Friday 20 September 2019

How Celestine Pépé's emigration gamble reaped spectacular results thanks to Arsenal's newest idol's talent

Nicolas Pepe could start against Tottenham (Yui Mok/PA)
Nicolas Pepe could start against Tottenham (Yui Mok/PA)
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

CELESTINE Pépé rolled the dice in a bid to give his family the best shot in life and how his son Nicolas has rewarded that sacrifice.

Whatever happens next for Nico after his move to Arsenal last month, the gamble made by his devoted parents as they emigrated from their home in the Ivory Coast to France in the mid-1990s has paid off in a grand manner.

When asked to identify the people who have helped to turn him into Arsenal's £72m record signing, Pépé instantly nominates his parents and thanks them for the sacrifices

they made, with his description of what they have done for him highlighting their dedication.

"They were there during the toughest times and the best times and they are still here right now," states Pépé.

"That is what they have done to this day. They helped me make this dream come true and they will continue to be by my side to support me.

"They have told me about how difficult that was, especially when we were at school. They used to tell me that we had everything and they used to have nothing.

"They would walk 10 kilometres barefoot and we were lucky to be able to go to school by bus. When we grew up, my mother and father stopped working and came to live with me just because of football, and just to make sure my dreams came true.

"I owe it all to them and I want to give something back to my parents for everything they have done for me."

Nico was born in France in 1995, yet he was not blessed with the kind of luxuries many kids around him would have enjoyed at that time, with a football in the backyard of their humble home in the northern French region of Mantes-la-Jolie.

With his single-minded Dad working as a prison warden and his mother taking up a job as a housekeeper, the Pépés put all the money they earned into their son's education and what rapidly emerged as his chief passion in life.

Celestine had aspirations to become a footballer himself but never made the grade and when it became evident young Nico was blessed with a real gift for the game, he threw everything into living out his own dream through his son.

The results have been spectacular, yet the Pépé the world now knows as a dynamic attacking star kicked off his football story in a very different role.

The tall and agile Nico was a goalkeeper until the relatively mature age of 14 and it was only when he joined the ranks of the fifth tier French amateur side Stade Poitevin FC that his talents were unleashed.

With junior coaching staff struck by his mesmeric ball control and searing pace, they quickly deployed their protégé into a more advanced role that would allow him to terrorise defences – and so his rise to the top began.

After playing in the top division of French football with Angers in the 2016/17 season, he was snapped up by Lille and recorded an impressive 23 goals last season and served up 12 assists as he emerged as one of the hottest properties in world football.

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Nicolas Pepe, left, is one of several exciting signings for Arsenal this summer (Yui Mok/PA)

Jose Mourinho and Thierry Henry were among the football heavyweights lavishing praise on Pépé before he made a career-defining move that has the potential to turn this wonder-kid into one of the biggest names in the game – and now he gets his chance to prove he can live up to his own hype.

This was the kid that once stated he had a dream of following in the footsteps of his idol Didier Drogba by playing for Chelsea, but it is a red jersey that he will be wearing in today's North London derby against Tottenham and he is convinced he has made the right career choice.

"It was so important for me to make the right decision in the next stage of my career, and I'm convinced that Arsenal is the right choice," declared Pépé as he arrived at Arsenal.

"I chose to come here because it's a club with a lot of ambition. They have the dream of coming back to the Champions League and I'm also an ambitious person, so the choice was very logical.

"When I think of this club, I think of all the French guys like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. Then I also think of Mesut Ozil, the world champion, Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and many more.

"Auba and Laca spring to mind because I used to watch them when I was at Lille. Also, Laca used to play for Lyon, so I had the opportunity to play against him and it will be an honour to play alongside him.

"I've got to where I am through hard work and dedication. I'm ready to do that here at Arsenal."

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Unai Emery signed six players this summer (Nick Potts/PA)

Those who have followed Pépé's rise from aspiring goalkeeper to one of the most exciting attacking players in European football suggest he needs time to find his feet in England, with his pace and power occasionally lacking finesse and a final touch that will turn his potential into something far more appetising.

Despite his inflated fee, he is far from being the finished product and admits he is eager to learn from manager Unai Emery yet Tottenham will be aware than an Arsenal forward line featuring Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pépé will pose a major threat to their ambitions today.

That hefty price tag is adding to the weight of expectations already weighing down on Pépé's shoulders and it is a burden with which he will need to contend in the coming months.

The last high-profile player to move from Lille to the Premier League was Eden Hazard after he sealed his move to Chelsea in 2012 and if that is the gauge by which Pépé will be judged, the bar could not have been set higher.

Celestine has done all he can to turn his sporting son into something special and it is Nico's turn to prove that he is up to the task.

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