Florent Sinama-Pongolle interview: New horizons but the rhythm never stops for Fire forward
A Champions League winner with Liverpool and capped by France, Chicago Fire forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle has ventured further than most in football, and with music a fundamental fibre in who he is, it has remained with him for each new beginning.
It was back in 2001 that Gérard Houllier signed 17-year-old Florent along with his cousin Anthony Le Tallec from French side Le Havre. The years since have seen the frontman represent clubs in various countries and prestigious leagues, with notable names such as Atlético Madrid and Sporting Clube de Portugal included along the way.
A Russian Cup winner with FC Rostov, the one-time France Under-21 star last month made his first foray into Major League Soccer, joining fellow ex-Premier League forward Robert Earnshaw at the Chicago Fire. Something else he has in common with Earnshaw is a genuine affection for music and it is a passion that became entrenched in Florent as he grew up in the overseas French department of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
The former Blackburn Rovers loanee describes some of his musical background and how it has now been passed on in his young family.
“My kids love music; both of them are just crazy about dancing. They love music, and in my life, it’s quite important because before I get out on the pitch I’m listening to it.
“On my way to the changing room, I’m listening to music. In the hotel room, I’m listening to music.
“In the car, too, so it’s a big part of my life. Where I come from, I come from the island, so everyone is just crazy about music.
“I think music makes people happy. I love old-time music and things you can’t imagine after playing in six different countries.
“So, for sure I saw many crazy tastes of music, but everyone has their own style and I think taste of music mixes with personality. I like to put my own stuff on and share my style of music with the other players.
“I like all types of music.”
Prior to signing for Liverpool, where he would also win the UEFA Super Cup in August 2005, Florent had left Réunion as a child to join the youth ranks at Le Havre in France. He would be loaned back there with his aforementioned cousin Anthony Le Tallec in 2001/02 and 2002/03, gaining first-team experience before returning to make his Liverpool debut in October 2003 just before he turned 19.
Music still gets him in the mood when it comes to the day of a game but he also remembers how it used to help him when he was far away from home in his early days in football. He recalled this when asked about the first record he ever bought.
“(I was) 11 or 12 (years old). Poetic Lover – they’re a French group that sings love songs.
“Every night it would get quiet and emotional because I left my mom and dad when I was very young. Every night when I was in academy in my room I would listen to some calm music.”
Florent would make his mark for France as they won the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in Trinidad & Tobago in 2001. He was awarded the Golden Ball accolade as the tournament’s best player, also leading the competition with nine goals to win the Golden Shoe.
Going on to play in England, Spain, Portugal, France once more, and Russia, the 29-year-old is now bringing that know-how to the Chicago Fire. His appearance in the 2-0 loss at reigning MLS champions Sporting Kansas City on Friday was his fifth for the club since signing last month.
Florent has been warmly welcomed into the set-up and there is a strong mix of nationalities and cultures in Frank Yallop’s squad. It is the Fire’s Californian-born number 24, who has notched eight goals and five assists in 2014, who Florent would choose if given his choice of career teammates to record a song with, and he explains why.
“From here in Chicago, I would want someone with a personality and an open mind so he wouldn’t be shy. I’d say Quincy Amarikwa because I think he would be OK in front of a microphone.
“We’d have to find a good song that we could duet in French and English because I think it would be a good mix, and I don’t think I’d be able to sing in English. But definitely Quincy because he is quite comfortable in front of a crowd.”
Scoring 11 goals in 37 games for France Under-21s, Florent netted in the 3-0 group win over Germany in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in 2006. His solitary cap for the full team was gained in the friendly win over Tunisia in October 2008 and he returned to French football with Saint-Étienne on loan from Sporting CP in 2011/12.
It was while he was with Les Verts that he got to work with a young defender who was a big-money buy for Chelsea in January of this year. Florent names him as the standout performer from the team initiations he has seen in his career to date.
“I’m glad we didn’t do it this year, to be honest, but in France, when you join as a new player to be adopted into the team, you have to sing during lunch or dinner. I had to officially stand up on the chair and sing for everyone.
“The best I ever saw was Kurt Zouma. He didn’t sing, he just danced, and he danced quite well.
“That was the most memorable. It was very good because everyone just started to clap along and get in the mood with him; it was a very good time.
“When you sing it’s usually only 20 or 30 seconds, but we all danced for like two minutes.”
Although it was under Gérard Houllier that Florent made his Liverpool debut in October 2003, the Reds’ next manager, Rafael Benitez, had tried to sign him and Anthony Le Tallec for Valencia before their move to Anfield. Benitez’ first season (2004/05) remains in the minds of Liverpool supporters, and indeed football fans everywhere, for the team’s unprecedented Champions League final comeback from 3-0 down to beat A.C. Milan in Istanbul.
Florent had seen his season curtailed by an injury picked up in the League Cup semi-final second leg at Watford, but he had struck an important goal on the European front. Prior to going all the way in the Champions League that year, the Reds were famously heading out of the competition in the final group game.
With group leaders Monaco trouncing Deportivo La Coruña, Liverpool knew that they needed to beat Olympiakos by two clear goals in order to qualify for the last 16 on a superior head-to-head record with the Greeks after losing the away fixture 1-0. Veteran Brazilian star Rivaldo had put the visitors into the lead in the first half at Anfield with a free-kick and Liverpool went into half-time with it all to do.
Benitez sent on Florent as a replacement for defender Djimi Traoré at the break and within two minutes his faith was repaid. Harry Kewell cut the ball back in front of the Kop and Florent got to the near post to convert and spark new life into the home side.
It wasn’t until the 81st minute that the Reds would take the lead on the night, as Florent dug out a cross in the box for Antonio Núñez, whose header was parried, only for Neil Mellor to put away the rebound. On 86 minutes, Liverpool got the goal they so desperately needed as captain Steven Gerrard hammered home from outside the area after Mellor found him with a knock-down.
It remains one of the most famous goals in the club’s modern history and Florent was at the forefront of the celebrations with the skipper and the rest of the team.
Although his participation in the tournament ended there through that aforementioned injury picked up at Watford, Florent was in amongst the euphoria as the side beat Milan on penalties in the final in arguably the most sensational turnaround in the competition’s history. It was a collective effort but Gerrard naturally received much acclaim for his performance that night and Florent also credits the club icon for helping him when he first arrived in England.
“I was very lucky to have ten players who spoke French when I got there. They helped me a lot, and of course, Steven Gerrard.
“He was very helpful, easy to talk to, would help me adapt, and taught me about different types of football. He showed me that I need to be strong and focused on my work and that I could be successful.”
Featuring also in the 3-1 extra-time UEFA Super Cup victory over CSKA Moscow in August 2005, Florent was pivotal in another unforgettable game en route to cup glory. Liverpool were FA Cup winners in 2006 after beating West Ham United on penalties following an enthralling 3-3 draw, but their run in the competition could have ended before it had even begun.
Drawn away to second-tier Luton Town in the third round, the Reds were trailing the Hatters 3-1 before Florent, brought on for Mohamed Sissoko on 57 minutes, reduced the deficit with a well-taken finish. Xabi Alonso sensationally equalised from distance before Florent headed home to put Benitez’ side in front at 4-3.
In what still ranks as one of the most memorable FA Cup games in recent times, Florent had made a scoring impact within five minutes of entering the action and it was Alonso who scored from his own half in the closing stages to seal a 5-3 win. Florent started a third of his 66 games for Liverpool, scoring nine times, and although he may not have been a regular starter he made important contributions early on in the path to two historic achievements for the club.
His goals for the Merseysiders included a lob in the 2-1 Champions League win away to Real Betis in September 2005, as well as the winner at home to Southampton in the Premier League in December 2004. Even at the highest level, every player goes through human emotions, and being away from home, especially as a teenager, can be particularly difficult.
As Florent explained, he had players at Liverpool who afforded him support and he looks back on what was an incredible chapter in his young life.
“When I first got to Liverpool I was only 17 years old, I was very young. It was a big change to be a kid coming to one of the biggest clubs in the world where everyone was watching games abroad and on the tour in Thailand, and even Chicago or Japan with so many people coming to watch.
“There are Liverpool shirts everywhere. As a part of your (role as a) professional player, you have to respect the shirt you have on and I think to start almost at the beginning of my career with Liverpool showed me how lucky I am to have my passion as my job.
“It is a dream for many people, many young players who would always dream of playing on this team. There’s something beautiful to it, and I won the (Champions League) title there, so that makes it even more special.”
A loan spell at Premier League Blackburn Rovers, which included a diving header away to Tottenham Hotspur, finished up Florent’s time in England in 2006. Spain was his next port of call as he spent two years with La Liga’s Recreativo where he scored 22 league goals, notching 12 in his debut season to help the Huelva outfit to 8th in the top flight.
His form prompted Atlético Madrid to pay around £8million for his services in 2008 and Los Colchoneros finished 4th in his debut campaign in the capital. A move to Lisbon followed in 2010 to join Sporting Clube de Portugal and he had loan stints with Real Zaragoza and Saint-Étienne before heading to FC Rostov in 2012.
Florent scored in the penalty shootout as Rostov beat FC Krasnodar to lift the Russian Cup this May and he joined up with Chicago Fire in September in good shape, with the Men in Red already six months into their MLS season. The Fire have recently celebrated their 17th anniversary and it is also notably midfielder Logan Pause’s last season as a player after an entire professional career spent with the club.
It is Frank Yallop’s first season with the Fire and in a year that has seen them register 18 draws from their 32 regular-season games so far, they currently lie 9th in the Eastern Conference and out of play-off contention. Florent wears the number 99 for Chicago and he made his debut in the 3-3 draw with D.C. United on September 20th.
He has enjoyed his introduction to life in the Windy City and credits Logan Pause for his part in welcoming him to the team.
“As a city, I like that it is very friendly; it feels like you are friends with everyone. People are familial and open, people are always asking how you are, as if you know them from ages ago.
“I felt this way when I first came to the team and stepped on the pitch as well. It felt like I was playing with them for a long time, and of course, Logan, with his experience, helped me feel at home on the team both on and off the pitch.”
A journey that began back in Réunion before his travels to Europe, Florent has been able to live out some incredible life moments in his career to date. Father to son Matisse and daughter Leona, he and partner Anastasia welcomed their newborn son Nolan just a few weeks ago.
Looking outside of awareness on the field, Florent shares what he feels football has taught him as a person in his years in the game.
“I have learned so much of everything, especially culture. Being able to live in different countries, you learn different mentalities, different culture, and how to adapt yourself to the way they think.
“For me, it was a very rich experience and taught me to open my mind. I learned how to put things into perspective and not to worry too much about small problems.
“I learned to appreciate everything in my life that makes me happy every day and to smile. Also, to be open because you can learn something from people that you meet for only five minutes.
“It’s always good to listen and learn from people. I also learned how to adjust to different qualities of life.
“I take positives from everywhere I’ve been and build on them.”
As each interviewee on the site is asked to do, we wrap up with Florent putting together a fantasy 5-a-side team of his own. Selecting from the best players he has ever played alongside, he requires four others to join him in this line-up.
Florent’s team is undoubtedly impressive and comprises two of his ex-Liverpool teammates as well as a duo from his Atlético Madrid days. Of course there are numerous players who could be mentioned but there is only space for four to start next to him, so a certain Spaniard and Liverpool favourite has to start on the bench for Florent!
“Steven Gerrard (midfielder) – best player I’ve ever played with. Sergio Aguero (striker)… this is hard when you’ve had a 14-year career already, there are so many great players.
“Jamie Carragher (defender) for his spirit every day, Luis García (attacking midfielder). That’s five already, but I have so much more.
“I still need a keeper – Grégory Coupet for his ability. If I’m not allowed six, then I guess not Luis García because we already have a midfielder.”
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