Question: Let’s start with the beginning of your career. Before you arrived at Real Madrid you spent a couple of years at Lens. What did you feel at such a young age when such a great club as Real Madrid came calling for you?
Answer: I spent less than two years there, it was only 24 games as a professional. I got to Real Madrid at a very young age. It’s true that it was a major challenge in my life and I was very young. I tried to enjoy every day and learn from the players that were here with more experience and talent. I started working, improving and living a great dream.
Q: I imagine you had a lot of confidence in yourself. We have seen how many youngsters get to Real Madrid aged 17 or 18 and then they leave on loan, like Odegaard. Many players have to work their way up somewhere else and return later. But in your case, you arrived at the club and very soon started playing in the first team. Did you imagine that you’d have that opportunity so soon?
A: No, I wasn’t thinking about that, I was only thinking about improving and learning, enjoying every day and well, I jumped into the team’s dynamic and I just wanted to keep up with it and be patient. I needed patience because when you get to Real Madrid you can’t play many games and there were high quality, experienced players and, well, I had to be patient and learn and make the most out of any chance I was given to prove that I had the capability to stay and prove my potential.
Q: In that first Champions League you played in the final, you won it… what did you feel in that moment?
A: Well, it’s difficult to describe the feeling of winning the Champions League at such young age… it’s a dream and well, I felt a lot of pressure because of playing such an important game, but I enjoyed it and it’s a beautiful memory. On top of that, it was a special situation, we won at the very end and the final was very even. It’s a massive joy and it’s difficult to describe because there were so many emotions involved that I never thought I could live.
Q: You spoke about when you arrived and how you had to learn from the footballers that were already here, settled…. Who did you look up to?
A: I looked up to players such as Pepe or Sergio Ramos, because they played as defenders, and also players such as Cristiano, who is an example for any player. I learned a lot from them and from the rest as well, but especially from them.
Q: Your trophy list – 2 LaLiga Santander titles, 4 Champions Leagues, 3 European Super Cups, 1 Copa del Rey with Real Madrid, also that World Cup with France. Having achieved so many things at such a young age, is it difficult to keep up that ambition and wanting to win more? Or is it actually the opposite, making you want to taste success once again?
A: Yes, well, when you live all that, you are even more eager to live it again. You always want to prove that you can compete for it all and that you are playing for the best trophies in football. You always want to stay at the top of it all, of what you enjoy doing so much. Well, everything I have won is more than a dream come true it’s much more than I ever expected and ever dreamed off.
Q: Coming back to this season, obviously it didn’t start as expected with some big ups and downs but it seems as if you’re turning the situation around. How would you grade the season so far?
A: We are growing gradually but I believe that’s just normal after what we went through last season, and also because physical challenges of our start. We worked very hard in pre-season and we also have to prepare the machine physically, in order to feel better. The team is now much more confident and we are playing better and we hope to keep on growing until the end of the season, which is when everything is at stake.
Q: There’s a night in particular that seems to have been a turning point. The night you lost in Paris against PSG seemed to be the low point of the season… what changed after that game to go back to the winning ways?
A: Well I think that, in that moment, we had the feeling that if we did not react and started winning games and we improved things, then we would really have a tough time, so there weren’t many options on the table. We just had to come back to our winning ways, improving it all because we did not want to live a bad season and it was a key moment to change our mentality and be better this season.
Q: And after the mixed start of season you had the atmosphere wasn’t great at the Santiago Bernabeu. Did you feel that added pressure from that bad streak of results? Are you aware of that when you’re out on the pitch? Do you feel the pressure?
A: Yes. We are aware of what goes on around us. The pressure at Real Madrid is as huge as it can get, not only when things go wrong but also all season long. That’s why not all footballers can play at a club like Real Madrid. There’s a lot of pressure and the club and fans demand that we play at our best level always. You need to have the right mentality to be able to perform to your best on pitch week in week out.
Q: Let’s talk about the new signings that arrived this season. Eden Hazard could be the most high-profile… he had troubles starting the season, just like the team did. He began to show the quality you signed him for but then he got injured. I imagine he’ll be missed in El Clásico. How do you think Hazard has been doing from the moment he arrived up until now?
A: I believe that he is adapting well, and he enjoys training every day. He is very talented. The new signings brought in competition and a great quality, so it’s very good for the team. He is very gifted with the ball. I already knew him but seeing him daily… It’s a pleasure to play with him. He is a player that makes a big difference on the pitch.
Q: Without saying that you’re you are a ‘veteran,’ you’ve been at Real Madrid for many seasons and now there are youngsters coming up into the team. Players such as Rodrygo, Vinicius… there’s a new wave of young players. Do you see yourself reflected in them and do you try to help them, remembering what it was like when you arrived at the club?
A: Yes, I do see myself reflected in them. Being so young we just have to let them grow, learn and look. And if we see they are not approaching things in the right way then it’s up to us to tell them so that they can grow well and that’s the best way to help them, with small pieces of advice. But above all, they have to learn how to train and how to prepare for games.
Q: How much has Sergio Ramos has helped you? How much does it help playing by his side?
A: Well, you learn a lot from him, especially his winning mentality. He’s always in a good mood and with the will to win, whether it’s at a training game or anywhere else. That teaches you a lot. He is very experienced, and he is always very motivated and every day you learn something from a player like Sergio.
Q: What did you learn from Zidane?
A: Well, Zidane is a great example for me because of his calm and his way of seeing football, always being positive and always having faith in himself.
Q: Going back to what it means being a defender and playing for Real Madrid… we know Real Madrid are historically a very offensive team. Your job is to defend… do you sometimes feel a bit exposed because of the fact that you are left alone at the back and your margin for error is smaller? Does the way that Real Madrid play force the centre-backs to always be at a really high level?
A: Defenders at Real Madrid have very little margin for error and the smallest mistake you make is punished. We have to know how to defend high up so that we can press the opponent, but at the same time playing 50 metres in front of goal demands a lot of focus and physical effort. It’s a matter of balance. It’s very demanding. We know that that’s just how it is.
Q: Let’s talk about El Clásico. What’s it like to play in El Clásico?
A: Well, my first memory of El Clásico was when I first arrived, aged 18. It was a Spanish Super Cup game and it was impressive to see the physical and technical level required in such a game. Then experiencing it on the pitch, the pressure is huge because it demands a very high level of focus, you can’t compare it to any other game. The very best players on the planet are out on the pitch and the level is unmatched in world football. The pace of the game, the small movements, the details… a single metre can make a difference. You need a lot of focus, you finish the match exhausted both physically and psychologically.
Q: What do you remember about scoring your first goal in El Clásico?
A: Yes, of course I remember it! It’s unforgettable. It was in an important moment in which I equalised in the game and, well, it was a unique feeling. I really enjoyed it.
Q: How important is current form when you come into El Clásico? Or is it forgotten once the game starts?
A: Well, I believe that in this kind of games you always want to come into them with confidence. But it’s special, no doubt. When both teams take to the field they leave their doubts aside, it’s a battle. It doesn’t really matter how the last few games have been. When you step out onto the field, everything’s different.
Q: How do you face the challenge of defending against Leo Messi?
A: Well, he is a special player and you can’t defend him like any other player. He has his characteristics and he demands great focus from you and you have to defend him together with your teammates. It’s a collective effort… we have to leave him as little space as possible.
Q: And what about Luis Suárez?
A: Well, he is a very good player that scores many goals, so he demands a great focus from you to keep an eye on all his movements, and on his abilities in front of goal. He demands a lot from you as a defender, so can’t let him get settle into the game.
Q: What differences do you see between last season’s Barcelona and this season’s?
A: I don’t see much of a difference: they always have the same identity and playing style out on the pitch and the same philosophy, and the important players are the same. We know that it’s always difficult to play against them but at the same time we know what to expect.
Q: Do you talk to any of your fellow Frenchmen at Barcelona in the lead up to the game or you just say hi on the pitch?
A: No, well, we might talk a bit before the game, but generally there’s no one picking on the other before the game. There’s always great respect. But indeed after the game, if we meet with the national team, we will talk about the game, that’s for sure.
Q: You have won virtually everything, but you still have many years ahead in your career. Do you see yourself forever at Real Madrid?
A: Well, each year at Real Madrid is a massive challenge. I have been here for more than eight years and each start of the season is like starting a new career. So I always try to start from the beginning, being really eager and always giving my best for this shirt.
Q: What’s the main goal this season for Real Madrid?
A: As always we want to win it all, that’s the goal, but the important thing is to focus on the game ahead and give your best in order to get to the end of the season with the chance to win titles.