Pain and joy: Emmanuel Petit's journey to the peak of football
The former France midfielder discusses life, loss and Arsène Wenger
Emmanuel Petit is best remembered for his goal in the 1998 World Cup final. But that goal was ten years in the making. The decade that preceded his heroic feats with France saw Petit win championships in both his home country and England, lifting a famous Double in the season before the World Cup.
But Petit also had to overcome enormous heartache in this period. Ten years before his World Cup triumph, Petit’s older brother Olivier, who was also a footballer, collapsed and died while playing a match in Normandy. It was a tragedy that fuelled Emmanuel’s desire to fulfil his dreams.
“I lost - we lost - our brother on the pitch,” says Petit, speaking at a warehouse in Camden, a short tube ride from his former stomping ground, Arsenal.
“He was playing a game and my other brother was playing with him, so he saw our oldest brother fall on the pitch and die a couple of minutes after that.”
Losing a sibling is a tragedy no-one can ever prepare for. Coming to terms with the death of his elder brother was a journey of heartbreak and loss that became a source of extra motivation for Emmanuel in his career.
“I remember very well because I was in Monaco with my parents at that time. We were at my friend's home and we received a phone call from the club. That was the first time and the last time of my life I have seen my father cry.”
At the funeral, Petit couldn’t bring himself to watch Olivier be lowered into the ground. It is a decision he doesn’t regret, but one that troubled his mother for a long time. Years later, she asked him why he turned his back at that moment.
“I told her it’s because I didn't want to have my last memory of my brother like this,” Petit recalls. “And to be honest, I'm happy with the decision I took. I didn't want to be disrespectful, I just didn't want to have this image in my head.”
Losing a brother at such a young age could easily have derailed Petit’s aspirations as a footballer. But he knew he couldn’t let that happen. He was determined to channel the trauma into positive energy, using it to realise his dreams for Olivier.
“I have such big ambition but the death of my brother, that was the missing link. I was so motivated but I needed something more important: anger.
“Motivation is good but anger is sometimes more important because it gives you the pride, the strength, whatever happens.
“Every single day, you make an agreement with yourself. I made a contract with myself, a contract with my family. I didn't tell them but I swore to myself I would do that and I would try everything I can to reach my target. I wanted my family to be proud of me."
Fast forward ten years and Petit had realised his dreams, scoring for France in their thrilling 3-0 win over Brazil in the World Cup final.
It was the country’s first ever victory, coming on home soil. It was a cathartic moment for the nation - who had seen many talented teams over the years fall short - but even more so for Petit, who felt the weight of the world lift from his shoulders.
He had achieved what he set out to do.
“Straight after I left the dressing room I was invited on live with TF1, a TV channel in France for the national team, and I remember one of the questions from the presenter…she asked me how I felt.
"I said ‘My thoughts go straight to my family and my brother. I'm very happy, I'm very proud of what we've done, what I've done. And I'm so happy for my family. I just wanted them to understand that I love them and I keep thinking about my brother. I know that he is looking at what we're doing’.
“I felt relieved… and when I saw my parents after that - when I saw the eyes of my father and my brother and my mother - I thought to myself, ‘You did it right. You can be proud of yourself."
The only moment in his life worthy of comparison was the birth of his daughters.
“I had a feeling when I won the World Cup, the feeling that I was at the right place at the right moment.
“I had the feeling that I was the centre of the universe, and I had the same feeling when my daughters were born. When they just came out and I had to cut the umbilical cord… I had this this feeling of existence.”
Petit didn’t travel this road alone. As well as having boundless support from a loving family, he also leaned on the shoulder of his mentor Arsène Wenger.
His manager at both Monaco and Arsenal, Wenger helped Petit through his grieving, and was always on hand to listen and advise.
The pair still talk regularly and Wenger’s fatherly touch has had a profound effect on Petit, not only as a footballer but as a person.
“He cares about humanity, he cares about the person before the player,” says Petit.
“What Arsène did for me, he was such a great guy. The club [Monaco] was just like a family for me. The president, players, the manager, they were they were looking after me all the time.”
Now 48, having retired 15 years ago, Petit believes the game has lost some of its caring touch with the demands that are placed on young players to succeed. But having such a naturally positive outlook on life means he still has faith in people.
“I may be stupid or naive but I still believe in humanity. I know it's not fashionable actually but I still really believe.”
Petit has countless examples of Wenger’s paternal instinct, such was his desire to ensure that his players were performing well and were happy off the pitch.
He recognised that one would feed into the other, prioritising the players’ wellbeing over everything else.
Petit’s first encounter with Wenger of this nature came after Olivier’s death.
“When that happened he said ‘You stay with your family as long as you want. Life is more important than football and what's happening in your family is more important than even your career.’
“I appreciate that. When he talked to me like this, he touched the right place, and you have no idea how many times I’ve had talks with him about society, about the way we should live, the way I should improve as a person.”
Sharing fond memories of the pair’s relationship, Wenger’s compassion shines through in Petit’s anecdotes.
One sticks out above the rest. During Petit’s time as a youth player at Monaco, he was lauded in the press for a man-of-the-match performance against Sochaux.
“I felt embarrassed, you know, because I was not the only one on the pitch and I'm thinking ‘What about my teammates? They did a good job as well,’” Petit recalls.
The following morning, Wenger arrived unexpectedly at Petit’s house and asked to talk. Petit assumed he wanted to evaluate his recent performances, pointing out both his highlights and areas to improve.
But Wenger had noticed something more important to address.
“He was talking about the game for a couple of minutes and then he changed all of a sudden. He looked at me he said, ‘Listen Manu, ‘Are you happy in your life?’. I said yes.”
Wenger knew something wasn’t right. He asked again.
“I'm going to tell you something. If you want to know exactly what kind of player you can be on the pitch, you need to discover what kind of person you are in real life.
"That means at your age, 17-18 years old, if you do the right things you will have a very beautiful career.”
Petit didn’t go to nightclubs, or even to a bar for a few drinks. He was so focused on his career, and naturally introverted, that it never occurred to him to spend his new-found wealth as a professional footballer on lavish parties.
It seemed Wenger wasn’t convinced about his lifestyle choices, however, with Petit still vividly remembering his manager’s instructions.
“You are 18, you need to go out,” Wenger told him.
“You need to socialise, you need to make some friends. You need to see some girls or whatever you want, you need to discover what kind of person you are.”
It wasn’t licence to indulge in heavy nights of debauchery, but simply to socialise more - to learn what type of person he wanted to be. Wenger saw a shy boy with the potential to become so much more.
Wenger’s influence was ubiquitous throughout his career. After Petit had reunited with Wenger at Arsenal, he was once taken aside by his manager on a train to Birmingham and told to fly home to France.
Something was wrong.
Wenger didn’t know what exactly, but he could read Petit like a book and knew what was best for him.
'You take, two, three, four days - a week. I don't care,' Wenger told his player.
'But when you come back to London I want you to be ready 100% for the team. If you're not ready 100%, don't come back. Stay in France.'
“What kind of manager says this to his player?" says Petit. "When a manager talks to you like this you want to climb a mountain for him, without oxygen.”
It was this guidance, combined with his upbringing, that saw Petit blossom as a footballer and grow into one of the most humble people in the game.
“Love and education is the best passport for life,” he says.
For fans of both Arsenal and France, it is unthinkable to imagine the success of the late 1990s without Petit bulldozing his way through opposition midfields, ponytail swinging through the air behind him.
But his story is one of enormous depth; of personal suffering and incredible determination.
Petit experienced both unparalleled joy and heartbreaking sadness during his time as a footballer. Hearing his story, few would disagree with his reflection that “football can be a miracle for people”, just as it was for him.
Emmanuel Petit is a Paddy Power ambassador.