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May 26, 2012

If football be the food of love, play on

Socrates. Shakespeare. Satre. Saha.

Tottenham Hotspur's No. 15 appears the obvious odd one out alongside a trio of history's greatest academic and cultural contributors, but a recent foray into literature has seen Louis Saha commended for his honesty and insight, as he attempts to educate the masses about a subject that is at times more perplexing than any philosophical theory: the professional footballer.

Meticulously media-trained and usually cringingly well-rehearsed, interviewing the average Premier League star can be a disappointingly mundane experience - pedestals and the players placed on them regularly come crashing down. Saha, however, does not fit into such a stereotype. An engaging character, whose responses are always considered and articulate, the Frenchman is a refreshing presence in English football.

Saha has lived a classic 'rags to riches' story, climbing from high-rise living in one of Paris' notorious Cites to the high life of the Premier League, via an apprenticeship at the renowned Clairefontaine academy. His football journey is similar to many of his contemporaries and the former Manchester United star is now determined to provide guidance to others chasing the same dream that he once did as a child in Noyers-Crapaud.

"I think football is a gift given from God. I love it and enjoy it not only as a sport but as a way to learn from people and our society," Saha tells ESPN. "I think it is hard for young players coming into the game now, not only because of the media intrusion but because of the make-up of society; people are working so hard to get along and we have an easy life just kicking a ball around, there is a lot of disparity. I think Twitter has been a really useful development as it's a link between the fans and the players and makes people remember that we are human beings and do normal things. It bridges the gap and we enjoy the sport to a further extent because we can now have a good chat with some of the fans and try to make them understand how we live.

"People can be hard on players when they make mistakes and you have to be aware of that but we still have a chance to play a great sport - the positives outweigh the negatives. I believe younger players breaking through need some direction, and I've tried hard to be there to give them advice, especially when I was at Everton. I try to teach and make sure they understand the priorities in their job and in their life. I think I get the message across but it's not easy because listening to senior players is your most favourable quality when you are young! Becoming a father was a big turning point for me, before that I was never thinking about the consequences and was selfish - that's normal for a young person, I just wanted to enjoy life - but when I had my kids I had to start thinking about their future and how to give them the right example in life."

A major part of Saha's own football education came at Clairefontaine, the France Football Federation's breeding ground for talented players since 1988. He is in good company as an alumnus, with the likes of Thierry Henry, William Gallas and Nicolas Anelka also forging hugely successful careers after graduating, having benefited from a system that puts a strong focus on balancing academia and football.

It is an approach that the English Football Association is currently trying to replicate with the St George's Park National Football Centre in Burton - a sprawling, 330 acre equivalent to Clairefontaine that will attempt to nurture some of the country's most promising players. Having reaped the rewards of honing his trade at a centralised academy, Saha wholeheartedly supports the concept, but urges the FA to exercise caution with the new centre, which is set to open this year.

"A national academy is a great idea in principle but England is not France and it might not work as effectively," Saha explains. "In France, the championship is focused on rolling out young players to develop and then they go to places like England to become a bigger player. Bringing young players through in the English market is really tough - they may not have the easiest chance of developing in the Premier League because it is already the top and the pressure is much more. England could have the best academy but they might not be able to see their players playing regularly as teams prefer to rely on established foreign imports like Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez or Yaya Toure.

"But an academy is a great place, somewhere to educate and instil important life values; it is about teaching citizenship as well as football. You have to make sure that the players are mature enough and aware that when they leave the structure is there for them to represent their clubs and their country. That was the aim of Clairefontaine at the time and it succeeded because we had the time to do it. Now 20 years later it's all different and if you look at it now, it's harder.

"It makes me really, really proud to see the players who came through there playing at the highest level and achieving amazing things in their careers. There is a situation now with William Gallas where, 15 years ago, we were in Clairefontaine academy together and now we are playing together at Tottenham in the best league in the world, it's crazy! It is special and it is something I feel really privileged to have been a part of. I keep in touch with the players I was with and when we talk, we look back and see we were much more innocent back then - now it is much tougher for young players."

Saha's club career began at Metz as a teenager before a loan spell at Newcastle United in 1999 brought him to English shores for the first time. A year later he signed for Fulham and he has been an honorary rosbif ever since, with moves to Manchester United, Everton and then Tottenham following. Plagued by injuries over the years, the Frenchman has nonetheless earned respect and adoration from the fans who have witnessed his bustling style first hand, and Harry Redknapp certainly recognised that quality when he decided to make a surprise swoop in January. It was a difficult move for Saha to make after becoming a hero of the Gladys Street end but, with his 34th birthday looming, a chance to play for a side challenging at the top of the league could not be turned down.

"It was hard walking away because it is such a great club and it was such a good atmosphere to play at Goodison Park - I really felt the love there but sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and it was time for a change in my career - I've been lucky to play for some terrific clubs. It's interesting at Tottenham because Harry Redknapp is a very different character to David Moyes. They are both fantastic managers and very ambitious, but while David Moyes is very intense and wants to control everything at the club, Harry Redknapp is more focused on the relationship he has with the players, giving them the confidence they need."

With Saha now in the twilight of his career, a future as a manager could well await - though he can be expected to take a different approach to those he has worked under in England, with a coaching style more likely to be characterised by rumination than rollickings. But for now, this most philosophical of pros is simply happy with his lot as a footballer.

"Sometimes when you are feeling low, when you are working really hard in training, you can lapse into thinking 'it's a job' because it feels hard. But everyone who has been blessed with being a footballer is, and should be, happy with their situation. I would certainly prefer to play football than do anything else."

Follow Mark Lomas on Twitter - @marklomasESPN

'Thinking Inside the Box' by Louis Saha is published by Vision Sports Publishing (RRP £14.99)

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