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Flamini the master of 'beautiful treason'

Listen carefully at Stamford Bridge this afternoon and you may hear an old tune twisted into acclaim for an all-action midfielder. 'Fla-mi-ni, Fla-mi-ni' are the lyrics to a version of The Sweeney theme music that is more appropriate than it first seems.

Mathieu Flamini does not just career around his London manor with all the madcap energy of a 1970s TV copper, he also has as intimate a knowledge of the law.

Witness the finely researched exploitation of a loophole in French football regulations he used to escape Olympique Marseille. Then there is the media hardball with Arsene Wenger over another set of transfer rules to threaten to exit Arsenal last season. And the calculated rundown of his current contract as Flamini ensures he is with the club and on the salary he desires next.

As the coach who lost him from a Marseille side that reached the 2004 UEFA Cup final notes, Flamini is not your average footballer -- on or off the pitch. "Flamini has got character," Jose Anigo says. "He's intelligent and he knows the system. He's more calculating than you would think."

Exhibit one: Threatened FIFA buy-out, 2007. There is an argument to be made that Arsenal's exhilarating assault on domestic and Champions League honours started with a series of phone calls Flamini had with French sports journalists 12 months ago. Frustrated at his back-up status in a struggling side (he started just nine Premier League fixtures last season), Flamini delved into the rulebook, concluding that with the third year of his contract coming to an end, he was entitled to scrap the deal, pay a small sum of compensation to the club, and find more amenable employers overseas. He then set about advertising his availability.

The French magazine So Foot had requested an interview a month previously. What they did not expect was for Flamini to call them directly, offer an interview there and then, while declaring: "I am thinking of leaving Arsenal."

If the intention was to force Wenger's hand, it worked. The manager asked Flamini to remain in London, promising more opportunity to operate in his favoured central midfield role. When this season began, an opening created by Gilberto Silva's Copa America-induced absence evolved into a constant starting berth -- a change that altered the character of Arsenal's play, adding speed and encouraging Cesc Fabregas forward into scoring positions.

The pair are close friends and Fabregas raves about his partner's contribution to his own development this campaign. "I feel more free to go forward and that's down to Flamini," Fabregas says. "He doesn't stop running, chasing the opponent. He has amazing energy."

Exhibit two: Au revoir, Marseille, 2004. On the south coast of France, where Flamini grew up and received his football education, they are well aware of the player's uncustomary worldliness. Flamini was too quick for Marseille when he broke into a team spearheaded by a free-scoring Didier Drogba.

Flamini was on a meagrely rewarded stagiaire (trainee) contract at the time and under French Federation rules was obliged to sign his first senior deal with OM. There was a legal get-out, however. Join a club from another EU country and the transfer fee would be limited to FIFA-mandated 'training compensation', allowing Flamini to negotiate a far more lucrative salary.

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Marseille waited until April to make their player a serious offer, by which point Wenger had seen enough to promise a move. Marseille received slightly over £320,000 for a man Anigo accused of "beautiful treason".

Exhibit three: Contract negotiations, 2008. Flamini has regularly expressed his desire to remain at Arsenal, yet is prepared to start his next campaign elsewhere if they cannot match his demands.

Flamini and his advisers believe it would cost Arsenal close to £20m to sign a genuine replacement, so have requested that full sum to be spread over the term of a new five-year contract. Working out at £75,000 a week, it would place him near the summit of the club's salary scale.

Ask the Frenchman about his role in the team, and he emphasises the physical. "I have to protect my defence, stay in the middle and focus on stopping their attacks. It's important to win the fight first and then after that to play."

France do not yet find Flamini so essential. He has yet to start a full international, making just one appearance as a substitute. For now, coach Raymond Domenech prefers a holding trio of Makelele, Patrick Vieira and Lassana Diarra.

"You need winners in the team, guys who hate to lose, who want to win at everything. I hate to lose. I want to win in training. Some say I'm a bad loser and I am. I've always been like that. If I play something I want to win. Not just in football. Playing cards or anything. If not, then there is no point in playing." Of that, The Sweeney would have approved.

Observer


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