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'I'd sign for Arsenal over Real Madrid 10 times over' - No regrets over Blancos snub, insists Lauren

12:00 PM EDT 9/21/20
Lauren Arsenal Real Madrid GFX
The Gunners legend talks exclusively to Goal about his seven-year stay in north London and his two Premier League title wins

There are not many players who would say no to Real Madrid. For most, the lure of Santiago Bernabeu is too great to turn down.

But one player who did give a resounding 'no' to the 13-time European champions was Lauren.

The Arsenal legend had an opportunity to move to Madrid from Mallorca in 2000 and even sat down with Juan Onieva, who was Madrid’s vice-president at the time, to discuss a move.

But it did not feel right. The connection was not there, so Lauren instead flew to London to meet with David Dein and Arsene Wenger.

From that moment, there was only one club he wanted to join.

A £7.2 million move to Arsenal was wrapped up swiftly, and the Cameroon international went on to win five major trophies with the Gunners and form part of the defence which helped secure the 2004 Premier League title without losing a single game.

So, looking back on things now 20 years on, are there any regrets about turning down Real Madrid?

“No regrets at all,” Lauren tells Goal.

“If I was born again I would sign with Arsenal 10 more times because I played with top players, with a top manager, at a top institution with top human beings all around.

“Arsenal is my family and it will always be my family because it’s the place I grew up as a person in so many ways.

“It’s not only about the trophies, it’s not about money. It’s more than that. You see now with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: it’s not about money, you love the place, you love the people and they way they treat you. This is Arsenal.”

He adds: “Arsenal give you everything necessary to make you feel like you are in a family and I really feel that Arsenal is my family.

“It was the perfect moment for me and so many players would feel the same way.

“I remember once we were celebrating a trophy in the dressing room and we were all flying. Dennis Bergkamp said ‘enjoy these moments lads because you never know if this is going to happen again’.

“So that’s why I say I have no regrets and if I had to sign with Arsenal again, I would sign every single year for the rest of my life. If I had to do it again, I would sign for Arsenal rather than Real Madrid.”

Lauren arrived at Arsenal from Mallorca on July 1, 2000 - one year after seeing a potential move to Roma fall through.

Before joining the Gunners he had been used as a midfielder, but he was signed with a view to replacing Lee Dixon at right-back on the recommendation of Francis Cagigao - who was Arsenal’s scout in Spain at the time.

He scored on his home debut against Liverpool and went on to stay for seven years before leaving for Portsmouth in 2007.

“It’s now that I really enjoy looking back,” he says. “In those days I did not pay much attention.

“After a game it was just like another normal day. I would go home and then the next day I would go to training. I didn’t care about anything else. I didn’t pay attention on a daily basis. Now is when I really enjoy it with more tranquility.

“I’m very proud because I managed to play with top players. [Robert] Pires, Bergkamp, [Patrick] Vieira, Gilberto, [Jens] Lehmann, [Ray] Parlour. It was a fantastic team with fantastic human beings.

“I have a kid, he is 10 years old now and is starting to play. He starts at Sevilla this year. I talk to him and he asks me about it. I’m very proud of that.”

Lauren’s first league title with Arsenal came in 2002, a year which also saw the Gunners win the FA Cup.

He made 41 appearances in all competitions that season, scoring twice, with one of those goals coming in the north London derby when Spurs were beaten 2-1 at Highbury during the crucial title run-in.

It came from the penalty spot with just four minutes remaining and the game level at 1-1. Thierry Henry was off the field receiving treatment having been fouled in the box and so, with the usual penalty taker out of action, Lauren stepped up.

“I said this is my time,” he recalls. “I went to take it straight away, I didn’t have any doubt. I knew that it was my time and I was going to score.

“That same year I had the same situation in the African Cup of Nations in January, in the final, and in the Olympics as well.”

Lauren’s penalty has gone down in Arsenal folklore, with the right-back almost scuffing his finish which rolled straight down the middle and past the outstretched leg of Tottenham keeper Kasey Keller, who had dived to his left.

“I didn’t mean to roll it like that,” Lauren laughs. “I just wanted to score.

“Tottenham was my favourite team to play against. When I was at the club I had an interpreter, I had English lessons and my teacher was a Tottenham fan. She was mad about Tottenham, always talking about them.

“So the fact we played against them, that I scored, it was one of the biggest games for me. I would say more than Manchester United.”

It was the rivalry with United that defined that era for Arsenal, however, with the two sides consistently battling it out for the league title before Chelsea came and wrestled away the crown under Jose Mourinho in 2005.

That season saw Arsenal’s record breaking 49-game unbeaten run come to an end with a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford that has now gone down in infamy.

A Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty - awarded after Wayne Rooney thrown himself over Sol Campbell’s outstretched leg - gave United a second-half lead before Rooney finished the game off with a second in the closing stages.

Arsenal were furious at referee Mike Riley after the game, not just for the penalty decision but for his failure to punish the home side for a series of fouls, including several by Gary Neville on Jose Antonio Reyes and one from Van Nistelrooy on Ashley Cole.

“What they did to Reyes during the game was unbeliveable,” Lauren recalls. “It would have been four red cards, easy. But somehow we didn’t get the decisions. They got that penalty and we lost the game. It wasn’t a penalty.

“In a normal day if you watch that game, there would have been four Manchester United players sent off, especially Gary Neville. It was unbelievable.

“But at some point you have to lose. You can’t stay your whole life unbeaten.”