Youri Djorkaeff on retirement: “The day it starts to be an effort or to be hard, I’ll stop.”
With former Red Bulls midfielder-forward Youri Djorkaeff, the CEO of the FIFA Foundation, in the news with his organization planning a fundraiser for the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reposting a three-part series about the French World Cup champion that was originally published at BigAppleSoccer.com in 2006.
Third and final story in a series
By Michael Lewis
During the winter of 2005, Youri Djorkaeff had made up his mind and was ready to take the big leap across the pond — from Europe to the United States.
He had spoken to then MetroStars coach Bob Bradley several times about the possibility of joining MLS.
“I was ready to [come here] to do well in New York,” he said. “I was ready because I choose to come here. Bob — we talked a lot.”
Djorkaeff was playing with the Blackburn Rovers in the English Premiership at the time. He had performed in but three games and scored no goals, thanks to a recurring hamstring problem.
He needed a change of scenery and a new challenge.
“I wanted to live in New York,” he said. “I liked the life in the city and to still play — because I wanted to play and not retire. One possibility at this time was MLS. I [was] ready to play in the summer time. I was ready to play on the (artificial turf). I was ready to fight with the kids. I’m ready to push my team if it was necessary. I’m ready to play in Giants Stadium, where sometimes there is not a lot of people. But I’m ready for it.”
When Djorkaeff joined the Metros, there were skeptics in the media – including this writer — on whether he could survive the long-hot summer schedule of MLS at 37 last year.
“People were skeptical about my age,” he said. “The last [big-time] foreigner was very bad. The last one was German [Lothar] Matthaeus and people were not very happy. It’s not that I didn’t care, but if I decide to play the game, I play the game. Or I stay home. I don’t run behind the contract. . . . All the journalists changed. This is good. It means people understand soccer.”
The New York Times called it one of the worst signings in league history.
“I have a name,” Djorkaeff said. “I am a World Cup winner. You have to show people why you are a World Cup winner. It’s OK. It’s OK. No problem. I can live.”
Compared to some of the other foreigner signings in the league’s 11-year history, Djorkaeff has been a relative bargain. He earned and $180,000 in 2005 and $207,000 this past season, according to the MLS players union. League maximum is $280,000.
As for his age, Djorkaeff added: “I don’t have any problems with my age. I still enjoy playing soccer.”
Djorkaeff is winding down a 22-year career, a long career in any sport, especially soccer.
Just what kept him going?
“I don’t know,” he replied with a laugh.
“When I’m traveling, I can sleep well. Just rest. I go out. No kids. No wife. For a moment, I am comfortable alone.”
He was half-serious and half-jesting.
“You can sleep well,’ he added about road games. “There are no kids coming in the bed.”
He addressed how long he would like to play.
“The day it starts to be an effort or to be hard, I’ll stop,” he said.
Djorkaeff said the driving force to excel and to do well was “passion. The things inside a locker room after a good victory, after a bad victory.”
“I think when you finish the game and everybody is happy, you feel good,” he said. “This is a great moment. All the great moments.”
Djorakeff said he has adjusted his training regimen as he as gotten older.
“It’s not that one day you decide to change,” he said. “You take your time to change. Like your age, you take your time to get gray hair. It’s not like you wake up and you’ve gray. I changed many things. All the time. It’s small things, small things.
“It’s like a car. You need to drive it longer and longer. One day it’s a horn, the second day it’s the hoses, then the front. You have to care of yourself. I care about myself.”
He said he has changed a few habits but added that he didn’t want to miss out on anything in small-sided games in practice, even with 38-year-old wheels.
“I want to play all the time,” he said. “I don’t want to give my place to another one. I want to play.”
Djorakeff’s American experience sometimes has been superb and sublime and sometimes worrisome. He was the undoubted force on last year’s team, taking over captain responsibilities and scoring several key goals during the stretch run. He finished with 10 goals and seven assists.
But this season, Djorkaeff has shown his 38-year-old legs. He has but two goals and four assists in 17 games. He hasn’t scored in an incredible 1,391 minutes over 16 games — or since the 4-1 loss to United April 22.
Djorkaeff had refused to talk to media since the beginning of August, so it was difficult to get his take on his lack of scoring this season.
Asked about his expectations about the team, Djorkaeff replied, “Maybe I expect a lot (from) the team. I wanted to do more last year. The last game in New England (a 3-1 loss in the playoffs).
“It could be a good defense if the players understand what the high level is. If in one minute you are not watching where the ball is, you can lose the game.
“Bob asked me last year what was the difference between a big club and a small club. I said nothing. Just details, because you prepare like a big team, you eat like a team, you sleep in the same hotel. You’re traveling maybe a different (way). You’re in the same stadium. Just a question of details.”
Djorkaeff settled in Manhattan.
“I love this city. I love this city,” he said. “I feel great in the city. I feel great walking in the city. When I am in the city, I feel happy.”
He lives with his wife, Sophie, and three children — Sasha (12), Oen (8) and Angelica (7). “They’re just starting to play soccer,” he said.
Yes, Djorkaeff is recognized when he walks the streets, but it is hardly like Paris or Europe, where he is a well known face.
“I can walk with my family,” he said. “I am happy because we can share some moments in the city or in the restaurant. Nobody disturbs us.
“Many people recognize me in Manhattan. People follow soccer in America. . . . Everyday they ask me if we have some new players here. When I signed with the league, they told me: ‘Yeah, nobody would recognize me in the city or disturb you.’ ”
But it’s nothing like across the Atlantic.
“I know what it is to be recognized. I know what the paparazzi are,” he said, “following my car and sitting outside my apartment. I know everything about them.”
He takes different modes to practice, whether he uses a limo driver or the ferry across the Hudson River and a taxi takes him to Giants Stadium.
“I like to make different experiences,” he said.
And not just in the metropolitan area.
“It’s interesting traveling because New York is not American,” Djorakeff said. “That’s what I feel when I’m here [Bradenton, Fla.], I am in America. I’ve seen more cities like Bradenton than New York. New York, maybe Chicago for an international city. Small like this. Very interesting.
“I think American is the last civilized country. It’s totally different. You can be in the South and find some [food you like]. You can have anything in America. This is crazy. People don’t need to move from America. They stay in the country. They can ski, they can go surfing.”