From kicking footballs on the streets of France along with 24 other siblings, to becoming one of the world’s best footballers — a marauding left-outback who terrorised oppositions across the globe — to now being a viral Instagram star, Patrice Evra’s life truly is the stuff of sporting lore.
The legendary former French international and Manchester United player (he won five Premier League titles and a UEFA Champions League during his time at the club from 2006 to 2014) retired five years ago from the profession, but has enjoyed a new lease on life on social media since, enthralling fans across the world with his wacky antics and takes on modern football. But that’s not all; Evra has also emerged as a best-selling author with his autobiography I Love This Game (also his catchphrase), that offered a surprisingly insightful portrait of the many challenges — both mental and physical — that footballers face nowadays, as well as an incident that led him to advocate the ending of violence against children.
Visiting India for the first time, the 42-year-old — who has also represented top European clubs such as Nice, Monaco and Juventus, apart from Manchester United — is on a mission to spread his message of humanity across the country, and be involved with the development of football infrastructure here.
In an exclusive interview, Evra talks to us just moments after checking into his hotel in Mumbai. “I will have plenty of time to rest when I die. Right now, I’m just loving the energy of this country and Mumbai. This is just the beginning of my association with India, and already things are looking great. When I landed in India, a fan was waiting for me at the airport after driving 900 kilometres to meet me. I was stunned!”
Excerpts from a conversation:
Why has it taken you so long to visit India? There are so many Manchester United fans here who still follow your post-footballing career activities closely…
One of my best friends, who is Indian, has kept inviting me here for years now; he keeps telling me about the people, the food and the culture. But my schedule in recent times has genuinely kept me busy.
After my retirement, I finished my coaching license and could have joined the staff at Manchester United. But I remembered one incident from my playing days; my son Lenny, who was three years old, was crying and remarked that he hates United. I was shocked! Did my own son support a rival club? I asked him why, and then he told me it was because United keeps taking his dad away from him. I realised then to succeed at United — be it in a player or in coaching capacity — you have to sacrifice everything else. So I wanted to explore different sides to my vision and personality before that.
That’s true. Since your retirement, we have seen so many different facets to Patrice Evra. What are you hoping to achieve with this trip to India now?
These days, I’m a football pundit, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and author. I’m also in talks for a documentary with a streaming platform, and an investor in Portuguese club C.F. Estrela da Amadora, which is doing superbly well.
So basically, I have a lot of ideas and the vision to execute them. This led me to come to India and figure out what I can do to help here. I have worked to improve footballing facilities and infrastructure across the world, and I want to do the same in India. But I don’t want to do something just in the realm of sport, I want to create a social impact.
Do you think we have it in us to produce world-class footballers who can play at the highest level?
I see kids playing football on the streets of Mumbai, and that’s a good sign. I was one of those kids many years ago on the street, and I made it to the very top. So why can’t Indians produce their very own Premier League footballer? I read that India has a population of 1.4 billion. Now imagine the kind of impact it would create if this country had their own hero akin to what Mohamed Salah has done for Egypt.
Just an hour ago, I was watching a kabaddi telecast in the hotel gym while I was working out, and I was so impressed with how strong and athletic the players were. So the necessary physique is there to play in the top leagues of Europe, now only the technique is needed. That will come with practice.
What made you decide to open up about sensitive topics such as mental health and child sexual abuse in your autobiography?
A few years back, I was watching a documentary about pedophilia with my wife. Suddenly, she saw my face changing and asked me why. That was the moment I revealed to her that I’d faced sexual abuse in the past as a teenager. Why hadn’t I spoken about it before? Maybe I had felt shame or guilt earlier, but I understood then that everyone needs time to talk about their trauma, and that we should never push them.
I never call myself a victim; I’m a survivor. I decided to include this in my book as I wanted to be transparent about my life, and hopefully, it may give others the strength to open up and come forward with their stories.
Your social media game is phenomenal; you’re one of the most popular sportspeople on Instagram these days…
That’s because I want to create a positive impact with social media as well; you have seen all my crazy posts that make people laugh. I read comments such as, ‘I lost someone special in my life today, but watching your video cheered me up.’ This is what is important to me now. I know I can’t change the world by myself. But if I make a small impact, someone follows in my wake, and slowly others join us… we can make a real difference.
As a footballer, I lived in a bubble and that’s all I knew. Now after my retirement and exploring the world, I understand why I’m here and my purpose in life. When I was a kid, my teacher laughed at me when I told her I wanted to become a world-class footballer. That was my dream back then and I achieved it. This is my dream now, and I know I can make it happen as well.
What is the biggest change that you see in young footballers these days as opposed to those from your generation?
I actually feel bad for them. I know a lot of ex-footballers criticise them, but they struggle to focus with so many distractions. They have all become brands, playing for fame or money, instead of playing for the badge, passion, and most importantly, the fan. The fans meant everything to us.
We also always carried the weight of history on our shoulders, you know? When I shook hands with Sir Bobby Charlton, I got goosebumps as I was aware of his legacy and that of the Busby Babes. If we lost a game, we wouldn’t even go out to eat at a restaurant. That’s how much it affected us.
Despite straddling so many avatars now, do you ever see yourself going back to work at Manchester United someday?
It will happen for sure! It would be selfish of me to not work with United again, or not share what I have learned from all my years of experience. Before his retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson told me one day that the two players he saw becoming great managers in the future were Ryan Giggs and me. He told me that I knew how to communicate and drive people, and that was a key trait. A manager can be a footballing tactical genius, but if he’s not able to communicate his ideas to the players, then he can’t survive. I always remember SAF’s words.
You have mentioned the 2008 Champions League semi-final against Barcelona — the one with the Paul Scholes winner — as one of your favourite games for Manchester United. Any other games that you look back upon now as ones that defined your career?
That was a very intense game for sure, one that I desperately wanted to win and reach the final, after losing out in the 2004 Champions League final with Monaco against Porto.
However, the game that truly shaped me was actually my debut for Manchester United; we were playing away to Manchester City! Having arrived from France, I wasn’t used to the conditions at all as it was in the middle of the afternoon and super hot. I realised quickly that I had to toughen up a lot more to play football in England. I was subbed off after 45 minutes, and we all received the hairdryer treatment from Sir Alex. Then he told me, “You’re going to sit next to me and you’re going to learn English football!” We ended up losing that game and I went home, where even my agent was doubting my abilities to make it in the Premier League.
That’s when my mentality kicked into action, and I told myself I have to build a lot of resilience and make it at United. The rest is history.
Is that what is missing in footballers nowadays? The mentality to keep going no matter what?
Players nowadays give too many excuses all the time! ‘This guy didn’t pass me the ball.. the manager doesn’t like me… the press is harsh to me…’ They all have too many ‘yes men’ around them. Back in my day, even if we won a Man of the Match award, agents and friends would tell us after the game how we missed an important pass and how we could improve. Today, even if a player has a terrible game but scores a goal, everyone says he is amazing. (shakes his head)
Your vibrant personality and image lends itself easily to the world of movies. Can we see you try your hand at acting anytime? Maybe Bollywood calling…
I have actually acted in a movie already! It’s coming out soon, and I have played a cameo in it. I talk to a lot of actors, who have asked me to give it a proper go, as I’m good in front of the camera. I’m really open to working in Bollywood too; I love the craziness, colour and music associated with the films here. I’m a dreamer and hard worker, and will give 100% to whatever I do. Maybe next time I come here, you will talk to me on the sets of a film, eh? (laughs)
Finally, what is your message to all the football fans in India, and those who support Manchester United?
To everyone in India, I want you to be happy first and foremost. The more you give, the more you receive; that’s what my mom always used to tell me. Please try to respect everyone and don’t judge anyone too harshly.
To my United community, please keep having faith and always remember that our history will never die. Yes, we are going through tough times right now and change needs to happen… it will. But always remember the good times.
India is such a wonderful country with so much potential, building some of the best doctors, engineers, chefs… and I do hope, the best footballers too. All my positive energy to my brothers and sisters here, and don’t forget to love this game!