I had nothing. We had nothing.
But I was living as if I had everything.
If I could tell you one secret about my life, this would be it. Anyone can be happy — anyone can love this game. Without this mindset, my friend, I would not be sitting here as a recently retired left back who played for France, Juventus and Manchester United.
I would probably still be sitting outside a shop in Paris, begging for money to buy a sandwich.
I’m not joking. When I grew up in Les Ulis, a commune in the Paris suburbs, I was living with my parents and some of my brothers and sisters. I have 24 of them. (That’s no joke either!) So we were about a dozen people in the same house. My father was providing a lot of our income through his job as an ambassador. That’s what took our family from Senegal, where I was born, to Brussels and then to Les Ulis. But when I was 10 he divorced my mother. He took the sofa and the TV and even the chairs.
I still love him to death, but the situation he left us in was so tough. I would share a mattress with two of my brothers, and one of us would have to lie the opposite way so that everyone had enough space. When food was ready, you had to run to make sure you got your share. Some of my older siblings got jobs to help out, but then they left to live with their partners. In the end it was just my mother, my younger sister and me.
That’s when I had to go out in the streets.
I hate it when people use the word “gangster”. When you grow up in an area with gang shootings and the occasional murder, I don’t care who you are, you do what you can to survive. So I fought a lot. I would steal food, clothes, video games. I would sit outside shops begging for money.
Courtesy of Patrice Evra
I would say, “Sir, do you have a couple of francs?”
And people would say, “Go away. Do you think money falls from the sky?”
That was my childhood. That was Les Ulis. But listen: I was happy.
I was always happy.
I know some of you have seen my videos on Instagram, where I do all this crazy stuff and then say “I love this game!” To me it actually means “I love this life,” and the videos are my way of sharing my happiness with others. But it’s not like I decided to do them when I was rich and famous. If you had visited our house in Les Ulis, you would have seen me doing the same stuff. I would be dancing and singing and wearing costumes and wigs, joking around with my sisters. I loved to make them laugh. When they see my videos now, they just go, “Oh my God, I remember you doing that when you were five years old.…”
How could I be so happy with so little? Because of my mother. I would see how hard she worked to provide for us, and I realised that I had no right to complain about anything. Besides, what’s the point? Why not be positive?? If you believe that something good is going to happen to you, it will.
Let me give you an example. On our first day of school, we had to show the class what we wanted to become. A lot of my classmates wrote “lawyer” or “doctor.” I wrote “footballer.” So the teacher asked me in front of the class, “Patrice, do you really think that, out of 300 kids, you are going to be the one to make it as a footballer?”
I said, “Yes.”
For many years it looked like the teacher was right. I was playing at a decent level, but I wasn’t getting any contract offers. But then in 1998, when I was 17, I was playing in an indoor tournament with some friends when this guy asked me if I wanted to go for a trial at Torino. All I knew about him was that he owned a restaurant in Paris, so I thought, Should I trust him? I decided to say yes. He said he’d call the next day.
I went home thinking he would never call.
The next day, he called. I went to Turin with him. In the end the club didn’t offer me a contract, but one of the people at the trial was a director at Marsala, a Sicilian club in the third division. He asked if I wanted to join his team. I said yes.
I flew back to Paris thinking this little club in Sicily was my door to heaven.
Caroline Irby/The Players' Tribune
But first I had to go through it. I had been told to meet my new teammates in a mountain village in the north of Italy, where they were training. I had never travelled abroad alone. I spoke no Italian. I left home with nothing but a scrap of paper with my home phone number on it. I took the train to Milan, where I was supposed to transfer to another train that would take me to the mountain village. At the station in Milan, I saw one of those big screens where the letters keep changing, you know, like at the old cinemas. I looked at it. I looked at my ticket. Where was my train?
Then a stranger came up to me. The only thing I could tell about him was that he was from Senegal, and that he was blind in one eye. He said, “Hey, how are you brother? You look lost, you look sad.”I left home with nothing but a scrap of paper with my home phone number on it.
I said, “Yeah, I don’t know where to go.”
I showed him my ticket. He said, “Your train’s gone. It left an hour ago.”
I showed him my phone number. He called it. My mother picked up. When she learned that I had missed my train and that I was at the station with a stranger, she freaked out. She said, “Put him on the train back to Paris!”
But the stranger was like an angel. “Don’t worry,” he told my mother. “Tomorrow I will put him on the right train.”
He took me to his house round the corner. He gave me food and let me sleep on the floor, with eight other strangers. At six in the morning he woke me up and walked with me to the station, where he found the right platform. To this day I have no idea who he was, but I cannot thank him enough. I was finally on the right train.
But I had no idea when to get off.
I only knew the name of the station, because the angel had written it down for me. So at every stop I would ask people, “Is this it? Is this it?”
After a while, the only people on board were me and three nuns. I would ask them, “Qua? Qua?”
“No, no, signore, no.”
After the third or fourth time they began to get annoyed with me. But eventually I got off at the right place. I stepped out and looked around. What did I see?
Nothing. Not even a bench. Just the wind. Shhhhh.
I thought, O.K., now I’m completely lost. No phone. No angel. No nuns.
How will I get out of this situation?
I decided to wait for help. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Half an hour. One hour. Two hours. Nobody came. It was starting to get dark.
Six hours passed.
Finally I saw the lights of a car coming. It was a director from the club. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “We thought you had missed the train. Blah-blah-blah.” He took me to the team hotel in the village, where I got a tracksuit and trainers. I checked myself out in the mirror and just went, “Oh my gaaahd.” I was the happiest boy in the world. Then I called my mom. “Mommy, can you believe these people? They are serving us food! We’re sitting here eating with three sets of cutlery!”
She began to cry.
I will never forget my first day in Sicily. I had just arrived when a kid with his dad started pointing at me and asked if he could take a picture with me. I was like, What? I haven’t even played a game yet and these people know who I am?
I asked him why he wanted the picture. The kid said, “Because we’ve never seen a black person before.”
Welcome to Sicily.
My teammates were surprised to see me too. I was the only black player on the team. There were so many things that people there did not understand about black people, but it was more ignorance than racism. In fact, the Sicilians were very generous. I could be walking down the street and they would invite me into their homes for dinner. They were telling me, You’re one of us.
The bad stuff came when I was playing on the road. People made monkey noises, they chewed bananas. It was really hard. But I’m from Les Ulis. I’m tough. It just fired me up.
After a year, I joined Monza in Serie B, and then the next season I left for Nice in the French second tier. I was a striker at the time, but when our left back was injured the coach, Sandro Salvioni, played me in defence. I was so mad. I told him, “You can’t do this! I’m a striker!” My problem was that I was playing well. One day Salvioni told me, “Pat, do you know why you’re so good in this position? Because you hate playing there.”
He was right. I was attacking like crazy because I wanted to show everyone that I was a striker. I was channelling my anger into my game. In my second year, I made the Team of the Season and we were promoted. I was signed by Monaco, one of the biggest clubs in France. I got my first big salary.
I bought my mother a house.
Christophe Paucellier/Photo & Co./Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
But I still had to face so many challenges. People talk about when we made the Champions League final in 2004, but the craziest part at Monaco came after I had played a game for the French U21 team. An opponent had stamped on my foot and damaged it badly. In hospital I told the Monaco coach, Didier Deschamps, “It’s too painful. I can’t play. I can’t even walk!”
But the team needed me, so the doctors tried everything to take away the pain. Nothing worked. Then someone from the club staff said, “Why don’t you just go old school?”
Everyone said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Just slide a chicken down his boot.”
It sounded crazy but, you know me, I’m open minded. So I went to my local butcher. The butcher said, “What do you want?”
I said, “A piece of chicken. But just a tiny one.”
He said, “A tiny one? How come?”
I said, “I’m gonna put it in my boot.”
He just laughed. I went home with the chicken. I ordered new boots: one in size 42.5, the other in size 44. I passed the ball. Oh. That felt O.K. Painful, but O.K. So I ended up playing with chicken in my boot for four months. I didn’t train with it — my mother would never have forgiven me for wasting food — but before every game I would visit the butcher.
“Morning, Patrice. The usual, yeah?”
The chicken enabled me to play so well that, in January 2006, I was signed by Manchester United. You might remember that I made my debut away to Manchester City. Big derby. The game kicked off at 12.45 pm, which was unusual for me as a Frenchman. I’m not big on traditional breakfasts, so I didn’t know what to eat to get ready. I went for pasta and beans. I got sick. I was vomiting. I went to my room wondering what to do.
Should I tell Ferguson that I can’t play, that I’m sick?
No Patrice, you can’t! You’ll look soft and scared. You have to play.
On the bus to the stadium, I was feeling dizzy. It was sunny, it felt hot. In Manchester! Come on … I went up for a header against Trevor Sinclair. BOOM! An elbow in my face. Blood everywhere. I was losing it. You know the cartoons where you have a bubble that says what the character is thinking? My bubble was saying, Oh my God, these guys are so fast, so strong. It was so nice in Monte Carlo.…
At halftime, we were 2–0 down. Ferguson was raging. “And YOU, Patrice,” he shouted. “That’s enough for you! You sit down and watch now, because you have to learn English football.” I took off my boots, wiped away some blood. We lost 3–1. I was really down.
A few months later, France named their squad for the 2006 World Cup. My teammates Louis Saha and Mikaël Silvestre were in it, but I wasn’t. This time I wasn’t down — I was pissed off. I spent the entire summer in the gym, watching my teammates take France … to the final. The final! Imagine! I knew I should have been there!! I’m serious, I wanted to destroy everything. I was training like crazy. More weights, more reps. More pain. I didn’t even take a holiday.
I hadn’t understood what it took to play for United. I had turned up thinking I was this big-shot player, but United is bigger than everything. You can play a cup game against a fifth-division side, and 76,000 people will show up. At Monaco, we would play in front of 6,000 people. It would be so quiet that you could hear ringtones go off in the stands. I’m not joking.
When I came back for preseason at United, I was stronger and faster than ever. And after that, pfft … I was unstoppable. That’s why I say that the City game was my highlight at United. I needed that experience, I needed to feel that I was nobody.
That’s what made me realise, “You have to work hard, my friend.”
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
I feel that I found my personality in United. Let me explain. If you walked into our dressing room before a game, you would say, “This is impossible.” We would be dancing and singing. I would be the DJ, playing rock, rap, R&B. If Ferguson came in — he’d go, “What the HELL is this music?” — I would play him some Sinatra. The place was a big party. But when it was game time, and the boss cleared his throat, it was like somebody flicked a switch. The music stopped. The talking stopped. We became warriors, ready to die for each other. The transformation was amazing.
That was the kind of character and professionalism we had at United. We had fun, but when it was time to work, we worked. And that was my DNA, 100%. That’s why I connected with the club. At some point I was actually dedicating so much time to United that it affected my family. I was thinking, Wow, maybe I’m going too far.
You know the banner that the fans carry around?
UNITED KIDS WIFE
IN THAT ORDER
It’s a funny one. But seriously, that’s what it takes to succeed at United. Playing for this club comes with a lot of responsibility. For example, one of the first things I did at United was to buy a bunch of DVDs and learn the history of the club. When you go somewhere, you have to know that club’s story, because you are the one who is going to carry it on.
Leaving United in 2014 was the most difficult decision I have had to make. I will say more about it another day, but I can tell you that I had wanted to retire at United.
But once I had decided to leave, I am so happy that I joined Juventus. My 18 months at Juve made playing for United feel like a holiday. We ran so much. If we kept a clean sheet, we were told that we had conceded too many corners. Once we led the league by 15 points, but lost to Torino, and at the training ground the next day it felt as if someone had died. I remember in one training session, Claudio Marchisio vomited and had to stop. When training was done and everyone was walking off the pitch, the coaches told him, “No, no, you have to finish what you were doing.” The guy had been sick, but he did it.
That was Juventus.
But United, guys. United is different. United is just … me.
After I left Juve, I missed being part of that winning culture. Now that I am 38, I feel it is time to retire.
My only goal is to be the best human I can possibly be.
Perhaps I should not say this, but I have opened two shelters in Senegal that have enabled more than 400 kids to eat well and go to school. That is the biggest achievement of my career. I will continue with my videos and “I love this game” because I want to share my happiness with you. I cannot explain how grateful I feel when someone tells me, “Oh, Patrice, I lost my dad, but watching one of your videos made me smile.”
Caroline Irby/The Players' Tribune
Which brings me to the panda. In some of the videos, I’ll be hanging out with a panda or be dressed up as one myself. I’ll dance and sing and whatever, and then I’ll say, “Be like a panda! I’m black, white, Asian and chubby. Say no to racism!”
It is a strong message. I hope the panda will make people realise that we are all the same person, that we should all try to make the world a better place. Don’t judge people on their weight, the colour of their skin, their hair or their eyes. We are all humans, we are all brothers and sisters. We are one big family.
The panda reminds me of a speech that Ferguson gave us before our Champions League final against Chelsea in Moscow in 2008. We were in the dressing room when the boss came in. As usual, the music stopped. You could hear a pin drop. Then Ferguson said, “I’ve already won.…”
We looked at each other.
He said, “I’ve already won. We don’t even need to play this game.”
We were like, What is he talking about? The game hasn’t even started.
Then Ferguson turned to me. “Look at Patrice,” he said. “He’s got 24 brothers and sisters. Imagine what his mother had to do to put food on the table.…”
Then he turned to Wayne Rooney.
“Look at Wayne. He grew up in one of the toughest parts of Liverpool.…”
Then he turned to Park Ji-sung.
“Look at Ji, he’s come all the way from South Korea.…”My only goal is to be the best human I can possibly be.
As the boss talked about our stories, we began to realise that he was referring to a fellowship. We were not just a football team — we were people from every corner of the world, from all kinds of cultures and races and religions. And now we were there, together in a dressing room in Moscow, fighting for a common cause. Through football, we had become brothers.
“THIS is my victory!” Ferguson said.
We all got goosebumps. Then we went out and won the Champions League.
That’s Manchester United.
That’s why I love this game.