Football gives meaning to your life.
I really believe this.
But your life, your history, your essence, also gives meaning to your football.
I am going to talk about some things that I almost never discuss. I need to tell you a story that shaped everything that I am. It happened before I was even born.
We have to go back to 1939, during the Spanish Civil War. My maternal grandfather was from Barcelona, and he fought against the dictator Franco until the bitter end. At the very end of the war, he was a wanted man, and he only had a few minutes to make an escape before the Nationalist soldiers captured the city. He had to cross the Pyrenees mountains on foot to get to France, and he did not have time to say proper goodbyes. This was the end. Life or death.
So before he left, he went to find his girlfriend, and he asked her, “Are you ready to follow me?”
He was 28 years old. She was 18. She had to leave behind her family, friends, everything.
But she said, “Yes, of course.”
This was my grandmother.
They fled to the refugee camps in Argelès-sur-Mer, on the coast of France. There were more than 100,000 Spanish refugees accepted there. Can you imagine if the French had turned them all away? But no, they showed compassion, as humanity must always show compassion to those who suffer. My grandparents had arrived with nothing. They had to start their lives over. But after some time the refugees were given an opportunity to go to work building a dam in Saint-Étienne Cantalès. This is the life of immigrants. You go where you must. You do what you must. So they went. They made a life for themselves.
My mother was born there a few years later, and then the family eventually moved to Marseille.
This story is in my blood. It shaped me as a human being. But it only existed in my mind like a dream. There were no photos of their struggle, only stories. There was nothing from that time to touch, to see. But then in 2007, the photographer Robert Capa’s famous “Mexican Suitcase” was found in a house in Mexico City. Inside these old boxes, there were 4,500 negatives from the Spanish Civil War that had been missing for more than 60 years. How they had gotten to Mexico, nobody knew.
I was very curious, so when they had an exhibition of the photos in New York City, I went with my wife.
Most of the photos were just tiny negatives. Thousands of them. You had to look at them under a magnifying glass. But a few of the photos at the center of the exhibit were huge. Almost three meters tall. The people in the photos were life-sized. It felt as though you could reach out and touch them.
And that’s when I saw my grandfather.
It was impossible, no?
But there he was, as a young man. I was convinced that it was him, but I couldn’t be completely sure because I had never seen him when he was so young. So when the exhibit moved to France a few months later, I took my mother to see it.
And there he was again, as a young man.
I said, “Is it really him?”
And my mother said, “Yes, it’s him. It’s from the moment they were fleeing to the mountains.”
It was incredible.
This is the life of immigrants. You go where you must. You do what you must. So they went. They made a life for themselves.
Imagine if my grandfather had not made it. Imagine if my grandmother had not followed him. Maybe then my mother would not exist. Maybe then I would not exist. However, this is only one half of our story. There is another photograph that shapes my life.
My paternal great-grandparents were also immigrants. They came to France from Sardinia to escape from poverty in 1911. Three years after they arrived, my great-grandfather was called to serve in World War I, and he was gassed so severely that he spent the final years of his life smoking eucalyptus to be able to breathe better.
His son, my grandfather, fought for the French in World War II, and when he returned from the war, he became a builder. He eventually saved enough money to buy his own piece of land in the hilltop district of Marseille when my father was a teenager. The land had a little cave on it. They needed somewhere to live while my grandfather built the house, so what did they do? It’s simple. They lived inside the cave for two years. The only thing they had to heat the cave was a cooking stove. This sounds like a myth that your family tells about the “old times,” but there is actually a photograph from the winter of 1956 of my grandparents and my father in the cave, covered in blankets for warmth.
My grandfather built out from the cave over years and years. First, he made an alcove, then a little terrace, and then above that he built a home for my parents. This is the house I grew up in. This is what I inherited. This is my blood. One of my first memories is carrying 10 sandbags up the hill to the house that they were still constructing. Only after that was I allowed to go play football. During the day my father worked on the house, and at night he worked as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. But even this part of my history has a special meaning.
There was a reason that my father became a nurse and worked at that specific hospital. It was because his own godfather was a patient there. His name was Sauveur, and he was my grandfather’s brother. He had been taken prisoner for five years during World War II, and after the trauma of that experience, he was eventually committed to the Edouard Toulouse Hospital. My father was extremely close with Sauveur, so that inspired him to become a psychiatric nurse. He ended up in the same unit as his godfather, and took care of him every night.
This is my family. This is my history. This is my soul. I have lived all over the world. In fact, just last year I purchased an agricultural property in Sardinia to reconnect with my family’s history. However, I will always love Marseille with all my heart because of these memories that have shaped me. It will always be my city.
When people ask me why I played football the way I did, this is the answer. Football gives meaning to life, yes. But life also gives meaning to football. I almost never discuss these personal stories, especially about my father’s godfather. It’s very difficult. When I talk about it, it’s as if the angels are speaking for me. However, I am sharing some of my history for an important reason.
We are living through times of widespread poverty, war, and immigration. There are many more people in the world who can’t even afford to buy a football than there are people who can afford to pay 200 Euros to attend a Premier League match, or 400 Euros a year to watch it on TV. Football is one of life’s great teachers. It is one of life’s great inspirations. But the current business model of football ignores so much of the world.
Poor neighborhoods need football as much as football needs poor neighborhoods. We need to support a more sustainable, positive and inclusive football, and I will do anything that I can to help. That is why I am joining the Common Goal movement as their first mentor. Common Goal’s mission is to unlock 1% of the entire football industry’s revenues for grassroots football charities, and more than 60 footballers have already pledged 1% of their salaries. The beautiful thing is that they are players from big clubs, players from small clubs, men and women, from leagues all over the world.
Football should be for the people. This does not have to be a utopian idea. There is no reason why the major actors in the game today cannot come together and support the social aspect of football. All of us, whether we are rich or poor, whether we are immigrants or 10th-generation citizens, find the same simple joy in the game of football. We speak the same language. We feel the same emotion.
All the time, I get asked the same questions about my career.
“What was it like playing for those United teams? Why did you do so well?”
People want some kind of complex answer. They want some kind of secret, I think. But the answer is very simple. Sir Alex Ferguson was the master of one thing: Whenever we took the pitch for a match, after hours and hours of work, we were allowed to be free. We felt total freedom to move where we wanted, to play how we wanted.
I could tolerate football no other way.
What is football if it is not about freedom?
So, please, allow me to ask this same simple question to those who run the global game ― the footballers, the agents, the sponsors and the committees.…
What is football if it is not about freedom?
What is life if it is not about freedom?
What is the meaning of life?
I think we can all agree that we can do more for humanity.
Now you know my history. I come from a family of immigrants and rebels and soldiers and workers. We did not have very much when I was a child, but for me, the truth of life is that we find ecstasy in the small moments.
Perhaps a simple picnic with our family. Three pairs of socks rolled up into a ball and tied with a shoe string. We play football in the sun. Then we lay in the grass. We marvel at everything and nothing.
When I walked away from football when I was 30 years old, do you know what I did? It was something very special to me. I went to live in the city that my grandparents had to flee in 1939.
I went to live in Barcelona.