Road to Ligue 1: The Loïc Négo (Le Havre) interview

Road to Ligue 1: The Loïc Négo (Le Havre) interview

Publish on 05/10 at 16:03 - G. BOXALL


Former French youth international and current Hungarian international Loïc Nego shares his unique journey, from Nantes to Le Havre AC via AS Roma, with anecdotes about Luis Enrique, Totti, Griezmann, and Lacazette

After many years abroad, you're soon finishing your first season in Ligue 1 Uber Eats at the age of 33. Was it important for you to return to France to show what you were capable of in your home country?

Of course. I left abroad very early in my career, where I experienced some great things, but it was a dream for me to one day play in the French top flight. I had already played in Ligue 2 with Nantes, but as a French professional player, if I had ended my career without experiencing the best of French football, it would have felt like something was missing. There would have been a bitter taste, a feeling of unfinished business, and that's what I told my children before signing with Le Havre last summer. I had been thinking about it for several years, but the right project hadn't come along until then.

In your career, you've won titles, played around forty European matches, and become a Hungarian international. How did Mathieu Bodmer convince you to sign for Le Havre?

Very quickly! I talked to my agent for about 10 minutes, no more. Mathieu Bodmer and Mohamed El Kharraze (the assistant sporting director) were convincing, and they were convinced by my profile. I did some research on the city, the club, the players who were there... One of the first things I noticed was that the group was young, which immediately appealed to me because it meant that these were players with everything to prove. And then, I had known "Momo" El Kharraze for a long time...

What do you mean?

I've known him since my years at Le Bourget, before joining the FC Nantes academy. He was my coach with the Seine-Saint-Denis selection. I played as a forward or supporting striker at that time, and he was the one who moved me to right-back in a district tournament. I thank him because that positional change marked a turning point in my career!

Going back to your beginnings, you  started out at FC Nantes, where you made your professional debut in May 2010, but a year later, at the age of 20, you moved to AS Roma. What happened?

So, in July 2010, I won the European Championship with the French U19 team, and when I returned to Nantes, there was something planned with Gilles Favard, who was the club's sporting director. But he was replaced by Guy Hillion, who came from Chelsea. Everything that had been agreed upon completely changed, which my entourage and I didn't appreciate, so we didn't follow through with Mr. Hillion's proposal, and I left Nantes reluctantly, at the end of my contract. I had discussions with AS Saint-Étienne, an important club for me because it was my father's favorite club, but it didn't work out. Then there was the U20 World Cup approaching, and the coach Francis Smerecki asked me to make a decision because he was going to announce his squad. He didn't want it to disturb me during the competition. Maybe I rushed things a bit and I had to choose from several good opportunities: Inter Milan, Porto, and AS Roma. But looking back now, I don't regret it.

What do you remember from your experience at AS Roma even though you didn't play in the first team?

I arrived there very young. I had just come out of the academy, so I didn't have much independence yet. At Nantes, I was very supported, and there, I arrived abroad, alone with my wife and son, in a big city... There was a big difference! But I learned that there's no place for you if you're not demanding, disciplined... That's what makes a great player. Every day, you have to show consistency, whether it's in a match or in training! I arrived under Luis Enrique, and the training sessions were intense. There was really a very high demand for the quality and seriousness required.

And were you lacking in that aspect?

It's not that I wasn't disciplined, but it was another level. I arrived at Roma at 20, so I was one of the youngest in the group. Since I had just come from the U20 World Cup, I started with the reserves for a week, just to get physically into it, before starting to train with the first team. And at the end of the sessions, I didn't necessarily have the reflex to pick up the equipment. I went straight to the locker rooms with the other players even though I wasn't like them. I had just arrived, and I had everything to prove. I had to do more than the others. These are the kinds of things I didn't really trust when I arrived.

Were you then reminded about it?

No, everyone treated me very well. But even if no one directly tells you, there are definitely people who will notice these behaviors. Every weekend, I was sent back to the reserves, so there was obviously something wrong with me! At the time, I didn't realize it, but later on, I understood...

You've mentioned before being impressed by the professionalism of Roma players. What advice did they give you?

I have one from Miralem Pjanić in mind, I'll tell you about it. Miralem and I arrived at Roma the same summer and we lived in the same hotel during our first weeks there. We went to training together, and even though he was the same age as me, he gave me a lot of advice. And one day, he tells me that he finds me a bit too nice for a defender. We start training, and I make a strong tackle on Francesco Totti! And I see Francesco staying down... He's in pain and he has to go back to the locker room... Fortunately, nothing serious happened, but the next day, everyone was talking about me in all the newspapers. That's how the Italians discovered me, because I tackled Francesco Totti! But luckily, I have happier anecdotes with him too!

One day, I parked my Mercedes in front of my house, and the next morning, I found it with the wing dented. No idea what happened, and of course, no one left a message. I was so disgusted that I stopped driving it. After a while, Francesco Totti asks me what's going on. I tell him, and Francesco tells me to bring my car the next day. At the end of training, I arrive in the parking lot, and my car is gone. Francesco had already left, and I didn't have his phone number at the time. I manage to get home somehow, and the next day, I ask him if he has my car, and he tells me not to worry. A few days later, I arrive at Trigoria (the training center), and I find my car repaired, all clean. Francesco had taken care of all the repairs! When I saw him in the locker room, I don't know what came over me, but I went to kiss him on the forehead!

So, for you, Francesco Totti is like that...

Yes! And he was also my neighbour in the locker room and in life! He lived on the top floor of a building - and I mean he had the whole top floor to himself - and I lived in the building next door. To get home, I had to pass by his building, and every day, there were about fifty fans in front of his house, with banners, jerseys...

At Roma, you were coached by Luis Enrique, who was experiencing his first real coaching job...

I really enjoyed working with him. He was very active. He repeated all the time that you had to want to be better than the day before, to do things better than the day before... With him, there was a lot of playing, a lot of ball work. What also struck me about him was his management of the locker room, especially of the young players because he treated us like Totti, De Rossi... But I don't know if he still operates the same way!

And if I'm not mistaken, you also played with Marquinhos for six months...

Yes, he had just arrived from Brazil, and we immediately saw that he was a player destined for a great career. He quickly adapted to Roma and started playing match after match. He's a very good person, and when I met him again this season, I saw that he hadn't changed! But even though I got along well with Marquinhos at the time, the one I was closest to was Erik Lamela.

After Nantes and Roma, there was Standard Liège, Ujpest, and Charlton for a total of three difficult years in terms of playing time. Was there ever a moment when you were tempted to give up?

Never! Football has always been my passion. Even if things weren't going as I wanted, I was young and I trusted my agents. I knew I would eventually find something. I also knew that it all depended on me. The most important thing was the effort I was going to put in to achieve the career I envisioned. But it's true that it was tough. After my loan spell at Standard Liège, I returned to Roma, and we terminated my contract. On the day of the signing, I even crossed paths with Rudi Garcia, who was arriving at the club. After that, I spent over a month without a club, at home. That's when I received a phone call from a Hungarian club, so I looked into it a bit, but I said no. My agents insisted, and it turned out to be a very good choice in the end.

A very good choice since you stayed in Hungary for 10 years, mainly with Videoton, and you became a Hungarian international in 2020...

It's a beautiful story! In the Hungarian league, teams that field a certain number of national players receive a check from the federation. At Videoton, there were quite a few foreigners, and the club wanted to trim down to highlight young Hungarians. Since I had been playing in Hungary for over five years, the sporting director suggested that I take Hungarian citizenship in addition to French citizenship. I was very comfortable there, so if it could help my club, it didn't bother me... I accepted, and afterwards, we had a great season where we went to the Europa League, we brought Chelsea to Hungary... Personally, everything was going wonderfully. By the way, I scored against Chelsea! I could have signed with Beşiktaş, but Videoton wanted to keep me and rewarded me with a new contract. Shortly after, they told me that the rules for joining the Hungarian national team would evolve, and an opportunity could arise for me.

And then?

I was realistic. I think I could have waited for the French team until my death (laughs). Unfortunately for me, I wasn't going to have that chance to play for the French national team, which was a childhood dream, so why not represent Hungary, a country that welcomed me very well and gave me a lot... Today, I have no regrets!

I read that before your first selection, you chose the song "Boom Boom" by Factor X for your initiation...

That's my jam (laughs). I still listen to it often! When I play it in the car, my kids know it by heart! For the anecdote, our goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi told me that he rated my performance in his top 2 for the national team!

Wasn't it difficult to integrate as a foreigner?

Not at all. In the team, there are many players who play abroad, so they're used to these mixtures. In terms of adaptation, group life, it went very well. And then, at the beginning, we were 4-5 Videoton players, so I had several acquaintances in the group.

During the last Euro, you found yourself playing Hungary vs. France...

It was insane! Especially considering what had happened a few months before because when I joined the national team, I ended up playing the most important match for the team in over 20 years, the playoff for Euro qualification against Iceland. It was a crazy story because the coach had Covid, so he talked to us via video. I started on the bench, and we were losing from the start of the match. Our dream of playing the Euro in Hungary was slipping away... It was going to be a big celebration, and we were letting the opportunity slip away. The coach calls me to enter the game towards the end when I wasn't expecting it at all. To tell you the truth, I was wearing sneakers. I quickly changed and entered without warming up.

And then?

I don't even know which position I entered, I just thought I would give it my all. We were pushing, pushing, and then, I received the ball, one-two in a forest of legs, and the ball came back to me perfectly in stride, on my right foot, at an angle where I couldn't miss. I scored, and it was madness! Right after that, we scored the 2-1, and we qualified for the Euro! And to get back to your question, we ended up playing France in what will remain one of the greatest days of my life!


Of course! La Marseillaise alone was something! And I was playing against the French team, a team I dreamed of being in. All my family, all my friends were there... For two or three minutes, you have a lot of thoughts, but then, you put that aside and get into your game! Once on the field, there are no friends on the other side! And watch out, we were very close to winning (1-1 with Hungary opening the score)!

To wrap up this interview about your years with the French national team, you mentioned earlier the U20 World Cup but also the U19 Euro that you won...

 Those are memories that will stay with me forever! We had an exceptional generation, with a staff that followed us for almost four years. It was a time when we learned a lot even though all the players had very different statuses in their respective clubs.

In your generation, the 1991 one, there were notably Antoine Griezmann, Alexandre Lacazette, Gaël Kakuta, Kalidou Koulibaly...

So, Lacazette, he scored all the time! With him, it was always about scoring goals. There was also Yannis Tafer, another striker from Lyon, in the same style. Yannis was even ahead of Alexandre at the time. Gueïda Fofana was the leader. We were kids, but he was the father among the kids, the one who would scold us if we did something stupid. Gaël Kakuta already had extraordinary talent. We also had Francis Coquelin with us and then Antoine Griezmann. I was always roommates with him. When he arrived, he was in his corner, very shy. However, he was very confident. He didn't stress, even when he didn't play, and at the beginning, he wasn't a starter. We saw where this self-confidence took him.

On the field this season, you found yourself playing against Alexandre Lacazette but also Wissam Ben Yedder...

Yes, with Wissam, we come from the same neighborhood in Garges-lès-Gonesse! We didn't grow up together, but we would meet once a week because there were always matches organised between his estate and mine. It was intense! There was quality on both sides, and it was always: "We're the best!" "No, we are!" Supremacy in the town was at stake! But the best, I can say it now, was Wissam! You couldn't give him two meters!

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