I wrote a story for Friday’s Inquirer about the growth of Chelsea into a global soccer brand.
One of the interviews I did for the story didn't make the cut for print. I spent a few minutes chatting with one of club’s most famous former players: midfielder Graeme Le Saux. Here's the transcript of our conversation.
Talk about your perspective from afar on the growth of soccer in the United States.
Well, I’ve been over here many times. I think I first came in 1994. The transformation has been phenomenal. And it’s not so much at the top, the elite level – it’s the grassroots that I have really appreciated.
I think that ultimately, you need to have the pyramid, where you have the elite players at the top. Obviously, MLS has done a fantastic job in creating engagement over the last 10, 15 years – well, since 1994 and the World Cup.
But more important is the development of young players, getting out there and getting children playing football from a very young age.
Once they’ve made that connection, you’ve got a lot of young players who have been playing the game since age four or five, they’re now 14, 15, they’re demanding that the standard continues all the way through college and on to the professional game. I think that’s a basis for the game to continue to develop.
Chelsea has certainly been a big team in England for many years. But in your playing days, in the late 90’s, early 2000’s, could you have thought it would become as big a club globally as it now is?
Well, I think that when you look at the Premier League, how football has really evolved in England, to see the sort of global reach of the sport is phenomenal. I think that because football is in more territories globally, it’s accessible by so many people.
Chelsea is a team – having won the Champions League last year, having had the success they’ve had since Roman Abramovich bought the club – I think we’re certainly in a period where the club is enjoying the most success in the club’s history.
And they finally got that European Cup.
We did. Great credit to the players, it was a phenomenal achievement. I’ve been involved on the non-playing side for a few years now. In 2008 when we played [the Champions League final] in Moscow and lost on penalties - and we’ve lost in some really tight semifinals [since then] – to beat Bayern Munich in their own back yard, and the way they did, I thought was a phenomenal achievement.
And I thought it was a great reward, particularly for the senior players who have worked so hard over the last 10 years trying to achieve that.
There is a segment of the soccer fan base in the United States that follows English soccer very devoutly, but sort of sees MLS as beneath them. Maybe it’s like someone in England who follows the Premier League in England but won’t follow a lower-division team that is closer to them. What would your reaction to those people be? I’m curious.
Ultimately, I think it’s important to support your local teams.
In the Premier League and European football, the standard is very high – I think the best football is played in the Premier League, the most entertaining football. We hope people support Chelsea. But ultimately, if you’re living in Philadelphia, get behind your team in Philadelphia as well.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other, you can do both. And I think ultimately, the more people support [a team] on the local level, the better it is for the sport globally.