Speaking in an exclusive interview with Football News, 28-year-old South African international striker Kermit Erasmus discussed his 2-year spell in France, which included time at Rennes and a loan spell at Lens. After 6 months in the Swedish 2nd division, Kermit is looking forward to seeing what the future holds.
Moving from South Africa, how was it that your transfer from Rennes first came about?
Basically I was playing in something similar to the Europa League, but we call it the African Confederations Cup, and I was playing with Orlando Pirates. An agent from South Africa was contacted for a player with certain qualities, and he referred me to them. They had a look at me, they came to some of the Confederations Cup games, fortunately we went all the way to the final, so they could see more of me, up until the final and they were satisfied with what they saw. Then they came to South Africa and started speaking with me and negotiate with my club in South Africa.
My ambition was to come back to Europe and I couldn’t find anything. Fortunately enough, that came up and it was an opportunity for me to grab.
What were your initial thoughts of Rennes the club and the place when you arrived?
I thought it was a very different environment to what I am used to. I had been in Rotterdam most of my time after that I was in South Africa, so I was just happy to be back in Europe again. And I wanted to try to make the most of it. Everyone welcomed me well, and I was happy to be at the club.
Was the language barrier considerable when you arrived?
It was really difficult at first because I didn’t know any French whatsoever. But fortunate enough, there was Gelson Fernandes, who speaks about 5 languages and English was one of them. For me it was great to have him, explain things to me from what the coach was saying, certain exercises in training. It was good to have him, he was really helpful and was always showing me support if I needed anything off the field. I was really grateful to have him during the time he was there.
To what extent was Gelson Fernandes the unspoken leader when you arrived in 2016, despite the fact that he never captained the side, with Romain Danzé taking that role instead.
Most definitely, he is a really hard worker. With the way he plays, it showed how hard he trained, he took everything really seriously and tried to give 100% in everything he does. He was always a motivation for players who were younger than him and to the rest of the team, even during half-time when things weren’t going the way we expected. He always tried to give out a positive message to the team and encourage them.
He helped me a lot when we were there. We still keep in contact, not as much as when we were playing together. Of course we have our own lives and he is busy with his career. I think he is busy studying to become an agent after football. He is a good person to have as a reference, not only in terms of what to do in football, but also in life.
For much of your spell at Rennes, you started in that 1st team set-up, but that became estranged from it. Tell us your side of the story as to why that happened.
When I arrived in January, a new coach was there (Rolland Courbis). He had a look at me before and was happy with what he saw. When I arrived, he told me that there is no rush to force me in the team, that the most important thing was for me to adapt as quick as I can. As things progressed, he was quite pleased with me and then towards the end of the season I got a couple of minutes. With him it was quite fair, he didn’t expect much of me because he knew that I was fairly new to this type of football that was being played in Ligue 1 & in France. I had a good time during my first 6 months.
Then a new coach came, Christian Gourcuff. He explained to me that I am a good player that he saw qualities in me and the first half of the season was quite okay, I thought I did okay, played a few matches, and then towards the end of the December break, things just changed. I had a meeting with him and I asked him what I needed to do to get my chance, and I just could not get a direct answer.
He kept on emphasizing about how he understood the difficulties for me, not being from France, but I just couldn’t get a direct answer. But that’s football, each coach has their own opinions about players. I respect that, but in January I decided to go to Lens, with a coach who wanted me and believed I could have an impact in the team. That’s when I met Alain Casanova, under who I have had my most pleasure in playing football while being in France.
Is there a sentiment of betrayal in terms of how you feel about Christian Gourcuff, for him to say that he believed in you, only to never give you a fair chance?
I wouldn’t say I felt betrayed, but I would say disappointed. During training hours I was working really hard, there were times when other players would ask me why I wasn’t getting my chance and I couldn’t even answer them. But that’s football, there is only so much that you can control and the rest you just have to let it be.
After meeting with Gourcuff in January 2017, were Rennes pushing you to move, or was it your decision?
They gave me the permission to seek for playing time, and that’s when I went to Lens. When they pushed me it was really towards my last year, in January (2018). How I was treated then, that’s when I felt there was no respect between them and me.
They did the usual, what you have seen happen, what’s common in football, when the club is not interested, or don’t see you having a future as an impact player for the team, they move you to the youth dressing room. And you change and play with the youth team, the basic things. I felt there was no respect. When (Sabri) Lamouchi came in, after the first three days of his arriving, we trained with him, I could see the same thing happening to me that happened to me with Gourcuff.
I sat with him, and I asked him the same question I asked Gourcuff, what do I need to do to get my chance, because I feel like the same thing is going to happen to me that has happened before. He told me the same thing: he sees me as a quality player, but he wants me to work harder and show more and express myself more. This was like on the Friday, and on the Sunday he was to select 25 players to go on a 3-day training camp because he had just arrived in the middle of the season. And then Sunday evening, we are in a WhatsApp group, and we get a message with the names of 25 players going on the training camp, and I wasn’t one of those players.
That’s when I felt there was no respect. Be honest with me. I am a man. Have the balls to tell me that you don’t see me in your plans, that you don’t need me as a player. Then I know where I stand. That’s when I felt there was no respect. That’s the only time that I was really unhappy with what was said between me and him. Throughout my whole stay at Rennes I tried to be as professional as possible, even though it was difficult.
There were similar cases at Lille with Marcelo Bielsa, where accusations have been made that the club wanted to catch out players that they wanted to leave…
So that they can terminate your contract and don’t have to pay. With me, I stayed as professional as possible, regardless of the situation. That’s the only thing I can do. Work hard. Because at the end of the day, my life continues after the club, my career continues after the club. The most important thing for me was to work hard and keep my fitness levels high, to put me in a good shape for whatever is next in store for me.
You spoke fondly of Alain Casanova, what would say he brought to your game and career as a whole?
He has brought a lot of self-confidence in me, which I lacked. The fact that I haven’t played much. It happens to all players who are not given the chance to play. I think he believed in me as a player, and that’s why I enjoyed my time at Lens. Even though I didn’t play that long, I was happy that I could be part of the team that could potentially win promotion. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, up until the last game. It was a bit of a disappointment that I couldn’t help the team go up. But I was happy to get some game time under a great coach. He is a great motivator to me and to the rest of the team as a whole. He is just a great person.
Would it interest you to join up with him at Toulouse now?
Why not, I have had the best time of my career in France playing for him. That would be a fairy-tale, if that could happen.
It is fair to say that you had some difficulties with agents during your first move to Europe (Feyenoord) – what advice would you give to young players in this domain?
My first agent I had, I knew him from the age of 15. When I went to Holland, he made the deal happen. Coming back to South Africa was bad advice, but it has happened, there is nothing we can change, it is in the past. As an agent, the player’s interest should come first I think, and then yours second. And I think that’s what made me go back to South Africa. My interest wasn’t looked after as the first preference. For me, that’s the mistake I made. But I am the only professional footballer in my family, nobody knows what the industry is like so you learn these things as you go.
This agent was all you had ever known.
Yes I needed somebody on the business side to help me. At the moment I don’t have an agent. I think this is the best way to operate for the moment.
How did you deal with having to leave your family behind that young (aged 18)?
It was difficult, but you have to make sacrifices to achieve the things that you want to achieve in your career. That was what I was willing to do and that was what I had to do. I still speak on a daily basis with my parents and sister, that hasn’t changed. I am fortunate enough that my parents love football, but that on the business side of things they don’t get involved. As long as I am happy, they are happy.
What took you to Sweden and what is it like playing there?
Sweden was one of the few options I had. It was based on game time, that’s all I wanted. Having gone off a season without playing at all is difficult, and that also makes it difficult to find a team because people ask why you haven’t played all season. They think maybe it is an attitude problem with the team, which wasn’t the case. For me, what I missed the most, was being on the field. That’s why I went to Sweden.
The level is not the same (compared to France). Unfortunately they use a lot of artificial pitches due to the fact that it is quite cold in the winter. Other than that, it is a decent league. Lot of good young players, experienced players, a mix. For me it was just about getting game time, nothing else.
The aim is to get promotion, but hopefully I can find something elsewhere. I am also still looking to make a move, whether it is in France, Belgium, wherever the interest takes me. For me, it has got to benefit me from both sides, financially and also playing wise, both is important. I think I have learnt a lot from my experience at Rennes, and unfortunately it didn’t go as I expected and as I hoped.
You learn from these things. I wouldn’t say it was a mistake, but it was a valuable lesson that I have learnt. Playing is the most important thing. If you don’t play, you fade away in the business.
If you were to give your 17-year-old self one piece of advice looking back, what would that be?
When you are in Europe, you should stay in Europe.