t like each other. He said what he thought was best for me and you have to respect that. He’s your manager and you have to do what he wants.
L+T: There’s also been a lot of new faces come into the Manchester City team. With you being a substitute in the first few games, do you worry about your place in the team, or do you see competition for positions as a good thing?
SN: No, I don’t worry about anyone who comes to the club. I think it’s a good thing to have competition in every position and I think that if I train well and play well when I get the chance, the manager will play the best team he has available, because he just wants to get results. Football is like that. If you play at a high level, you’re always gonna have competition.
L+T: The direct attacking approach we saw in the first game of the season is quite similar to that seen in the rest of Europe; do you think
that’ll help Manchester City to be more successful in the UEFA Champions League this year after two disappointing campaigns?
SN: Yeah, maybe. To be honest we’ve been unlucky with the draw in the past two seasons. We’ve always been in the “group of death” and we’ve had a lack of experience because it’s only been our first two seasons in the competition. Hopefully we’ll learn from our mistakes. We’re gonna have a more attractive style of playing football and I think in Europe the game is more open, so we’re gonna benefit from this new style of play.
L+T: Over your career you’ve played both through the middle and on the wings. What do you see as your best position?
SN: It depends on the system. Since I was young, I’ve always played through the middle; even for the national team. When I arrived at my last club, Arsenal, it was Arsene Wenger who started to play me in wide positions and when I arrived at Manchester City, it was the same with Mancini and even now with Pelligrini, so now I’m used to playing there. I’m not gonna say that I need to play in a particular position, I’m gonna play where the team needs me, because that’s how we work. Today I don’t need to say anything. I just have to be good, play and get a result. That’s it.
L+T: How do you feel about the group this year?
SN: I think we have a good chance. On paper, we’ll be fighting for the top position with Bayern Munich. I mean no disrespect to CSKA Moscow or Viktoria Plzen, but we are one of the favorites. But then again, the last two years have shown that anything can happen so we’ll see, but I’m pretty confident that we can get through the group stage.
Life+Times: It’s also a World Cup year and you’ve recently been re-selected for the French national side. Does it feel good to be back?
SN: It feels good. I don’t know if I’m gonna be going to the World Cup, because it’s pretty soon to start talking about it, but that’s my ambition; to play in the World Cup. It’s been my dream since I was five years old to play in the World Cup and especially as it’s gonna be in Brazil – it’s gonna be something special. But yeah I’m really happy to be back in the national team. I’ve had some disagreements with some people there, but now everything is erased, it’s a new page, it’s a new chapter, so I’m looking forward to it. This is my chance to make amends. My behavior at the ‘Euro 2012 wasn’t a good example, but now I have a chance to represent for my country again.
L+T: Does the World Cup being in Brazil – the most successful footballing nation – hold any extra incentive to you?
SN: Both. It’s always special to play a World Cup in Brazil, because it’s a country that loves football, but at the same time, I don’t mind, I just wanna play a World Cup wherever it is!
L+T: How do you rate France’s chances of qualifying? They haven’t made it easy by having you in the same group as Spain.
SN: Well, I think we have a good chance. We are one point behind Spain with three games to go, so anything can happen. Even if we have to go through the play-offs. We have a really good generation. The under 20s just won the World Cup, the under 19s got to the final of the European Championship and we have a few good players, so we can do well in the World Cup.
L+T: French manager Didier Deschamps told the press that you weren’t selected for a year, because of injury and recovery. But you’ve said it was because you didn’t feel you were playing good enough. Does it feel good to have the protection of the manager like that?
SN: Yes, it’s always good to know your manager believes in you
L+T: What players do you rate as strong prospects for the future?
SN: From our national team I think Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba are the most exciting prospects.
L+T: Your girlfriend, model Anara Atanes is of Spanish and Portuguese heritage. So is there gonna be any fallouts in the Nasri household over your different allegiances during the World Cup?
SN: There’s no conflict, because hopefully I won’t be at home, I’ll be in Brazil playing for France! And obviously she will have to support me! [Laughs].
L+T: Some people say that you have a bad attitude and that you’re a bit spoiled. What do you say to that?
SN: I think that those people don’t know me. Maybe they have this image of me, but to be honest I haven’t helped them to see who I really am, because I haven’t spoken to the press for two years. The fans, they know you through the press and I don’t really talk too much. The last time I spoke to a journalist I abused him, so I can understand the way they feel about me. But if they were living with me they would not say that.
L+T: So you feel you’re misunderstood by the public?
SN: I’m not going to say misunderstood, but I can understand why they think what they think about me, but that’s just not who I am.
L+T: You had a pretty bad experience when you went to see your former team Arsenal play when an Arsenal fan started abusing you in the street. How difficult is it to deal with the constant heckling you receive from the public?
SN: It isn’t hard. That was just someone trying to be intimidating by coming close and getting in my face. He knows that we’re in public in front of a lot of people, so I’m not gonna stop and say anything back, so he took the opportunity to say what he wanted to say. If I had reacted then I cannot play football, because every time we play Arsenal I receive abuse. But that’s life. For me he was just a sad person.
L+T: A lot of players have moved on from Arsenal in the past few years, but none of the other seem to receive as much vitriol as you do. Why do you think that is? Do you feel you warrant it?
SN: Because they loved me so much and they felt betrayed when I left the club but it’s life you need to move on with your choices and not to have any regrets. I respect the club for everything they gave me and I will always support them no matter what.
L+T: You’ve said on a few occasions that you don’t think that you had a good season last year. Why do you think that was?
SN: I think I had a bad season because I was a little bit traumatized by what happened in the European Championship. I didn’t open up to anyone, I didn’t talk to anyone about it; I just kept it to myself. Also I picked up an injury very early on into the season and after that I lost a bit of confidence and found it difficult to perform because of that.
L+T: For those of us who don’t know you personally, it would seem like you’re a more positive, more mature person than before. Would you agree?
SN: Yeah I’m in a better place than last year, that’s for sure. When you make mistakes, you learn from them and it helps you grow as a person. So even if last year was tough for me, when you look back on it, it was useful for me, because it helped me become the person I am today.
L+T: How would your friends describe you?
SN: Funny, generous, kind and at the same time sometimes I can be moody if I don’t like something.
L+T: Eric Cantona who also played in the premiership and was also born and raised in Marseille like yourself, was often similarly targeted. Is he someone who you can look up to see how he overcame the detractors to gain legendary status in England?
SN: Yeah. I like him as a player, because he didn’t change the way he was, he just stayed the same and he was always really good on the pitch. When you’re really good on the pitch, they forgive you for anything bad you might have done off of it. After he was banned for eight months for kicking a fan, he returned and scored in his first game back, won the league and that made people forget about his past. Otherwise he was always the same and when he had something to say, he just said it.
L+T: Zinedine Zidane also is from Marseille, and he also has had to be strong in the face of adversity. Is there something about growing up in Marseille that prepares you for what’s out on the pitch?
SN: We come from a rough area and you learn to deal with it from when you’re young. You learn to defend yourself when you’re from a bad area. It’s not specific to Marseille. You have people like this in Paris, in New York, everywhere. It just depends on who you are. Some people get upset more quickly, some people are more quiet.
L+T: The profile of soccer in the US has risen greatly in recent years. You’ve been there on tour as well for personal holidays. Does playing in the MLS hold any appeal to you?
SN: Maybe. I really like the lifestyle in America and Major League Soccer just keeps getting bigger and bigger and in a few years it could be very successful. Right now, Manchester City are building a franchise with the [New York] Yankees and that’s going to be really interesting.
L+T: Do you listen to a lot of music in your spare time?
SN: Yeah I really love music. I like French hip-hop. I like hip-hop and R&B. I listen to a lot of Drake, JAY Z, and Lil Wayne.
L+T: What about in the dressing room, who chooses what music the team listens to?
SN: It depends, this pre-season I put my iPod over the speakers, because now I’m more comfortable with everyone in the team, but otherwise it’s the English lads because they think they listen to the best music.
L+T: What songs do you like to listen to psyche yourself up before a game?
SN: JAY Z’s new album Magna Carta… Holy Grail. I really like “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt.” I also like a lot of Drake and French Montana. That kind of music.
L+T: You recently did a photo shoot for Esquire magazine. Are you comfortable in front of the camera and is it something you enjoy?
SN: You know, when they asked me to do it, I didn’t know if I was bothered to do it, but once I get in front of the camera I started to enjoy it, so yeah and after when I saw the final pictures, I really liked it and it’s an experience I’d like to have again.
L+T: Your girlfriend’s a model. Did she give you any pointers on posing?
SN: Yes, she talks about modeling all day long! [laughs]. She’s obsessed with pictures. Every time we are on holiday she wants to take lots of pictures, but I think it’s cute because she wants to have memories and I think she wants me to get into it as well.
L+T: Is fashion something you’re interested in? Who are your favorite designers?
SN: Oh yeah, I like fashion a lot and I like it more since I’ve been with Anara [Atanes]. I like Balmain to be honest, it’s really good. Givenchy as well. There’s so much out there, but I’m gonna say they’re my two favorites. In terms of shoes, I like Giuseppe Zanotti.
L+T: Considering a lot of footballers experiment with clothing lines, is that something that you would like to do?
SN: No, no. I’m not into it. I’ve seen too many footballers try and not have success because like I said, there is too much out there that is really good. I think once you’ve made a name for yourself in sports, it’s too difficult to do it fashion as well.
L+T: Is there anything you can tell us that not many people know about yourself?
SN: I’m quite passionate about movies and watching TV series. I watch every series going with my girlfriend and my friends. I really loveEntourage – I might have watched it about 10 times! It reminds me a little bit of what my life was before. I also watch Breaking Bad, House Of Cards… there are too many to mention them all.
L+T: Do you have any other interests besides football that you would like to get involved in?
SN: The only other thing would be charity work. Work with people, with kids, that’s something I want to do more of. Use my profile to help kids who might be ill or come from unprivileged backgrounds.
L+T: And finally, what are your personal goals for this year, both in your personal life and on the pitch?
SN: Well I want to have a great season with my team, win the Premier League, win the Champions League, go to the World Cup and hopefully do something great there. I want to have success in everything I do. I’m an ambitious person and that’s what I want. Both on the pitch and in my personal life, but the most important thing is for me, my family and the person I love to be healthy.
Samir Nasri Photo Credit: Manchester City