Arsenal legend Robert Pires recounts the ‘horrible week’ which started with Arsene Wenger subbing him in the Champions League final and ended with the French star deciding to leave
- Robert Pires is seen as one of the greatest players in Arsenal’s modern history
- During the 2006 Champions League final he was controversially subbed off
- Arsene Wenger had to swap a player after keeper Jens Lehmann was sent off
- Pires could not forgive Wenger and days later told him he would be leaving
Robert Pires has given fascinating insight into his doomed final days at Arsenal, when a turbulent period following what should have been the pinnacle of his career saw the exit door loom large.
Pires was a regular fixture in the all-conquering Arsenal team under Arsene Wenger in the early 2000s, and was naturally handed a starting position in the 2006 Champions League final against the formidable Barcelona.
As many football fans know, the match became infamous for the highly controversial 18th minute sending-off of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, which drastically altered the complexion of the match and forced Wenger into making a premature substitution.
Robert Pires was so gutted about being withdraw in the final that he decided to leave
Here, however, lies the moment in which Pires’ time as a Gunner changed forever.
Speaking during a recent interview, Pires has revealed how he never for one moment believed he would be the player to be withdrawn in the final, and how Wenger’s choice in doing so immediately brought an end to his love affair with the club.
Speaking to L’Equipe, in quotes carried by the Mirror, French icon Pires said: ‘At no point did I think I’d be the one coming off.
Pires was part of the Arsenal team dreaming of winning the Champions League in Paris
‘I didn’t even look at Arsene. For me, he was going to take off [Alexander] Hleb or my friend [Cesc] Fabregas, because I could help in attack and I have that very good technical relationship with Henry. It’s not arrogance.
‘So I’m there, calm, super confident and Titi (Henry) tells me I’m the one coming off.
‘What?’, and I see the number 7 on the board. It’s awful. Awful!’
Pires still vividly recalls the moment, and can retrace his steps past Wenger on the touchline to the dugout inside the Paris stadium, in which he pulled his warm-up jumper back on and was beamed globally on the TV cameras stood by the substitutes looking despondent and distraught.
‘I pass in front of the manager, we don’t look at each other. I go sit down, very annoyed,’ Pires added.
‘I wait for it to calm down, and then I tell myself “what I want is for us to win”. Two days after when I told him I was leaving… basically, it triggered my exit.
Pires moved to Villarreal and would later go on to score against Barcelona in a 2-0 victory
‘He [Wenger] wasn’t expecting it. I also needed to move on to something else.
‘After the final, there was like a rupture… It was a horrible week. I learn that I’m not in the squad for the World Cup, I play 17 minutes in the final and we lose it… I’ve known better!’.’
Pires would move on to Villarreal as a free agent that same summer after opting not to sign a new Arsenal deal, and instead test his skills in Spanish football.
An early pre-season goal against Newcastle got things off to a solid start for the forward, only for a cruel knee ligament injury to rule him out for over seven months.
When Pires finally returned for Villarreal, he would later go on to scoring the opening goal in a league match against Barcelona which his new club would win 2-0, in doing so gaining a small bit of retribution for the painful European final loss.
Pires’ relationship with Wenger would thaw and he returned to observe coaching in 2016
The relationship between Pires and Wenger ultimately thawed however, with the Frenchman returning to his former club many years later in 2015 following his retirement, to participate in training and learn from his former mentor.
Pires has since undertaken coaching roles, though has not made the step into full-time senior football management.