There are only a handful of footballers in the world who can boast winners medals in all of the game’s most prestigious tournaments.
But Christian Karembeu is a lucky one of those few former footballers who have a lifetime membership in such an exclusive club.
The former France international has the Champions League, World Cup and European Championships under his belt, along with a long list of additional domestic league and cup honours in the trophy cabinet.
Karembeu really has seen it, done it and brought home the silverware.
But when we meet for a chat over a Heineken at the Hilton in Amsterdam there wasn’t a single hint that this is a man who takes any of his achievements in the game for granted. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Still stylishly donning his iconic dreadlocks that made him such a recognisable face at the height of his game in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Karembeu made it very clear that although he did win the sport’s biggest prizes on offer, he is just grateful to have been able to play the game he loves at such a competitive level.
“I will always remember winning the Champions League and the World Cup as equal achievements and as a collective memory,” he beams with an honest but cheeky grin on his face.
“Just like Cristiano Ronaldo, I am a workaholic and I know that if I want to achieve something I need to work hard, dedicate myself and make sacrifices,” Karembeu continues, and I instantly decide that there probably isn’t a single retired footballer on the earth who could directly compare himself to Cristiano Ronaldo and get away with it.
This is a man who has the utmost respect for a player like Ronaldo and understands the character he is both on and off the field, which many football fans across the world have grown to despise in some way or another.
But what about Ronaldo’s recent comments about his Real Madrid teammates?
“Everybody was shocked with what he said, but I think there was a hidden meaning behind his words. We all know he is a workaholic and we all the job he has done and is still doing at Real Madrid, but he doesn’t want to disrespect his colleagues.
“Ronaldo is a warrior, he is a winner, he just doesn’t want to lose. That’s his character and it’s that character that he wants to share with colleagues.”
Fair enough, but what if he were to leave Real Madrid in the summer? This would ultimately leave a huge hole in Zinedine Zidane’s side next season, unless a player like, say, Gareth Bale is given the licence to step in to Ronaldo’s shoes at the Bernabeu, despite the level of criticism the Wales international has received over the years.
Unsurprisingly, Karembeu agrees: “Bale had a tremendous impact when he came to Real Madrid.
“It was the biggest transfer in the world and he played a huge role in giving La Decima to Real Madrid.
“But we all expect him to do more and score more, just as he showed at Tottenham and hopefully he’ll do that and eventually have the same impact as Ronaldo.”
Real Madrid can still enjoy Ronaldo’s presence at the Bernabeu for the time being and they’ll be hoping he can help them win the Champions League this season, especially now it appears Barcelona have beaten them to another La Liga crown.
Karembeu was a member of a memorable Real Madrid side that ended a 32 year wait between European Cup and Champions League glory, and he goes on to explain what it was like to be part of such a successful period in the club’s history.
“After 32 years without the Champions League trophy it was a dream come true but one goal we really wanted to make happen. President Lorenzo Sanz told us he wanted us to do it, so we concentrated on that more than anything else. Sanz came to us everyday and told us about the winning culture at the club and how important it was, so after that it just felt normal to win like that.”
But can Zidane’s side do the same thing as Karembeu side in 1998, where a Champions League title helped mask the pain of not winning La Liga?
“No one can stop Barcelona in La Liga but if there is a team who can stop them in the Champions League it is Real,” Karembeu insists in a positive tone.
“Everyone goes on about Messi, Suarez and Neymar at Barcelona and rightly so, they are like brothers in Barcelona’s attack. But Real also have their own brothers with Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema. It will be interesting fight between the two trios, and why not in the final?”
Having won two Champions Leagues for Real, it was something of a surprise to then see a player like Karembeu rock up at Middlesbrough in 2000. What was he doing on Teeside when surely he could’ve picked any team in Europe?
“We had just finished another Champions League trophy in Paris against Valencia and I was a little bit sad not to play the final. I played the semi-final and all the games before, so it was frustrating to not play the final in my home country.
“I said to the chairman, ‘I have to go, I cannot stay here.’ He told me it would be a mistake to leave but my mind was made up, I wanted to go.
“I received offers from many clubs in England – Arsenal, Manchester United and Middlesbrough. For me it was more challenging to go to Boro because, after Madrid, to go to Arsenal is easy. The same with Manchester United, it would have been too easy. Bayern Munich also wanted me but I decided to go to Boro.
“Bryan Robson came to see me and said he wanted me, so I said OK. I went to visit the Teeside facilities and I was amazed – for me it all depended on the facilities. Middlesbrough’s facilities are some of the best in Europe. I just said ‘yes’ quickly when I saw [them].”
So what about France this summer? Can Didier Deschamps’ side restore some pride in to a country still feeling unbearable pain following the tragic events in Paris back in November.
“We are ready,” he says without any hesitation whatsoever. There is an element of passion and pride in Karembeu’s voice when he insists France, as a nation, is prepared to host “one of the greatest and biggest atmospheres ever.”
“We are very ready to host all the nations. We have great stadiums and great facilities to host all the participants and, of course, all the fans from around the world.
“We also have at least 6,000 volunteers who are all dedicated to making sure the tournament is one to remember – the best ever.”
The way in which France and the rest of the world reacted following those events is all the proof you need that France will ensure it is an international tournament we will never forget, and Karembeu’s passion is further evidence of that.
The nation is ready, but how about Deschamps’ players? Can they go on and win it, just Karembeu did on home soil with France in 1998.
“We are prepared to win, Didier Deschamps knows that. We just want to get to the final and win the final at the Stade de France.”
Well there we go, France are going to win it this summer and you heard it here first.
Karembeu then finishes off the last of his Heineken, and ends the interview by telling me West Ham’s Dimitri Payet still has a chance of playing for France this summer, despite all the talk that he has a number of players ahead of him in the pecking order.
“Dimitri is a key player for the French team. Samir Nasri won’t go and there is also that small incident between Valbuena and Benzema, so he still has a big chance to go.”
Not sure what West Ham fans will think about that …