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Postman to Paris

11 Jun 2018
11 Jun 2018
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eing a postman is much harder than you would expect. In fact, the next time you see the postman coming to your house with the mail, you should open the door and give them a smile. Maybe offer them a cup of tea or something. Because they have surely had a hard day.

Everyone is probably thinking, Why is this footballer telling me about my postman? What’s he talking about?

Well, believe it or not, three years before I made my debut for the Belgian national team, that was my job.

I was not Thomas Meunier the footballer.

I was Thomas Meunier the postman.

When I was 18 years old and struggling to make a living in football, I took a job with the postal service. I’d get up at 5 a.m. and start my route before the sun came up. If you’re a postman in London or New York, I imagine that it’s probably pretty fun, because all the apartments are close to each other. So you can just walk around with your big bag of mail, having a nice stroll. Well, I’m from a small village in Belgium where the houses are all spread out. Let me tell you, when it’s pouring rain and you’ve got to park the car and walk 50 meters to the mailbox all the time, you seriously get tired. And you do it every 10 meters!

You stop the car. Climb out. Walk to the mailbox. Sort the mail. Walk back to the car. Climb back in. Drive to the next house. Start again. Every 10 meters! When I came home, I would be so exhausted that I would sleep all afternoon. I did that for two months, and then I got a job assembling automobile parts in an big factory called Saint-Gobain Autover.

This was not ages ago, either. It was in 2010. And now, eight years later, I’m preparing to go play for my country in the World Cup.

Julie Glassberg/The Players' Tribune

You might think it sounds like something from Hollywood. You might be wondering how it’s possible. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. My career has been so strange that, even now, I’m struggling to believe it. So the only thing I can do is tell the story as best I can. Like most footballers’ stories, mine started with my father, who played a bit of amateur football, and who was … well, let’s say he was a bit intense. I think he wanted me to become a professional because he never realised all of his dreams in football.

Every Sunday we’d go to watch him play — me, my older sister and my mother. My whole family loved football, even my grandparents. There wasn’t much else to do in our village, you know? It’s called Sainte-Ode, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, and there’s only about 2,000 people living there. You could go to school, play football and do gymnastics. That was pretty much it. I was playing football just for fun, but my father was so demanding. He’d always come with me to training and push me to be better. If I didn’t want to go, he’d tell me off.

Then one day, when I was 12, my life changed. My parents got separated.

I think it was for the best. My father wasn’t too gentle. Things in our house were a bit intense. My sister and I went to live with my mother, and it was very difficult for her. She did everything so that there would be something for us in the fridge. She’d work as a nurse from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., then she’d clean houses for extra money. At around 9 p.m., she’d come home, my grandparents would come over to be with us, and she’d be off again to work in a restaurant. Thanks to her, we had all we needed.

A year later, when I was 13 years old, I earned a place in the academy of Standard Liège, one of the big clubs in Belgium. The only problem was, it was far from our village, so I had to go away to a boarding school near the academy. At first, I didn’t even want to go. I thought I would be missing home too much. But it was a big opportunity, and then once I got there, I made friends and it was a great experience. It was a period I’ll never forget. I spent two years there, and I thought that perhaps I was on my way to playing first division football in Belgium.

Then, one day, when I was 15, my youth coach called me and my mother to his office for a meeting. I didn’t know what it was about. I had no idea.

We sat down and all he said was, “We are releasing Thomas.”

I was kind of in shock, I guess. What do you say to that?

I remember my mother and I just looked at each other for a moment, then we looked back at the coach and said, “Yeah, O.K. …. Is that all?”

Maybe this will sound funny, but for me, it was not a catastrophe. It wasn’t as if football was my only joy in life. So I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. I’ll go to regular school now. Do normal things. Go to the cinema. Enjoy life.”

And so I told my parents that I was quitting for good. I just didn’t have the passion anymore. My dream was dead.

You can imagine how my father felt. We stopped talking about football. That was a problem, because football was our life. He was so disappointed. He had expressed his passion for football through me, you know? So when my dream got destroyed, his did too.

I expected my mother to be more understanding. But she wasn’t.

She disagreed with my decision. “No, no, no,” she said. “Football is your life. You have to play.” So she called a coach from a very small club called Virton and she said, “Yes, my son was at Standard Liège, and he’s been released. Can he come over for a trial? He’s very good, I promise!”

I guess she saw something in me that I didn’t. Maybe it was because I had become so used to playing football that I didn’t realise how important it was to me. I mean, every Sunday, when we went to see my father play, I’d be kicking a ball around. I didn’t even think about it, because it had become so natural to me. The ball was just there, and that was it, you know?

But my mother knows me better than anyone. So I played in a trial match with Virton’s youth team. We won 15–3 and I scored like 10 goals. The coach came to me after the game, like, “What number do you want?”

Of course, it didn’t seem like a life-changing moment at the time. Virton was in the Third Division, and the wages for their senior side were about 400 euros a month. Not even enough to live on.

But if my mother had not made that phone call begging the coach to watch me play… Well, I don’t even like to think about what I would be doing now. My life would be totally different.

It’s funny, because my father had stopped talking to me about football when I was released from Liege. He said he wouldn’t come to my games for Virton. It seemed like that chapter that closed. But then one night, when I was playing one of my first senior matches with Virton, I looked up into the stands, and I saw him sitting alone in the corner, watching me play.

If my mother had not made that phone call begging the coach to watch me play… Well, I don’t even like to think about what I would be doing now.

It was a strange time, because when I finished high school, I was kind of stuck in the middle. I wasn’t making enough money to be a full-time footballer. But I also didn’t have any time to go to university.

And that’s why I did a four-month stint as a postman. To be honest, I can’t say I enjoyed it. Luckily, I got that job at the car factory, and that was far better.  

I’d wake up at 5 a.m., eat breakfast, then drive half an hour to work. The factory was so big that you had to drive to get to the other side. I’d pour some coffee and start my shift at 6 a.m. My spot was in the windshield assembly section. We made them for all these big brands: Mercedes, Renault, Citroën, Opel. My job was to put them in a giant truck before they shipped them off to China, France and Romania. I’d also take orders from clients. I did that every day until 2 p.m., then I went to training.

I’ll never forget my colleagues at the factory. We became great friends. They were huge football fans. In fact, they knew who I was even before I started. They followed Virton and watched my games. So if we lost, you can imagine the shit they gave me on Monday morning.

“F—ing hell man, you were terrible.”

But hey, that’s part of the job, right? 😀

On the pitch, strange things started to happen for me. I was playing as a striker, and I began scoring these incredible goals. Left foot, right foot, headers; from 10 meters, from 50 meters. It was crazy. And I didn’t even realise it, but people were filming my goals and putting them on YouTube. I guess some of them went viral on social media, and soon everyone in Belgium was talking about this guy in the Third Division scoring these crazy goals.

They probably didn’t realise he worked at a car factory.

It’s funny to explain, but do you know why I scored those goals? Because I really felt like I was free. I was no longer playing out of obligation. I had escaped the “talent factory” at Standard Liège. There was no longer anyone on the sidelines telling me, “You have to do this, otherwise you won’t succeed.” I was playing for the pleasure, for the passion, for the love of football.

All of a sudden, some big clubs became interested. My price was about 100,000 euros, which was nothing. So they thought, “Well, he’s 19 years old. He’s cheap. Why not take the risk?”

I will never forget when my agent called me and told me, “Club Brugge want you. It’s happening.”

The top team in Belgium. I really couldn’t believe it. I kept asking him, “Is it real? Are you sure?”

Before I signed the contract, I had a revelation. I had just been a regular guy. A postman, a factory worker, a player in the third division. I still was. But now I had this chance that one in a million people get. I thought back to my mother — it was because of her that all this had happened. Now I could give something back to her, and all I had to do was play football.

There was some doubt, sure, but I thought, “Well, the least I can do is to give this everything I’ve got.”

And so I signed the contract, and my life changed. The best moment was probably when my father called me. He said, “F—ing hell! Yes! My son made it! My son plays for Club Brugge!”

The other great moment was when I went to tell my grandfather the news. Believe it or not, Club Brugge was his team. He had supported them all of his life. So I went over to my grandparents’ house, and I said, “Grandpa, guess which club wants to sign me now?”

He didn’t hesitate for a moment. He said, “Club Brugge.”

I said, “Yes, Club Brugge.”

He wasn’t even surprised. It was like he knew it was my destiny. That was such a proud moment for me, because my grandparents had helped to raise me and my sister since my mother was working all the time. I owe them so much.

After I got my chance to play for Brugge, I was never out of the starting lineup. For the first two years I played as a striker, and then they moved me to right-back. That year, in 2013, I got my first call up to the national team. Making my Belgium debut was special. I remember my mother telling me that everyone from the village had been calling her.

They were saying, “Oh, Thomas is on TV! He’s playing for Belgium! It’s crazy! It’s unbelievable!”

She was so proud. And I was so grateful to her. Without her, I wouldn’t have been playing football at all, you know?

Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

I know how important the national team is to people. I’ll never forget the 2002 World Cup, when Marc Wilmots put us up 1–0 against Brazil in the quarterfinals. The ref ruled it out, even though it was legal. I was crying in my room. It was such an injustice.

As it happened, it was actually Mr. Wilmots who called me up to my first big tournament. When the squad for Euro 2016 was being announced live on television, my family and I sat there watching it, ready with beers and champagne. Then came those magic words.

… Thomas Meunier selected …

It was a wonderful moment. The kind you will always remember.

Of course, we lost in the quarterfinals, but I hope we will go further at the World Cup this summer. It will be an amazing experience for me no matter what happens, because it will be the first World Cup for another member of our family.

In December 2015, my son was born. It was a new beginning in my life. The absolute best moment one can experience. Just imagine: In December, my son arrived, then I became a Belgian champion with Club Brugge, then I played at Euro 2016, then I signed for Paris Saint-Germain.

All that in six months.

Now, we have another child on the way. So this summer I’m hoping for a repeat: the French championship with PSG (that one is already in the locker), the World Cup with Belgium, and another child to make our lives even happier.

Optimistic? Perhaps. But I’m sure it will be another great year.

Julie Glassberg/The Players' Tribune

My son still doesn’t know exactly what I do yet. When we drive in Paris, he’ll spot a PSG logo and say, “It’s Papa, it’s Papa!” In the stadium it’s the same: everyone with a PSG shirt is Papa. So he knows I do something. Maybe in a year or two, he’ll be able to say, “My father is football player.”

I hope he won’t ask me to explain how it happened though. Because I can’t. I’m still as surprised by all this as you are. Sometimes I’ll be on the couch with my partner, Debora, and I’ll look at her and say:

“Debora, do you realise I’m playing for Paris?”

It’s not that I’m not confident. Not at all. But I mean, if you have played football, I’m sure you remember that kid on your team who everyone said was going to make it, right? They said, “Yeah, for sure, this guy will turn pro. And this guy, too.”

It was like that at Standard Liège, too. And now none of those guys are playing football.

And look at me. Look where I am. Why me?

What am I doing here?

I still ask myself that question. And the only answer I have found is that it’s destiny.

Drinking coffee in a car factory to playing with Neymar.

Life isn’t supposed to happen like that.