How I Fell In Love With... Pascal Cygan

To mark the start of the new football season, we're celebrating unlikely heroes from the past and present of the beautiful game. Here, Nick Pope remembers the shiniest head in football history

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There is a rule, written into the cosmic law book with permanent marker, that Arsène Wenger must have at least one totally baffling centre-back in his squad at any given time.

It all started in 2000 with Latvian international Igor Stepanovs. Imagine Beaker from The Muppets, but more harrowed-looking and, presumably, far worse at football. He was almost immediately responsible for a 6-1 drubbing to Manchester United.

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Stepanovs went on to play about 10 more games for the club, before being replaced by shiny-bonced Frenchman Pascal Cygan. Then came ex-Man United clogger Mikaël Silvestre, then water-treading veteran Sebastien Squillaci and now, as we live and breath, the perma-furious Gabriel Paulista. To a man, agents of chaos with the ball control of a juggling amputee.

I first started going to Highbury at the age of 10, in 2001. By that time, Igor Stepanovs was just a name tacked onto the back of a program. He'd make a few appearances in the 85th minute of un-losable league matches, but never touched the ball enough for me to truly understand his reputation.

Before long, he left for Belgian team Beveren, and Wenger was faced with a dilemma. He'd built a team of world-class internationals – Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, to name a few – but sorely lacked a totally rubbish centre-back to tie the whole thing together.

Enter Pascal Cygan. Arriving for £2 million from Lens, he'd been voted 'Player of the Year' by French journalists the previous season. Wenger hoped that he would match up to the recently retired Tony Adams, and become a fixture in the Arsenal defence for years to come.

Before we go into what happened next, let's talk about Pascal Cygan's face. It is terrifying. He looks like a bored Skeletor. He looks like a Space Raider crisp, made human. See that vein? I swear you could hear it throbbing over the noise of the crowd.

But yeah, he turned out to be very, very bad. The kind of bad that, whenever you saw his name on the team-sheet, you immediately suffered heartburn. All colour drained from your face, and you suddenly yearned for the sight of Matthew Upson.

In Arsenal's long lineage of snail-paced defenders, Cygan was surely the slowest. There aren't many videos of Cygan online (bar a weird FIFA fandom that I'm destined to get heavily into), but the video below will tell you all you need to know about his brief tenure with the team.

First: the header. Despite possessing a cranium that could have been forged in a laboratory for the express purpose of headers, he wasn't very good at them.

Second: the positioning. Watch the way he steps forward for no reason whatsoever. Try to get inside his head at that moment. Try to understand his thinking process. You cannot.

Third: the recovery. Pascal Cygan turns like a bus in a packed car park. He should under no circumstances be stepping forward for anything.

So we've established that he wasn't very good. Which makes it all the stranger that, out of all of the spellbindingly world-class players that surrounded him, Pascal Cygan is who I remember most fondly.

Maybe it's because we were steamrolling every team in town, and he added a necessary dose of jeopardy to our consistently routine wins. With Thierry Henry and Pascal Cygan on the pitch, we possessed two danger men, but for totally opposite reasons.

The strange truth is, when you get too accustomed to it, glory can become kind of boring. It's the tumultuous ups and downs that make football the emotionally-taxing, nerve-strumming game that it is. 

Sure, I enjoyed our success as much as the next supporter, but I probably enjoyed sweating over it more. 

And for that reason, I'll always cherish Pascal Cygan. The player who made my heart pound whenever he touched the ball.

What do you think?

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