Christian Karembeu won just about everything there is to win at the top of football: he conquered France, Europe, then the world. He travelled Europe, playing in top leagues all over the continent, and graced major international tournaments – quite the career for a man from the middle of nowhere.
Born in New Caledonia, the rise of Karembeu to the top of the world game is unique. No player from the small South Pacific region has ever achieved anything like what Karembeu did – he was the first to ever feature in a World Cup, let alone win the trophy. He is a direct descendant of the indigenous people of New Caledonia, and to say that he should never have had the opportunity to achieve what he did is still underselling it.
A French agent witnessed Karembeu play at just 15 in Lifou, an even tinier Island off the coast of New Caledonia. Impressed by his athleticism, the agent set about trying to convince the teenager to pursue a career thousands of miles away in France.
“He saw me playing and quickly came up to me. I refused his offer to go to France because my studies were more important,
“My mother allowed me to go on the condition of me continuing my education.
“It is never easy when you leave your family. I told myself that when I returned I did not want to be ashamed. So from the beginning, I was ready to commit myself and succeed.”
What resulted was a career at Nantes, with Karembeu called up to the first-team in 1990. Nantes had an impressively young side at the time and the 19-year-old Karembeu would be joining up with a 21-year-old Marcel Desailly and a 20-year-old Patrice Loko. The club also boasted Jorge Burruchaga, the Argentinian World Cup winner having joined from Independiente in 1985.
— Ligue 1 Español (@Ligue1_ESP) September 28, 2017
It was the perfect atmosphere for Karembeu to thrive, and while Desailly would leave in 1992, Nantes would introduce a young Claude Makelele to their midfield. This faith and investment in youth paid dividends. Climbing up the league year on year, Nantes would lift the Ligue 1 title in 1995 – their first for 12 years.
Now 25, Karembeu was getting attention from bigger clubs in bigger leagues. He left for the biggest league of the decade, Serie A, after winning Ligue 1, joining Sampdoria. There he would play under Sven Göran Eriksson, and again alongside some incredibly talented players. In his year with Sampdoria, Karembeu would play with Roberto Mancini, Siniša Mihajlović, Enrico Chiesa, Vicenzo Montella, Clarence Seedorf, and Juan Sebastian Veron.
There would be no repeat of the heroics seen at Nantes, though his individual performances were such that Karembeu moved to the biggest club in the world in 1997 – Real Madrid.
Real were, as Real always seem to be, chasing the Champions League – La Septima – with another remarkably talented team (Roberto Carlos, Fernando Morientes, Clarence Seedorf, Redondo, Hierro, Raul…Real Madrid).
Whether Karembeu can claim to have been exactly what was needed is up for debate, but Real did achieve their goal that season, defeating Juventus 1-0 in the final of the Champions League – Karembeu played the full 90.
Next up for Karembeu was France ’98.
Karembeu had a mixed relationship with France. He’d moved there at 15 and made his debut for their national side in 1992, but he still firmly held onto his South Pacific roots. Trying to embrace both cultures was something that was brought to the surface in 1998.That year a book was published in France about a 1931 exhibition in Paris.
That year a book was published in France about a 1931 exhibition in Paris. That exhibition, played up as a celebration of French colonialism, had featured a group of what were presented as “cannibals” brought over from New Caledonia and put on display. Later some of the people had been sold to the Berlin zoo in exchange for crocodiles.
Karembeu was asked about the event and his thoughts on it, only for it to come to light that one of the men brought over had been his great-grandfather. While he denied that his commitment to France should be questioned, this obviously brought about difficulty for Karembeu.
“My family, like many Kanak families, underwent horrible experiences. I can’t sing the French national anthem because I know the history of my people.”
And sing it he didn’t. This would, unfortunately, be used as a sign he wasn’t truly French (along with Zidane), although it’s unlikely many cared after what transpired in the summer of 1998.
Usually on the right of midfield, Christian Karembeu would feature regularly throughout France’s victorious tournament, racking up more minutes than even Patrick Vieria. He featured in the final, too, substituted after 57 minutes with the game well and truly won.
It would be the obvious pinnacle of his career – the kid from the middle of nowhere who conquered the world.
Not that he was finished there. Another European Cup would follow with Real in 2000 before Karembeu made way for the Galacticos project. That summer he featured for France at the EURO’s, this time being crowned a champion of Europe at International level.
A season in England with Middlesbrough came after the victories before he moved to Greece for Olympiakos. He’d leave a hell of an impression there, winning two league titles in three years, establishing a relationship with the club that saw him return as “strategic advisor” once his career was done.
Christian Karembeu started his career in a place where no one had ever made it anywhere near the top. The opportunities for success in football were about as few and far between as anywhere in the world, and yet he reached the pinnacle of the game. Leaving his small island and large family behind was an enormous risk that left him desperate not to disappoint – it’s safe to say he didn’t.
Even now, with his career as a player long finished, Karembeu does everything he can to integrate his part of the world, acting as an ambassador and trying to establish a South Pacific team in Australia’s A-League. Karembeu may have travelled climbed to the top of the world, but he’s never forgotten where he came from.