Your life is more meaningful if you play football. Let me tell you about a story that has shaped who I am. This happened long before my birth. We have to travel back to 1939 during the Spanish Civil War. My maternal grandfather, a Barcelona native, fought until the very end against dictator Franco. He was wanted by the Nationalists at the end of World War II. To get to France, he had to walk across the Pyrenees Mountains on foot and didn’t have enough time to bid farewells. That was it. This was the end.
He was 28. He was 28 years old. Her family and friends were all gone.
She replied, however, that she was sure.
It was my grandmother.
The refugees fled to the refugee camp in Argeles-sur-Mer on the French coast. More than 100,000 Spanish refugee were accepted. Imagine if all the Spanish refugees were turned away by France. They showed compassion as compassion is a human right. My grandparents arrived in the USA with little. Their lives had to be rewritten. After some time, the refugees got an opportunity to start work on a Saint-Etienne Cantales dam. It is the way of life for immigrants. It doesn’t matter where you are. Do what is necessary. They went. They built a new life.
There was a time when my mother was also born. The family then moved to Marseille.
It is a part of my DNA. This story shaped my character as a person. It existed only in my head as a dream. Their struggle was only told stories, and there were no photographs. It was impossible to find anything from this time, or to touch. In 2007, Robert Capa, a famous photographer from Mexico City found his “Mexican Suitcase”. These boxes contained 4,500 photographs from the Spanish Civil War, which had gone missing for over 60 years. Nobody knows how they got to Mexico.
Because I was curious about the photographs, they invited me to join them at an exhibit in New York City.
Many of these photos are tiny negatives. There were thousands of them. They were magnified so you had to see them all. Some of the photographs in the middle of the exhibit were quite large. They were almost three metres tall. Photos of people were almost life size. You could touch their faces and reach for them.
That’s when my grandfather was seen.
You couldn’t do it, right?
He was a young man, but he was there. Although I believed it to be him, I wasn’t sure as I hadn’t seen him in his youth. When the exhibit was moved to France, a few months later I brought my mother along to view it.
He was a young man again.
He said “Is that really him?”
My mother confirmed that it was him. They were running to the mountains at the time.
It was amazing.
It is the way of life for immigrants. It doesn’t matter where you are. Do what is necessary. They went. Imagine if my grandfather hadn’t made it. If my grandfather had followed me, imagine what it would have been like for my grandmother. Perhaps then, my mother wouldn’t exist. Perhaps then, I wouldn’t exist. But this is just one part of the story. Another photograph shapes my life.
They were immigrants, as was my paternal greatgrandparents. To escape poverty, they came from Sardinia and settled in France. My great-grandfather arrived in France three years later to escape poverty. He was then called up to World War I.
My grandfather, who was a French soldier in World War II and returned to France as a builder, was his son. When my father was just a teenager, he saved enough to purchase his own land in Marseille’s hilltop area. It had a small cave. My grandfather was building the house and they needed somewhere to stay. So what did my grandparents do? Simple. The cave was their home for 2 years. They used a stove to heat their cave. Although this sounds like something your family would tell you about “old times”, there’s actually an actual photograph of my grandfather and father, in cave covered with blankets in winter 1956.
Over many years, my grandfather worked from this cave to build a home. He first made an alcove. Then he added a small terrace and finally he built my parents a house. It is where I was raised. It is the house I inherited. It is what I inherited. I remember carrying 10 sandbags all the way up the hill towards the home they were building. After that, I was allowed to play football. My father was a housekeeper during the day and a nurse at a mental hospital night. Even this portion of my life has special significance.
My father was an experienced nurse who worked in that hospital. His godfather, Sauveur, was also a patient at the hospital. He was named Sauveur and was the brother of my grandfather. After being held prisoner during World War II for five years, the trauma of the experience led to him eventually being admitted at the Edouard Toulouse Hospital. Sauveur was a close friend of mine, and that made him a great psychiatric nurse. He was in the same unit with his godfather and took care every night.
This is my family. This is my story. This is the core of my being. My life has taken me all around the globe. To reconnect with the family history, I bought an agricultural property in Sardinia last year. These memories have shaped me and I will forever love Marseille. This will be always my home.
This is my answer to people who ask why I play football as I do. Yes, football gives life meaning. Football is not the only thing that gives life meaning. These personal stories are almost impossible to discuss, particularly those about my godfather. This is very hard. It’s almost as if angels speak for me when I think about it. But I’m sharing my past for a very important purpose.
Today we live in times of extreme poverty, war and migration. Many more people around the globe can’t afford to purchase a football, than can be afforded to go to a Premier League match or to see it on television. One of the greatest teachers in life is football. Football is a great source of inspiration. The current football business model ignores so many aspects of the wider world.
Football is as important for poor communities as it is for rich ones. It is important to promote a sustainable, inclusive, and positive football. I am willing to do whatever I can to assist. As their first mentor, I have joined the Common Goal Movement. Common Goal is a movement that unlocks 1% of all football’s revenue for grassroots charities. More than 60 players have pledged to give 1% of their salary towards Common Goal. It is amazing that these players are from large clubs as well as players from smaller clubs.
Football must be accessible to all. It does not need to be utopian. It is not impossible for the main players in football to come together and support social aspects of the game. We all find the simple joy of playing football, regardless of our wealth, no matter if we’re immigrants, or citizens of 10th generation. The language we speak is the same. The same emotions are felt by us.
Every day, the same questions are asked about my professional life.
What was it like to play for the United team? Why did you do so well?”
They want a complex solution. People want a secret. The answer is simple. Sir Alex Ferguson knew one thing. After hours upon hours of hard work, whenever we took to the pitch, it was our turn. We were free. It was a total freedom for us to go where and how we liked.
Football is the only way I can tolerate it.
If football isn’t about freedom, what is it?
Please, let me ask the same question of those running the game: the players, agents, sponsors, and committees ….
If football isn’t about freedom, what is it?
Is life worth living if freedom isn’t the goal?
Is there a meaning to life?
We can all agree, I believe, that humanity can be done better.
You now know the details of my life. My family is made up of soldiers, workers and immigrants. Although we didn’t have much as children, I believe that the best moments of our lives are the most fulfilling.
Maybe a picnic with the family. Trois pairs of socks are rolled into a ball, and then tied with a string. The sun shines on football. We then lie on the grass. Then, we marvel at all and nothing.
Do you remember what I did when I quit football at the age of 30? That was something that I will never forget. My grandparents fled to the city in 1939. I moved in to their home.
I moved to Barcelona.