Creative Soccer Culture

Christopher Nkunku For SoccerBible Magazine Issue 13

Our French readership apart – hello France – if you’ve heard of Lagny-sur-Marne in a footballing sense, it’s most likely in reference to Paul Pogba. He was born there, after all, and often credits the skills he learnt on its streets as having been vital to his success. But he’s not the only player to have been produced by the historic district 16 miles east of central Paris.

Christopher Nkunku, the highly rated 22-year-old midfielder now on his way from PSG to RB Leipzig, grew up on those same streets, and his career so far echoes that of the Manchester United superstar in a couple of ways. First, he’s made the decision to leave Paris Saint-Germain, the club he’s been with since 2010, in the hope of having his talent recognised with significant first-team appearances elsewhere. Second, he has the same sense of drive as Pogba, both literally on the pitch as he bursts forward from midfield, but also, and perhaps even more so, in his attitude. 

Nkunku oozes confidence. Decked out in adidas gear, he couldn’t have been more at home during our photoshoot, transitioning from pose to pose like a Paris Fashion Week regular. “If you’re not confident,” he says, “who will be confident for you?” Quite right too. After giving ourselves a mental pat on the back for encouragement, then, we sat down with the forthright Frenchman, still a PSG player at the time, to find out where exactly his self-confidence comes from, what it’s like to play with Zlatan, and how Thiago Motta improved his game in one simple step.


Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you start playing football? What made you interested in football when you were younger?

I was interested in sport in general and sports practised by all my family. I saw my big brother playing football – I went to see him play. I’ve always had a ball with me, I played with it all the time. And then it came naturally. Sometimes my big brother helped me to practise. Then I went to a club, I kept playing, I loved it and I kept doing it.

Were you a football fan from a young age?

From a young age? Honestly, no, not really. When I was younger, I played for fun with my friends. I was going out with them without thinking about anything else. Then when you join a football club, you start to feel what being a “team” means. You learn how to give yourself completely for the team, to fight for the team. Then eventually you fight for a city like Paris.

What does it take for a kid who plays football for fun to reach the PSG academy? How did you make that step?

I think there’s a moment when you realise you stand out. Every time people say “You played very well” or “Did you see the move you made?”, things like that, you start to realise. Then people come to see you and chat with your family saying “Your son is a good player”. Then they want to take your contact details, and they say the name of the club they represent. You see that it’s starting to be serious because those are clubs you see on your TV screen. Clubs like PSG show up and now it's getting really serious. So you get caught up in the game. You start to believe in your dreams.

Would you say that PSG is like your second home?

Yeah, for sure. It’s like a second home. I’ve been trained there, I slept there, I ate there, I lived there. They trained me. Then what’s rewarding is when you sign your pro contract there and you play there.

When did it hit you that you weren’t someone who just played with their friends in the street anymore? That you were a proper football player?

When I joined Clairefontaine. Because that’s when you really start to be in an institution and spend your time in that kind of environment. You go to school and then you go to training. When I was in middle school, I took the bus, went to training by myself and came back home. I had two training sessions per week. Then it started to be every day. It was school, training – every day, and then a match on Saturday. I only had Sundays to rest.

There’s a certain culture linked to PSG. Football is very important, success is very important, especially in Paris. Do you feel that as a player?

Yes, at the training centre you already see this obsession for victory. You have to win. Even for the 14- and 15-year-olds, it was said: “You have to win the French championship”.

Does it make you feel pressure when you step on the pitch? With all those supporters looking at you, shouting out and willing you on?

No, I don’t. To be honest, you’re so focused that you forget about it. There are so many things to do, like thinking about tactical and technical instructions, concentrating on your game.


How does it feel to play in the Parc des Princes? You’ve dreamt about football since you were young – do you feel you achieved your dream or is it just a job like any other?

No, for me it’s not a job. I enjoy it every day. I’m lucky to do a job I like. It’s never a chore to go to training. I like it. And yeah, of course it’s a dream when you’re picked to be part of the squad and go to the stadium.

Is there any rivalry in terms of competition for places in the squad? Do you tell yourself that since not everybody will be selected, you’ll need to stand out?

Personally, I don’t think like that, because I believe when you wish bad luck on people, it doesn’t return to you in a good way. So I concentrate on myself. If it was right for me to be picked, I would be picked. Why should I make things difficult? I’ve always been friendly with everybody.

How do you view your career so far? Did you achieve one of your goals by becoming a pro?

When you’re at PSG, which is one of the biggest clubs in Europe, you see many things. You meet great players. I’ve already played in the UEFA Champions League. Some people have a great career but never get the opportunity to play in the Champions League. I’ve achieved a lot. I’ve already won titles. Some people have a career but never win titles. It’s true that I didn’t play 100 percent of all the matches, but I’ve lived through all those experiences.

Since last year, PSG have been involved in lots of new projects, especially in terms of fashion and the partnership with Jordan. Are you attracted to the world of fashion?

For me, you need to be smart. That’s the minimum. Being clean. Seeing things like the Jordan collaboration, when you’re young and you put Jordan on your feet, you think it’s crazy. So when you see they sponsor your club, it makes you realise that the club is getting bigger and bigger.

Do you feel the support of the fans around the city?

Definitely, I really feel it. Whenever I go outside, I always see someone wearing something linked with PSG. A training shirt, a jersey…

Do people recognise you?

People recognise me, yeah. But some people recognise me and leave me alone because they don’t want to disturb me and know I’m enjoying my time out. Others come to see me and ask me to take pictures, so I take pictures with them and then I keep doing my thing.

You have a unique look and style. Are you influenced by big fashion stars or any of your teammates who also like to be fashionable? Do you give each other any tips?

Well, fashion is something you first see on someone, then you interpret it in your own way. Sure, when I go to the changing room, there might be someone who has pants or a jacket or shoes that are similar to mine. We can have similar things, but everybody has their own style.


Recently adidas have collaborated with famous musicians like Pharrell, Beyonce and Kanye West. What do you think about a big sport brand like adidas being interested in different kinds of celebrities?

It shows that the brand is thriving. Those celebrities bring an original touch. You can sense the difference in their music. They have different views. You can see it in the beautiful products they make. And the fact that it’s Kanye West, Beyonce and Pharrell – that attracts people.

Would you be interested in collaborating with a brand like adidas?

Yeah, I’d be interested, maybe some shoes!

You seem pretty confident for your young age. You don’t hesitate to speak when something is going wrong. Do you think it’s important for an athlete to be confident and ready to face adversity?

Yeah, definitely. If you’re not confident, who will be confident for you? Who will believe in you? It’s true that you need to be self-confident. You need to have your own character, to say things you want to say.

How do you manage to stay calm and focused? There have been ups and downs this year – how did you overcome those difficulties?

I put everything in the hands of God. I’m a believer so I pray.

How does it feel to be on the pitch with so many famous players?

It makes a big impression on you. I became a pro and suddenly I saw Ibrahimovic. It was crazy. You tell yourself, if I’m in his team and I lose the ball, I’ll be in big trouble.

Does that make you feel the pressure? Does he put the squeeze on you?

No, he doesn’t put any pressure on you. In fact, you put pressure on yourself. You say to yourself, if I misplace a pass and then the opposition scores, that would be really bad. At first I was thinking like that, but then you see they’re normal. They just want to win. During training though, they try to make you feel comfortable.

Who comes to mind when you think of players who helped you to improve your skills and to be a better player today?

I immediately think of Thiago Motta. He was here when I became a pro. I was taking lots of unnecessary touches on the ball. For an action which required two touches, I was taking four touches. And he doesn’t like that because you already know how his play is. So he told me to play in a simple way. To begin with he was shouting at me. Then when you progress, you build an understanding, and this understanding we also have off the pitch.

So he really helped you to simplify your way of playing?

Yeah, he helped me to simplify it. Then you have other players, like Blaise [Matuidi], who make you feel welcome, who talk to you a lot in the changing room. Serge Aurier too.

You’ve been in a changing room with players who have strong personalities, like Dani Alves for example. Does it help when you’re with players who speak up when something’s wrong, who support the team and keep everyone engaged?

I like people who get straight to the point. If someone shouts at you or moans, they’re just being honest. It doesn’t mean that at the end of the training he won’t laugh with you. He will laugh with you, but on the pitch it’s serious. That’s work. On the pitch we can even insult each other, it’s fine. It’s not a bad thing.

France won the World Cup last summer. Did that have an influence on your goals with the national team? Do want to be part of it?

For sure. It influenced the world. We saw that when we celebrated the victory. Even if you weren’t there, as a foreigner from another country, you saw the victory. On an international scale, France became more important. The country won more titles. Certainly as a player, you want to win titles with your country. It motivates you, definitely.

Looking forward, what do you expect from this new season and what would you like to achieve?

I’d like to play on a regular basis and feel that I had a good and complete season. I want to have no regrets. I want to enjoy it. That’s all!


Read the full interview with Christopher Nkunku in SoccerBible Magazine Issue 13. Pick up your copy here.


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