When I tell people I’m 19 years old, they get surprised.
“Oh, Matteo, you’re so mature for your age!”
“Mr. Guendouzi, you carry yourself like a man!”
“I would have thought you were at least 25!”
Things like that make me laugh every time I hear them. Growing up, it was the opposite. People would try to tell me I was a baby. They’d say things like, “You weren’t alive for the 1998 World Cup,” and tell me I didn’t know anything about football. I watched the videos of the tournament, and grew up idolizing Zidane and the goals he scored. But the people who poked fun at me were right. I hadn’t seen France win its first World Cup.
So one day I quietly made a promise to myself — that one day I was going to help France win a World Cup. Big promise to make right? But that’s the best way to do anything.
We shoot for the stars in my family. My parents taught me to be respectful to everybody, to be kind to everybody, to learn from people, and to aim high. That’s why when I was playing football with my older brothers in our back garden in Poissy, I would pretend I was Zinedine Zidane. That’s why I when I was on the Paris Saint-Germain academy teams, I wanted to be a striker like my hero, Pedro Miguel Pauleta.
And that’s why, when I left Paris Saint-Germain at 15, I wasn’t worried because I had a plan and I was going to stick to it. One of my youth coaches once told me, “You have all the qualities needed. Stay as you are. Play football the way you love to play football, and you will have a great career.” It has stuck with me ever since.
A year after I left PSG I ended up playing against them when my Lorient side reached the French U17 cup final. We were a good side, but everyone expected Paris Saint-Germain to win. But there’s something about me you should know: I can’t handle it when you say another team is going to beat mine. That cup final, PSG vs. Lorient, I gave everything I had. I gave my life on the field. I had cramps at the end of the match. But we won, and I knew I had made the right decision when I left PSG to join Lorient.
I feel the same way now that I’m at Arsenal — that I’ve made the right decision and something good is about to happen. When I came to Arsenal, I wasn’t telling myself, “I am the new guy, the youngest player on the team, so I need to be careful.” I was telling myself, “You’ve been brought here to make a difference,” and that’s what I’m striving for. I try to help my team every day. If I need to talk to my teammates, I talk to them. If I have to yell at them, sometimes I yell! That’s probably why everyone is shocked when they find out I’m only 19. I don’t say things just to please people. I don’t pretend or lie, I try to be on the level as much as possible, and I hope people appreciate that about me. At Arsenal when I say I want to win trophies, people know I will work hard to get them, and I think they respect me for it.
So yes, I missed France’s World Cup win in ’98. And didn’t make the team for 2018. But the next time France makes a World Cup final, I’ll be there. Aim high.