One of the first things that Emmanuel Petit told me when he first landed in KL was that he loves Asia and is seriously considering migrating to Thailand. My eyes lit up. I spent the next hour during lunch trying to convince him to pick Malaysia instead. First impressions – tall. And very funny. He’d only met us for 30 seconds and as I was introducing the team to him one by one, he immediately killed the tension. Reem Shahwa, host of Football Overload was at the lunch too and when she introduced herself, she said “I’m Reem, like Dream”, and Petit laughed before moving to one of our assistant producers, Ashvin. He then said “You must be nightmare then”. The table erupted. They say you can tell a lot about a person just in the first minute of meeting them – this was a prime example. Petit didn’t eat much, he did most of the talking over lunch. He shared so much with us about how his life changed after retirement, his current endeavors, his family and his love for Asia.
“You know, I love Asia. I’m planning with my family to move to Asia – to live here. Because I feel very close to the people in terms of spirituality and mentality as well’ Petit shared. He’d been in Thailand for a couple of months late last year for work and holiday. He was very curious about the melting pot that is Malaysia – in fact, on the way to lunch, he said his Uber driver was giving him a mini tour of the city, explaining that this is an area had very good Indian food - then to the next area, how this is an area where you can find a lot of Chinese temples – and to another area, which his driver explained, was predominantly occupied by Malays. Of course the driver did not mean any offence or disrespect – he was merely stating his observations. That confused Petit to which he posed the question: “Where do I find Malaysian people?”. The whole racial and religious make up in Malaysia fascinated him, just as it did to Tony Pulis who did a brief stint with us in September.
Petit’s schedule was very tight. Upon arrival, we brought him for some interviews with Hitz.fm, Mix.fm, FourFourTwo magazine and Astro Arena. During the tail end of the interview sessions, I could tell that he was exhausted a few hours into session, but he never showed it. In fact, it was quite the opposite – he was a showman, a storyteller, an entertainer. During one of the interviews, Petit was so animated that he drew a crowd – Astro staff gathered around just to listen to him talk. Petit was teasing the reporter who was asking him questions, making jokes, singing songs.
Petit struggled with jet lag because his first assignment was the live Champions League match between PSG and Chelsea, hours after landing. He also had a chance to meet long time rival El Hadji Diouf here. The Senegal forward is currently playing for Malaysian Premier League side Sabah. It was great to be able to reunite them both on set for a BPL match studio coverage. Petit still keeps in touch with his former teammates - he names Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira as 2 of his closest friends from the sport, and still keep in touch. In fact, Petit used to be neighbours with World Cup winning teammate Frank Lebeouf in Paris.
Since we're on the topic of the World Cup, I have to share this with you: in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, Petit was one of the names we considered to approach and have as our pundit lineup. I didn't have any leads on how to contact him at the time and got a number of a talent management company in the UK, who claimed to have him as one of their clients. I recall calling them up and enquiring if Petit would be available. On the other side of the phone was an agent and he immediately asked about our budget. Needless to say, it wasn't as high as many would imagine. This agent then quoted me a ridiculous sum of 50,000 pounds for 11 days! I hung up and laughed at myself, sharing the conversation with my team. So to be honest, when Petit agreed to come down this time, I was very surprised. And it taught me one important thing - go through the right channels or forget about it. Because there are many money-thirsty agents lurking out there, waiting to find their next victim and make a fast buck. I know a few. But of course, there are very professional ones too.
The former Chelsea midfielder was also very vocal about agents too. It was one of 2 things that made him angry during our chat or interviews. The agent that got Petit boiling was a man who worked as his representative for a year, who was responsible for negotiating the transfer to Chelsea. Petit had a few choice words for him in our brand new exclusive interview series #YouAsk - claiming that the agent was a con-man who stole money from footballers. Hmm where have we heard that before? Second person - his coach at Barcelona. When he reflects on his time in Spain, he wishes he hadn't left Arsenal because the coach at the Camp Nou at the time did not even know what position he played in when he first joined! It was slightly scary to see this other side of Petit, who was (majority of the time) cracking jokes.
It was one of those surreal experiences. I grew up watching Petit play. I recall cursing at the TV screen when he scored the third goal in the 1998 World Cup final. And now, I was having lunch with him. I was sharing a joke with him. I was exchanging texts with him. I suppose we at Astro SuperSport have been somewhat fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some unbelievably humble football personalities. Yes, again there are a few exceptions - we've had some nightmare experiences with a select few, which we will never (ever) work with again. But generally, these former footballers surprise us. For instance, one the first day when he arrived, Petit encountered a rude person who demanded for a photo. I later apologized to him on the way back to the hotel. It bothered me a lot because I felt responsible for giving him (our guest) the best impression of the country. But Petit was ok - he simply laughed it off and said "Don't worry, ask him to call me if he needs some hair transplant". This guy was bald. But that was a good representation of Petit's outlook in life. After spending a few days working with SuperSport, former Malaysian striker Stanley Bernard was amazed how chirpy and bubbly Petit was and even asked him if he was always this way during his football career. Petit's response "life is too short to be miserable, we need to learn to laugh at ourselves more". This is one of the reasons why he loves Asia - he went on to add that the people and culture here is more accepting of his approach in life.
Yes, I can safely say - Asia welcomes humility, humour and class.
See you soon Manu!