‘I have never been scared of Alex Ferguson, but I was scared to disappoint him’

PATRICE EVRA, referred to by Alex Ferguson as one of the best left-backs in the world, has played across Europe in Italy, Nice and Monaco before joining Manchester United in January 2006. Making 379 appearances in almost nine seasons at the club, he won 14 major honours, including five Premier League titles and the Champions league in 2008. Recently in Nigeria, he had an exclusive interview with KEMI AJUMOBI, Associate Editor, BusinessDay on his reason for coming to Africa, his passion for mental health awareness, amongst others. Excerpts:

Why are you in Nigeria?
I am here because I want to spend more time in the African continent. It is my first time ever in Nigeria, I have never been here. I have been connected to Nigeria by love. The love I received when I arrived at the airport was overwhelming. They know me, they know exactly what I am doing. I had an interview when I came and I was shocked they knew everything about my life. I almost asked if they were working for the FBI. I am in Nigeria because I want to project a different image of Africa. There are different narratives about Africa, but the truth is that it is the richest continent in the world. I am also here to inspire the younger generation, for them to understand that hour dreams do not necessarily have to be fulfilled in America or in Europe, it can also be fulfilled here in Africa. My mission generally, be it in Dakar, Senegal, Ivory Coast and every other place in Africa that I would visit, is also to end the violence against children. Their mental health is important. This is my fight. I am here to see the creativity of the young ones and to let the world know what we have in Africa. This is the first time I am in Nigeria and it will not be the last.

What was the nature of your Childhood?
I had a very tough childhood. I grew up on the street. Growing up on the street is about survival. When you have been sexually abused like I had been when I was 13, it is traumatic but with all of that, I am stronger than ever. I also went through emotional issues and as I grew older, it became the norm as men to show you are strong, not to show our emotions. It was tough, that is why in my autobiography, I was very transparent and honest because kids only see the result, but I explained especially in the chapters that it is a long journey and that bad things can happen, but you must never give up but believe in yourself.

Why the passion for football and share on the Manchester United connect
When I was 5 years old, I was playing football and I broke the glass of the window. My dad asked who did it and my brothers said I was the one but my father did not believe that I could have done that. My brothers insisted that I was the one, but my father concluded to punish all of them so they begged and asked that I go to my father to confess that I was the one, which I did. He took me by the hand and said because they all lied on the youngest one (me), he was going to punish them twice. He just didn’t believe it was me. For me, when it comes to football, it’s the passion, it’s the love. Anytime I see football, I am happy. To be honest, I had no idea that playing football was a job. When I was in school, everyone was saying what they wanted to become.

Some said Lawyer, others doctors, others entrepreneur and so on but I said I wanted to be a football player and the teacher said being a football player was not a job. Both the teacher and classmates laughed at me. She asked if I thought I could be picked and I boldly said Yes! and they laughed at me but today, I can boldly say I lived my dreams. I am not taking jabs at her, I just don’t want children to believe they cannot achieve what they set their mind to achieve, and that is why today, when I meet children, I say to them that they can be whatever they choose to be. I encourage them to go for what they want and also let them know there are sacrifices to be made. Money has never been my motivation. I am passionate about what I do and believe in. That is why I say, when you are good at something, money will come. Don’t chase the money, money will come.

Is there a connection between living your passion and making money from it?
Most African parents think that allowing their children get involved in sports is a distraction. They emphasize on the need to study. However, now, they realize that football can make you rich. They are now changing the narrative. This is also a major problem. Luckily enough, my parents never forced me to play football or be in it because I want to amass money. Because of my background, I had always wanted to buy my mother a house, and as soon as I signed my first contract, I bought her a house in Senegal, and that felt to me like my biggest achievement.

Read also: African footballers need to maximise their talents to become top professionals – CEO Nao Sports

As nice as this sounds, money shouldn’t be our motivation. Parents see me and think their children must do as I have done, which is to play football. But I always tell them to allow passion reign over money. Leave them to do what they want to do. Do not force your child to do something because you feel it will make him rich, let him decide. If he wants to study, let him study, if he wants to be a player, musician, dancer, whatever, let him enjoy it. That is the most important thing.

Share on being Captain for Manchester United and France International
They were big responsibilities. Leadership is important. Communication is very important. I speak seven different languages namely French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Wolof and a bit of Danish. I am also trying to learn Korean language. I want to be able to communicate with the world. The next step will be to speak Mandarin and Arabic. I say all these because I believe it is a sign of respect to understand the language of others. I am not a genius, it is a gift and I love doing that.

On leadership skills, aside from the skill of communication, a real leader is not the one who shouts at his team mates, you need to live by example. This is my philosophy in life. I also want to create other leaders around me so that one day when I won’t be around anymore, my legacy will abide. For example, for the French national team, Paul Pogba says he remembers my speech. He said whenever he speaks, he can hear my voice in his head. This is my legacy, that is my goal. You must not be selfish with your gifts. That is why when I am playing, I believe in team work. I always want my team to win, I want them to play a good game. I know my job, I know my role and that is why I was given the honour in the two teams you mentioned because they know I did not take being captain to show off or to be proud because my responsibility is beyond that.

You were regarded as one of the best left backs in the world by Alex Ferguson¸ how does that make you feel?
Sir Alex Ferguson is the great coach in history. I share a special relationship with him, he is a father figure. I always say I have never been scared of Alex Ferguson, but I was scared to disappoint him. That is the kind of relationship I have got with him. We talk often, we are connected, I go to see him in Manchester and we spend a lot of time together. I remember when I joined Man-U, he said Patrice, I just want you to be yourself, do it for yourself, for the badge, for the fan and for me too. I am glad about the bond we share because it is a strong connection.

How did you receive the news of being signed to Manchester United?
I was a bit arrogant when I was to be signed to Man-U. When my manager informed me we had gotten Man-U, I was already playing for Monaco, I won awards four years in a row, I went to the final champion’s league, I played with the French national team, I was named the best youngest French player for a defender, I was big at that time so I was ready and so I signed for Manchester united, and I remember, the first game, I looked around, and it was like 75,000 people meanwhile, when I played for Monaco, I used to play in front of 7000 people or a crowd of 30,000, not more than that, and I understood that Manchester United was big, so I learnt their history because where ever I go, I love to learn the history of the place, so I buy dvds, read books and so on, so that even when I have their shirt on, I know I am carrying the history because that is really important. This is where the new generation are lagging behind, they don’t do that anymore. You need to understand the value of the club, what they have done in the past and Manchester United has a massive history.

What were the high and low points in your career?
My highest point in football was when I was 17 years old and I signed my first professional contract. I arrived at the hotel and was given a tracksuit; I was served food and all the paraphernalia of being on the team. Because I came from the street, it was new for me. I called my mum and told her I had made it. She was crying on the phone. I told her how we were being served food, how we were all dressed the same way, I felt happy because coming from nothing, that little boy had made it.

My mother is my hero and my idol. This was my highest point. Another one is the trophy. The trophy I am most proud of is the champion’s league because this is the biggest achievement of football, some people even believe it is bigger than being in the world cup. On low moments, I don’t have because I don’t regret anything because everything happens for a reason. I live in the present because if you think about the past, you will live in regret, if you live in the future you will live in anxiety and stress and that is not who I am. I am living in the present, having a nice interview with you and enjoying myself. That is who I am.

Do you miss playing professional football?
No I don’t. I remember when I was playing, people were wondering what I was going to do to myself when I retire because when you play at that level, you live in a little bubble and you don’t know about the real life but actually, I had so much fun and I learnt a lot even businesswise. There are different things I do, charity and all, but now, I feel like a normal human being. I do not miss football but when you ask me to play, when I do it, I enjoy it. That is the difference.

What are your business interests?
I am opened to everything. I have a very good team around me. Myself, my manager and partner, we make investment decisions. I am also learning on investment because that is a new world. I love to invest in people too. For example, in Africa, I will spend more time because the continent is creative, there are innovations here. I was in Dakar Senegal, most kids with nothing from the streets, they are very talented and creative. I think it is time to show to the world what Africa is about. There are so many geniuses. Here in Nigeria, I have been to where you call Chess In Slums Africa, under the bridge in Oshodi, Lagos and playing with them was fun.

They are young but have been training for so many years, so they win people even older than them. I want to promote that because I am from the streets and it is really important to do so. I need to visit different African countries. I will also like to go to Kenya, I have never been there, South Africa, Ghana and several African countries. I am excited about this because that is what I love to do. The excitement, the energy and the realisation of the fact that nothing is impossible if you believe, is what I live for. So, to answer your question, I am opened to several investments, even in Africa.

Did you have retirement plans?
Even as we get the money as professionals, the money finishes quickly. A career in football is very short. For me, now, I am coming into the new world and that is what happens to most athletes, they forget about investments. Money goes very fast but I think what is most important, again, it is not about money, it is about what you can do, what you are passionate about, what project can you do and be happy with? I feel happy traveling around the world and learning. My retirement has been a blessing and I feel grateful because every time I wake up, I am happy.

When you choose to retire, you know the next day if you made the right decision or not. When I did and woke up the next day, I was happy. I don’t miss football but football needs me. I have finished my coaching license, Manchester United offered for me to go back to the club to tutor the defense team but I want to go a different way. As a human being, I can give more and that is why I have been named captain in several teams because the coaches see that I have a good brain and I am able to drive people however, I do not close the door to football because it will be selfish. I need to share my knowledge and that is very important but right now, I am in a different position.

Why is mental health on your front burner?
Mental health should be the number one topic in the world. See what happened during the lockdown because of covid, people were separated from their families, there were pockets of violence reported in different parts of the world. When you are confined to a space, it is really difficult. As a sports person, you aren’t able to show your vulnerability, you always need to show them that you are strong, you aren’t expected to show your feelings or emotions.

My dad actually believes that crying as a man is a sign of weakness and it is wrong. It is important that you reeducate yourself to understand. That is why I always say women are very important. My mother is my best friend. Even in relationships, you need that communication. Women are like 10 years ahead compared to men. It is the truth but we should never compare and that is why I embrace equality.

I am not better than you and you are not better than me, we respect each other, though women are intuitive and have foresight. With this quality, there has to be a synergy, it should be a team rather than comparing and fighting. Lack of mental health can come as depression. Like I said earlier, if as a sports person, you say you are depressed, or cry because of something, they will say you are weak.

This has to be changed. Sports people must be allowed to speak out so we can inspire others. For instance, they are now saying the World Cup needs to be played every two years and to me, this shouldn’t be because, they go through deep mental health issues. Take for instance, playing for a big team like the French national team, when you lose the tournament, you need like three months to recover because the media and the fans are not happy, then you go back to your club, you have to perform there, then before you know it, another two years will come and you have to perform there again. It can’t work. We are human beings and sometimes, people forget that. That is why some people get abused online, they don’t understand.

What advice do you have for any young man out there who wants to be a professional football player?
When kids come to me and they say they want to succeed, they want to be someone great, first and foremost, I encourage them to be proud of themselves and believe in their quality. Some people will try to put you down, they will tell you how you can’t do what you want to do because they want to project their fears on you, do not allow that. Furthermore, it is important that you respect your mother and secondly, work hard. Your work ethic is very important. When others are asleep, it is time to get to work and training. But in life, to be successful, you need to be passionate, determined and resilient. Success is a big word, just like saying you want to be happy about what you are doing, you want to perform, you have to have passion and then success will come. It is easy to reach the top of the pyramid, but to stay at the top, you need sacrifice, take care of your body, eat healthy and use your brain not merely your physical strength.

Your autobiography, I Love This Game, tell us more about it
I Love This Game, the autobiography is a heartfelt insight into the trials and tribulations that made the positive and motivational public figure I am today. From growing up with 24 siblings, to being told I would not be chosen to play for teams because of the stigma attached to my gritty upbringing, to racism. My story is a tale of determination and passion in the face of adversity, which displays an inspirational journey on how to win in life, not just football.
The book reveals an astonishing story of triumph over the darkest adversity, and provides a fascinating insight into my life and career.

I want this book to inspire the next generation to chase their dreams and their goals, pushing their limits but also to make sacrifices. I’ve been really successful in my career, but I think the most important thing is that I have won the biggest prize and that is life and being happy, no matter the circumstance.

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