Interview with Robert Pires: 'I hope to see an Indian player in the Premier League one day'
That Invincible feeling...
It's not everyday that you see a Premier League legend in the flesh in India but here was Arsenal legend and club ambassador Robert Pires, brought back to the country by PUMA to promote the game and meet with the football crazy fans of Bengaluru.
"I love India," he said with his warm, charismatic smile that lit up the room.
"I played mainly in Goa (in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League) but I'm happy to visit Bengaluru and see the football culture here and meet with the fans."
And the fans were more than happy to see him too. A World Cup winner, a European champion and a member of Arsenal's Invincibles that went an entire season unbeaten - what does he remember fondly from that season, though?
"I have great memories of that season, I'm very proud to be a part of that team. That squad was very special. I played with great players - Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira..."
Who can forget those names? A 49-match unbeaten run has immortalised the lot that won half their matches as soon as they lined up alongside their opponents in the tunnel - at least that's how Henry described it.
"When you play on the same wavelength with the same objective to win the trophy, you can beat all teams in the Premier League," Pires explained.
Sounds simple enough but Pires also reveals they were never chasing the record - then held by the Preston North End side of 1888/89 - set more than a century ago.
"We didn't think about the unbeaten record. We took it game by game. The Premier League is very tough and in the UK it's not only about Manchester United or Chelsea or Tottenham. Sometimes the worst games are against sides such as Leeds, Bolton [Wanderers] and Blackburn [Rovers]. To win the title, you must win these games as well."
That's not to say the road to the title was easy. "Some games were difficult, like Manchester United away. It was very difficult to win at Old Trafford."
While Old Trafford is always a tough place to visit, the same cannot be said of Arsenal's north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Pires made it a point to score in the derby whenever he had the chance.
"The games against Tottenham were always special for the fans and I'm a lucky man. I think I've played 12 games and I've scored 8 goals?" That famous smile was back on his face coupled with a twinkle in his eye.
"All the games against Tottenham were amazing; games with a lot of intensity, great atmosphere - be it Highbury or White Hart Lane."
And if he had to choose his best goal from the lot? "The second goal in the game at White Hart Lane when we won the title (May 2004). The fans were very happy and that was such an amazing season for everybody."
Pires hopes to see an Indian in the Premier League one day
Pires is 43 now and he too has accepted that his days as a footballer are well and truly over. However, he still has a keen interest in football and praised the strides Indian football has taken in the country in the last four years. And he was happy to play a part in the 2013 ISL season
"Well done to India for their achievements," alluding to India's senior team that had qualified for the AFC Asian Cup. But when questioned about the current scenario in Indian football, he admitted that it wasn't up there with the rest yet.
"It's not perfect, but it's good. I watched the U-17 World Cup game between India and Ghana (India played the African side in their final group stage game, losing 4-0). The loss should not be a problem. It is important to continue working on your dream."
There is no shortcut to success, no secret; a point he stresses on repeatedly. "I hope to see an Indian player in the Premier League one day," he said. "But you need to work hard every day and you probably need more foreign managers in the country because European football and Asian football is not the same.
"You need more academies, a structure. At FC Goa I saw some very good players. India has good talents but you need good managers [to bring the best out in them]."
'Wenger gets too much criticism'
Could Pires take up a coaching role in the future? His opposite wing partner at Arsenal Freddie Ljungberg had even coached the Arsenal Under-15s. But Pires doesn't think he can be a great coach, unlike Arsene Wenger.
"Arsene Wenger is a great manager. I don't know why the new geenration of Arsenal fans criticise him but he's very strong mentally."
"Whenever we started a new season, the first objective for Wenger was to win the title, especially the Premier League because he knows it's very difficult. He's still the same manager with the same philosophy.
"He will spend money on good players. He spent a lot of money for Alexandre Lacazette." The Gunners had broken the club record to sign the French striker this summer for £52.7m.
'Alex Iwobi is the perfect player for Wenger'
Although Pires is retired, he still trains with the current squad at London Colney whenever he gets the chance. He has seen them all up close, so who is the best player in the squad that fits the role of a Wenger-type footballer, the quintessential Wengerball player?
"Of course, everybody knows about Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud. But if you want one name then I think it's Alex Iwobi."
The 21-year-old broke into the team in the 2015/16 season and has since made 65 appearances for the Gunners, scoring seven goals.
"He has a very good future and it's very important for him to stay at Arsenal because Arsene Wenger knows him very well. So in my opinion, it is Iwobi."
Other questions Pires answered at the event
Best defender he played with: Tony Adams. Pires even cheekily picked the worst defender he came across in his career, naming former United right-back Gary Neville!
His 5-a-side team: Fabien Barthez, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry. Pires opted to 'sit on the bench'.
Prediction for Watford vs Arsenal: 2-1 to the Gunners. Pires stressed on injuries in defence (Shkodran Mustafi is out for a few weeks while Laurent Koscielny faces a late fitness test) while Alexis Sanchez only returned to the squad yesterday,. He also praised Watford manager Marco Silva for their good start to the season.