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Mathieu Flamini interview

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Flamini 'still an Arsenal fan'

Exclusive by David Ornstein
BBC Sport in Milan

Criticised by Arsene Wenger and characterised as a mercenary by many Arsenal fans, it seems everyone has had their say about Mathieu Flamini - except the man himself.

Almost a year has passed since Flamini quit Arsenal for AC Milan and, as he arrives for training at the club's spectacular Milanello complex, he could hardly seem more at home.

But sit alone with the Frenchman and it becomes abundantly clear his mind is never far away from the place he used to call home and the people he still refers to as team-mates.

With Cesc Fabregas, another young talent catapulted into the global consciousness by the Premier League outfit, he remains in almost daily contact.

"Arsenal are in my heart and they will be in my heart for ever," Flamini tells BBC Sport. "I will always be an Arsenal fan and leaving was not easy.

"I miss my team-mates. I'm very happy at Milan but after four years at Arsenal we had very strong partnerships and it's normal to miss your team-mates.

Mathieu Flamini
Right now I can't say if I would go back and play in England again because I'm here and I'm enjoying every day of my life - I'm having so much fun playing for this team but we'll see, you never know

Mathieu Flamini

"Thankfully I'm still in contact with them all because they're still very important to me. I was very close to Cesc, Tomas Rosicky and the African and French guys.

"Everyone could see on the pitch that me and Cesc were very close and, off the pitch, we still are."

Flamini turned down numerous interview requests from Italian media outlets to speak with BBC Sport as he attempts to put right the image portrayed of him in the aftermath of his departure from Arsenal.

The 25-year-old was particularly unhappy with Arsenal's handling of the whole affair and Wenger's public suggestion that his exit was motivated by money.

Anxious to be suitably recognised for his increased value to the team - and avoid falling out of contract entirely - the midfielder lost patience with Arsenal's hardball negotiation tactics and left to seek this recognition at the club he supported as a child.

Flamini reveals he would have earned significantly more had he accepted an offer from Spain.

He talks of a special bond in the dressing room last season - pointing specifically to the quartet of himself, Fabregas, Rosicky and Alexander Hleb, who left for Barcelona - and does not believe Wenger did all he could to maintain the unique spirit they had developed.

But absence makes the heart grow fonder and any animosity that lingered has since given way to an increasing sense of warmth for his former club and colleagues.

"For me, I left on good terms," says Flamini. "I don't want to comment on what Arsene said - he had to say something to the fans and I don't want to say any more.

"I've been back to London to visit them - in February I went to the training ground to see everyone and even with Arsene I still have a very good relationship.

606: DEBATE
David O, BBC Sport

"My parents live in Rome, which is only about four hours from here, and I wanted to go there when Arsenal were playing Roma in the Champions League, but we were training and I couldn't make it.

"When you work hard and have great results it creates something emotional. I was at Arsenal for four years, I learned so much and I discovered the very highest level of football with them.

"I can't say (if I would go back to England) because I'm here and I'm enjoying every day of my life. I'm having so much fun playing for this team so it's difficult to say. We'll see, you never know."

When we meet in the players lounge at Milanello, Flamini asks for the television to be switched off and the door to be shut, even getting slightly tetchy when a member of staff enters by accident.

This is an individual who is used to having things his own way.

As a child growing up in Marseilles, on the south coach of France, Flamini's parents threatened to ban him from playing football because he was underachieving at school.

When he continued to return poor grades they threw away his youth football licence, but a stubborn young Mathieu, also a black belt in judo, would let nothing get in the way of his dream and the mission was swiftly back on track.

Flamini rose through the ranks at Marseilles and in 2004 he was obliged under French Federation rules to sign his first senior contract.

He may not always have paid attention at school, but was fully aware of a legal loophole that allows players to join a club from another EU country with the transfer fee limited to Fifa-mandated 'training compensation'.

Still awaiting a serious offer from Marseilles in April that year, he negotiated a far more lucrative salary with Arsenal and the French club received just over £320,000 in return.

"I don't regret anything," says Flamini, who was described by then Marseilles coach Jose Anigo as "a traitor" responsible for "a beautiful treason".

"I left Marseilles for Arsenal and had the chance to play with top players like Henry, Pires, Bergkamp and Campbell," adds the midfielder. "For me it was a great move."

A great move maybe, but Flamini's attitude had shifted considerably by the summer of 2007, when he entered the final 12 months of his Arsenal contract after three years as a bit-part player.

Bacary Sagna, Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas
Flamini feels a bond among the 2007-08 Arsenal squad was broken

Flamini told the club he wanted to leave but Wenger challenged him to earn a new deal and when he exploded into life alongside Fabregas in central midfield the ears of Europe's biggest clubs pricked up.

He became an integral member of the side but an improved offer on the contract he signed as a 20-year-old in 2004 was not forthcoming, and from 1 January 2008 he was free to negotiate with potential suitors.

Arsenal eventually sat down with his representatives but a deal reportedly worth £55,000-a-week was rejected and the player agreed to join Milan on a free transfer with a signing-on-fee thought to be in the region of £4m.

"I supported Milan since I was very young so people must understand it is very special for me to play for this club," he says.

"My dad is Italian and I have lots of family here. I can visit them and I speak Italian now so it has made it easier for us to be in contact. They are all very proud of me and it has brought us all closer.

"It was an important move for me and I'm very happy as a person and as a footballer."

It is easy to understand such happiness.

With 24 first-team appearances under his belt, Flamini is gradually becoming a key component of Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti's side, albeit as an auxiliary right-back of late.

As effervescent around the training ground as he is on the pitch, Flamini larks around with Italian World Cup winners Andrea Pirlo and "Pippo" Inzaghi before exchanging pleasantries with four-time Champions League winner Clarence Seedorf.

Not being involved with France is something I just can't explain. If they call me I would be proud to fight for my country but if they don't then so be it. It's not one of my objectives any more. When they don't call you one time, two times, three times you start to give up

Mathieu Flamini

Later he retreats to his luxurious city centre apartment, from which he is able to sample a place he already adores for its lifestyle, culture, weather and food.

But it is not until you take a walk around Milanello that it becomes so obvious why any footballer, let alone a boyhood Milan fan, would want to play for the Rossoneri.

This state-of-the-art facility, found deep in a lush green forest near Como, is a footballer's paradise and its cutting-edge medical and sports science facilities have helped prolong the careers of some of the world's leading stars.

After a season in the relative wilderness of the Uefa Cup, seven-time European champions Milan look set to return to the Champions League next season and that will enable Flamini to reignite his quest for glory in club football's premier competition.

"My objectives are simple," he explains. "I want to win the Champions League. I came here because Milan used to win it often. I want to make this happen so much.

"I also want to win the Scudetto and become one of the top players of Milan.

"I will work very hard and do everything I can to achieve these aims."

Past experience would suggest Flamini's remarkably single-minded approach will take him far.


Read Mathieu Flamini's thoughts on Arsenal's Champions League semi-final on Tuesday 28 April in the second part of BBC Sport's exclusive interview with the Frenchman.



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see also
Wenger transfer policy under fire
17 Apr 09 |  Arsenal
Arsenal need to strengthen - Dein
01 Feb 09 |  Arsenal
Arsenal promise cash for signings
28 Nov 08 |  Arsenal
Wenger targeting new midfielder
23 Jul 08 |  Arsenal
Flamini seals switch to AC Milan
05 May 08 |  Arsenal
Arsenal sign Flamini
22 Jul 04 |  Arsenal


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