The Flight

ROBBIE STEPHENSON/JMP/SHUTTERSTOCK

In 2010, I boarded a plane to Burkina Faso.

It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

Three years earlier, when I was 13, I had quit school to try to become a footballer. Quitting school is a big deal in the Ivory Coast. If you happen to live in a small wooden house in Abidjan, like my family did, you put a high price on education, because it is almost certainly your only way to a good life, meaning a warm bed and food on the table. So when I made the decision, my father had originally been against it.

But now I had been invited to a tournament in Burkina Faso where there would be scouts from European clubs. This was my chance to turn pro.

I had staked my life on this trip. I had to make it.

But as I boarded the plane, what filled me with fear had nothing to do with football.

When I had been invited to the tournament, I asked my father how we would get there. I couldn’t believe his answer. “By plane?” Burkina Faso is right next door to the Ivory Coast, but some wise guy had decided that we would lock ourselves into a metal cylinder and rocket into the sky with a hope that we’d all come back down alive.

Courtesy of Eric Bailly

I had never been on a plane before.

And, trust me, you could tell.

When I boarded, honestly, I felt as if my life was at stake. I was so nervous. The staff told me to fasten my seatbelt. But how? There was no button! “Bring the chair up,” they said. Bring it up with what?

All around me people were trying to find their seats. Then the plane began making these screeching noises. Uhm … is this normal? The engines were roaring as if we were about to launch into space. I looked next to me and saw a kid who, it turned out, was also going to the tournament — it was his first time on a plane too. He looked even more terrified than I did, and I knew why. He was sitting by the window.

The plane began to move down the runway. We stopped looking at each other and tried to deal with our own fears. I gripped my seat and decided to stare straight ahead. I kept telling myself, I’m not moving, I’m not moving.

Then we took off. And as we rose, for whatever reason, the fear went away. I leaned over, peeked out the window and saw Abidjan fade into view. I tried to spot our house, and the streets where I would normally be selling phones and cigarettes. But all I saw was the airport, where I had just said goodbye to my father.

At that point I don’t think he realised how far his son could go with this football thing. And to be honest, neither did I.

But this flight was going to change everything.

Why am I telling you this? Well, as you might know, I have been out injured for a while now. I have not played football since suffering a knee injury in April. It’s been tough. I have been in pain, I have walked around on crutches. I never had a surgery like this. It is unsettling to be reminded that, no matter how hard you work, your body can fail you at any time.

But I was always prepared for this. Because this injury, it’s part of a life that is not real. What I mean by that is that life as a pro footballer is a bubble — it has very little in common with the lives of normal people. Sure, being injured has been difficult for me as a player, but everything that happened to me as a kid in Africa was harder. And so during these months it has helped me to look back and remember how I got here.

And that’s when my mind goes back to the flight to Burkina Faso.

You all know about my “fake” life.

Now let me tell you about my real one.

Even now I see it as a small miracle that I ended up on that plane. Not because I was one of very few players who were invited to the tournament, but because I had been allowed to pursue a football career in the first place.

When I was nine I was going to school and playing football in the streets like most boys. I was also helping my mother, Appoline, with various things around the house. I was always like this. What little strength I had, I tried to put at the service of others. The two of us were living with my older brother, Thierry, in a small village called Bingerville. My father, Désiré, was with my sister, Anna, in Abidjan, the capital, trying to find a job.

When my father found employment, we all moved to Abidjan. We were happy there. But deep down I didn’t really want to go to school anymore. Whenever I was playing football with my friends, I felt I could do more. Become a professional. Maybe to go Europe.

But in the Ivory Coast it is very unlikely that any father would let his son quit school for football. And if there was a man in the whole country who definitely wouldn’t allow it, I thought it would be my father. He said he had played football himself, but that during his time it was all school, or the grandparents would hit you.

Also, my father worked as a primary school teacher.

He’s a character. Disciplined. Strict. Old-school. He always wanted what was best for me, and when I was young that was humility and a strong work ethic. When I came home, he would always bust my balls, ordering me to do things. Especially cleaning.

In the Ivory Coast it is very unlikely that any father would let his son quit school for football.

“Hey, Eric, help your mother clean the hallway.”

“Hey, Eric, did you clean the furniture?”

“Hey, Eric, clean the TV.”

Every day he’d come home from work, slump down into a sofa in the living room and turn on the television to watch the news. He had his own sofa where nobody else was allowed to sit! Typical dad, you know? In the Ivory Coast you always have this! The sofa had space for two people, but it was his and his alone.

If my father got home late, it was usually because he had met some friends in the neighbourhood. They would hang out in the afternoon, when the sun was down and work was over. Everyone in the neighbourhood would be doing their thing. The girls would be playing games, the boys would be kicking a ball around, the women would be talking, and men like my father would be playing draughts.

Courtesy of Eric Bailly (2)

Then one day when I was 13, my father surprised me. He said that, well, if you want to play football, do what you like. I do not think he wanted to tell me that, but our family had just welcomed another boy into the world, Arthur, making it four siblings, and my parents thought there might not be enough money to support everyone. So, since school cost money, my father said that if I thought I could really make it as a footballer, I could try.

I was so grateful. I thought, I have to take advantage of this. I did not even care about making it to Europe. I just wanted to become a professional, to make it a job.

I also wanted to help my family.

I began at a training centre. I would train at nine in the morning, then take the bus home to eat and rest. Sometimes I would have to hide from my mother, because she worried that if I went out at noon I would get too hot. Then I would join my friends in the streets to sell stuff. We were lucky in that we always had food at home, but I did not want to rely entirely on my parents, so I was selling second-hand phones and cigarettes on the black market.

After a long day I would come home to find my father sitting on the sofa.

“Hey, Eric, help your mother clean the kitchen.”

At that point my father did not pay too much attention to my career. He would watch professional football, especially the Ivory Coast national team and Chelsea, where Didier Drogba played, but he did not come to watch my games.

But then one day, when I was 14, I was participating in a tournament in which my team had made the final. There were a lot of people watching around the dirt pitch. I played really well, and afterwards people came up to congratulate me. One of them, a friend of mine, said, “Oh, by the way, your father came to see you.”

I said, “What do you mean my father came to see me?”

He said, “Yeah, yeah, he came to see you play. He left just after the game.”

That night I came home to find my father sitting on the sofa. “Sit down,” he commanded, meaning the floor. “I saw you play a football game today…. ”

I just looked at him.

“People say you played well … ,” he said. “But I don’t really know, eh … the other players, they were terrible!”

He was busting my balls again.

He would never say I had played well, you know? Even though I knew I had. But after that day, he began to pay more attention.

Two years later, I was playing in a tournament from which the best players would go on to play for the Ivory Coast in Burkina Faso. I was selected … and, thank God, the plane landed safely. As soon as I got there I asked someone what day we would have to go back. I was already worrying about the return flight!

But I also knew there was a lot at stake. The tournament had countries playing each other: the Ivory Coast, Burkina, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon. We had been told that there would be scouts there from Villarreal, Torino, Espanyol, and a French team too.

He would never say I had played well, you know? Even though I knew I had. But after that day, he began to pay more attention.

I felt I did well there. After four days of matches we all went home to our families, while the organisers had a final meeting. They told us they would call our coaches if any clubs had shown interest. I boarded the plane back to Abidjan hoping that somebody would call my coach at the training centre.

A couple of weeks passed.

By now my father was watching all my games. Everyone in our neighbourhood had heard that I had travelled to Burkina Faso, and I think he was starting to realise that the kid could actually go somewhere. When he met up with his friends to play draughts, they had heard about the tournament too. “So your son plays football, eh?” they said. “You have to take care of him.”

One day shortly after, my sister and I came home after we had been somewhere. My mother was in the kitchen cooking, earlier than usual. Suddenly I saw my older brother run into the living room. Weird. When I saw my father sitting on the sofa, I expected the usual cleaning assignment. But he said nothing. He was just smiling.

I went to my room to get changed. When I came back, my father put his hand on the pillow next to him. “Come and sit here,” he said.

You mean sit on the actual sofa?

I sat down. The fabric felt almost new, unlike the pillow in my father’s spot, which had been worn out through years of Chelsea games and news bulletins. My mother came out from the kitchen and sat next to us. My older brother was sitting on the floor. It felt like a family meeting — but the only person they had called was me.

I was sure that I had done something very wrong.

“There is nothing wrong,” my father said. He loved talking, especially when he felt he had authority, and now he was speaking like a judge about to bring down the gavel.

“We had your coach here,” he continued. “He just left, but he was here and ate with us. He had some news to give us.”

“What news … ?” I said.

“Well, a club called him….”

I got nervous. “What club?!”

My mother started laughing. “Calm down,” she said.

“I am calm!”

“Well … ” my father said. “The club wants you to go for a three-month trial.”

“Which club??”

“Espanyol.”

Alex Caparros/Getty Image

I jumped out of the sofa and grabbed my mother. I hugged my father. Tears were streaming down my face. I said, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”

It was the happiest day of my life. I had a route to professional football. To Spain! That night it was impossible to sleep, impossible. My father ordered everyone to keep the news inside the family, because if people in our neighbourhood found out then everyone would come out to celebrate, even though I had only been offered a trial. But I was too distracted to even pay attention to that. I just keep telling myself the same thing. “It can’t be … it can’t be …”

And as it turned out, it couldn’t.

Shortly after, war broke out in the Ivory Coast.

That year we had had our first elections in 10 years. To keep things short, the two politicians disagreed about who had actually won it, which triggered violence across the country. One of the many things that happened was that the airport in Abidjan was blocked, which meant I couldn’t fly to Spain to train with Espanyol.

It really killed me. My dream seemed to be ruined.

What was I supposed to do now?

I had no idea if I would get another chance at Espanyol. But I had too much to worry about to even think about that. The crisis made it hard to buy food. I had to go outside and carry drinking water back to the house in a bucket that I placed on my head. My parents, my sister, my brothers, we all suffered. And yet many people suffered far more than we did.

The war went on for months. When it was finally over, I heard that Espanyol were still interested in me. They had not forgotten me.

Ten months after they had spotted me in Burkina Faso, I’d be off to Spain for a new trial.

I was so grateful. Most people at Espanyol had never seen me play in person, just on some video recorded in Burkina Faso. They could have said, “Well, the kid cannot come, let’s look elsewhere.” There’s plenty of talent in Africa, right?

Still, I knew it was only a trial. They had not offered me a contract. If I failed to get one, the flight to Burkina Faso would be worthless.

On the day I was leaving for Europe, my whole family came with me to the airport. The day before I had felt unwell, because I had never been so far away from home. This would not be a short trip to a neighbouring country — it would be three months, in Europe, alone. That is a lot for someone who is used to always being with his family. We were all crying at the airport.

In that moment those three months felt like three years.

My mother was the most worried. She still saw me as a baby, and this time she worried that I would freeze. I was like, “Mum, you have never even been to Europe, and you’re talking about the cold?”

She said, “No, no, because I saw on TV that it’s very cold there.”

Which is how I found myself standing at the airport in Abidjan in a winter jacket, sweating like mad.

The flight was scary. This was not an African plane. It was Air France, destination Paris, business class. I was lost. “Sit there,” a man told me. My seat had a TV in front of it, but I didn’t touch a single button because I was afraid I would screw up something on the plane. I decided just to sleep.

When I landed in Paris, I had to find my next flight, to Barcelona. I had only brought a backpack, because I didn’t want to risk more confusion by having to go to the baggage area. My instructions had been simple: land, find your plane and get out!

Somehow I found the right gate. When I got to Barcelona, I took a deep breath and thanked God that I had arrived. I was all good now, or so I thought.

But Barcelona was so different from Abidjan. Everywhere I looked there were lights. Cars. Noise. Nobody greeted each other in the streets. I just went, Pfft, so this is Europe, eh? And the cold! It was December, which is always warm in the Ivory Coast … the cold was unbearable. My mother had been right all along.

I knew I had to adapt quickly. Luckily, after just a month, the club told me, “Alright, we’ve seen enough. We want you.”

By the second month I had signed a contract with Espanyol.

I had made it. I was a professional footballer.

When I came back to the Ivory Coast, everyone was so happy. My whole family was celebrating. My father was overjoyed. He even stepped into the kitchen to cook chicken! Then I returned to Spain to join the Espanyol youth teams.

When I got my first payment, I made a bank transfer to my family.

Since then everything has gone very quickly. I joined Espanyol in 2011, and three years later I made my first-team debut. Then I spent 18 months at Villarreal, and suddenly I was playing for Manchester United. In about five years I had gone from selling cigarettes in the streets of Abidjan to playing for the biggest club in the world.

My reality has been turned on its head. Now people see me as a star, a celebrity. I have something like two million followers on Instagram. I am famous back home.

But of course none of it is real.

It is all fake. A fake life.

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

Living a life like this is almost inevitable when you are a footballer at this level. I’m not talking about Manchester United as a club, but everything around it. People who tell you they love how you play, but then criticise you behind your back. People who lower themselves just because you play for United, who see you as a footballer rather than an actual person.

I really don’t like that. Sure, I play for United. But I’m still just Eric.

So please, treat me as Eric.

Of course, I am grateful that I have this life. I sacrificed so much to be here, and I know how many people cannot put food on the table, especially in my country. I feel proud to have been able to bring my family to Europe to watch me play.

But it is very important for me to stay normal, to stay humble. My mother always taught me that. One day you are old, or your body fails you, and you will have to retire. And then what will you do? What will you have left?

Sure, I play for United. But I’m still just Eric. So please, treat me as Eric.

That is when you go back to your real life, and for me that life is about the normal things. The best things. It is walking around in Manchester with my wife, Vanessa, and my eldest son, Yoan.

It is inviting Juan and Paul over for dinner, just like I would have done with my friends in Abidjan.

It is going back to the Ivory Cost to see friends and relatives, or to see kids playing in the streets, women talking and men playing draughts.

And above all, it is family.

They won’t fail you.

They never do.

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