Tottenham Hotspur star Moussa Sissoko sits down at a Kensington rooftop location that reveals London in all its majesty. Taking in a 360-degree view of the capital, Sissoko points out the Shard, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament. ‘Everyone has their own story,’ he smiles. ‘But where I came from it was not easy.’
His French compatriot Patrick Vieira has spoken before of ‘the estates, the Paris banlieues, full of kids whose lives revolve around getting out of a cramped flat to kick a ball’. For Tottenham midfielder Sissoko, this was his upbringing, the roots that underpin his values.
Sissoko says: ‘My mother and father did absolutely everything for me and my sisters. Sometimes it was really tight. We had to really stick together. My mum was working so hard as a cleaner in offices and my dad was like an odd-jobs man, fixing things and building things. When you grow up like that, you know you have to fight a lot. You have to work to have the life you want. I wanted to copy their work ethic and then I wanted to help them. Now I can do that.’
Most footballers speak warmly of their childhood but there is sincerity and passion in Sissoko’s voice. There is, too, a sense of giddiness when the conversation turns to Vieira and, prior to Saturday’s north London derby, his memories of Arsenal’s Invincibles side.
‘My first impressions of English football were the Arsenal team under Arsene Wenger,’ he says. ‘All the French players were there — Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira. My idol was Vieira. In the playground, I was Vieira. That is why I wanted to play in England. I was the same position, we have a similar style. He was a complete idol. It’s why, when I had the chance to come to Newcastle, I didn’t think twice. Now I am at a massive club in Tottenham.’
Yet for every reflection of the present, Sissoko glances at his past. After starting in the France team that lost the Euro 2016 final to Portugal, Sissoko returned to his home of Aulnay-sous-Bois in the north-east suburbs of Paris. Hundreds greeted his arrival and, soon after, a giant mural of the midfielder adorned the side of the housing block in which he grew up. When he returns home — ‘it will always be home,’ he says — he takes footballs and replica shirts for the local schoolchildren and stops to watch the next generation at the youth clubs.
‘My family still live there,’ he says. ‘I go back every two months. Don’t forget where you came from, that would be a mistake. I speak to the kids, give them advice on football and life. I was like them — a kid with a dream. They don’t have an easy life, their parents work hard for them. Sometimes people ask me what I would do if it was not for football. I do not have an answer. My head was only football. I would go to school but I was desperate for the bell to go so I could play football in the playground. We had concrete cages and played every day. When I go on holiday, we play, the same group of boys but I need to be careful not to get injured!’
Sissoko’s voice softens: ‘My parents can be very emotional. Since I was little I was telling them, “I’m going to be a professional player, playing in the big games in huge stadiums”. So it is amazing for them to see what I have become — Champions League games against Borussia Dortmund and derby matches against Arsenal.’
If there is pride in Sissoko in the Parisian suburbs, this hasn’t always been the case in north London. After a £30million deadline day transfer in August 2016, Sissoko often seemed a spare part in Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant team. He completed 90 minutes in the Premier League just seven times in his first two years, yet this season he has transformed opinions.
Sissoko is ‘only’ 6ft 1in but looks bigger. He can blow hot and cold, wild and refined, but he can be a juggernaut of a midfielder. He has dominated major games for Spurs, such as the 3-1 win over Chelsea in November and the 6-2 success at Everton before Christmas. Sissoko says: ‘I knew I could be a success here. I was unlucky in that I signed on the final day of the transfer window, so I did not have pre-season with the squad. I did not know the players very well. Everything was new. The level was bigger than my previous teams.
‘It is normal to take time but they paid a lot of money for you, so they want results straight away. I wanted to play more. I used to play every game at Newcastle and Toulouse. I had to be really strong in the mind. Sometimes you have bad moments. I was left out of the World Cup last summer. It was hard. I was in touch with the players, supporting them. I watched it in London with my missus. I so wanted to be there. I just kept saying in my mind, “Keep working and I know it will be a success”. I listened to the manager Mauricio Pochettino. I am so happy I did not give up. It is never too late.’
At 29, Sissoko is demonstrating his finest football in England and producing the form that once led France manager Didier Deschamps to call him ‘my soldier’. Sissoko’s prominence in France’s Euros side was slightly surprising after the player had formed part of a disastrous season at Newcastle, largely under Steve McClaren, when they were relegated in 2016.
‘My first relegation,’ Sissoko frowns. ‘I was very sad. Newcastle are a huge club with massive fans and the potential is big. On the pitch, we did not do enough. We did not show our quality. I believed Newcastle would come straight back up but I went to Tottenham to fight for titles. I actually wish Rafa Benitez was there for more than the final three months of that season because we would have stayed up if he had come earlier.’
At Spurs, the silverware is yet to arrive and after back-to-back league defeats at Burnley and Chelsea the wait looks set to go on. Sissoko, however, is determined to ensure a strong finish to the season.
‘The manager is right when he says we can compete with the very best,’ Sissoko adds. ‘We beat Dortmund last year, we beat Real Madrid. This year, we have done well. OK, we went out of the FA Cup and Carabao Cup but we had a lot of injuries and couldn’t rotate the team. We know if we win every remaining league game, we will be very high. We intend to fight until the end. We have shown that even when missing players like Harry Kane, we can get results.’