For decades, Patrice Evra could not cry. When he watched sad films, the former Manchester United and France captain would not feel much. When friends and relatives died, his eyes were dry. If something amazing happened, such as winning the Champions League, he would be outwardly grinning, but inside, he was numb. “I was a robot,” he says.
When others showed emotion, he wasn’t sympathetic. One day, while playing for Juventus in about 2015, he recalls seeing a teammate well up.
“I walked past him and was like: ‘What’s happened?’ It wasn’t like he’d received bad news about someone dying,” Evra says. “I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ and he said: ‘I’ve watched this movie four times and every time I watch it I cry.’ I was like: ‘Wow.’”
Evra told a teammate, who announced it to the rest of the players. “Everyone laughed. I regretted that,” he says.
Since then, the 41-year-old has grown up – and let himself break down. Last year he spoke publicly for the first time about being sexually abused as a child.
Evra was 13 and living at his headteacher’s house because his own home was too far from his new school. The teacher would force his way into his bedroom at night and touch him under the covers or force him to perform oral sex. “I didn’t tell anybody. I was too ashamed to speak to my mother and I didn’t know if anyone else would believe me,” Evra wrote in his autobiography, I Love This Game, published in October.
This week the footballer will speak at the #ENDviolence conference, a UN-sponsored event aimed at ensuring children around the world are better protected against abuse.
Alongside speakers including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the actor Ashton Kutcher, Evra will talk publicly about his experiences and call for action from global leaders.
Speaking via Zoom from a hotel room before the conference on Tuesday, he is thoughtful and candid. He wants to speak about abuse because it matters to him. He wants governments around the world to legislate to ensure children are better protected. “We need to reach the top people,” he says. “It’s easy to do a campaign but we need to have laws.”
Consulting notes he has prepared in advance, he adds: “I was so in shock to see that banning smacking in England … we didn’t do that yet. But in Wales they did it, in Scotland they did it. All around the world kids deserve to be protected. So that for me is my purpose in life. I want to do it. I want to change things.”
For Evra, born in Senegal and raised in France, the journey from football “robot” to speaking openly about his private traumas has been bumpy.
In the last few years he has got engaged and welcomed a child, Lilas, now aged one. His partner, the Danish model Margaux Alexandra, whom he describes as “the woman of my life”, has helped him to open up by making him feel “safe”, he says.
But he isn’t sure he would have been so vulnerable had he still been in the football world. Among teammates, speaking about emotion and tough times was not a sign of strength. “It’s that toxic masculinity,” Evra says. “People are not open-minded. And as soon as you show you’re a human being, that’s when they’re like: ‘Oh, we can’t go to war with this guy.’”
Before going public about his abuse, Evra was nervous that people’s perception of him would shift. He also felt guilty. Years earlier, aged 24, he received a call from police asking whether he had been abused by the headteacher, but, fearing the consequences, he did not want to admit that he had.
“Some kids had complained about this man and the police wanted to know if he’d ever tried to do something to me,” he wrote in his book. “Because I was famous and worried about the reaction, I lied and said no. They asked me if I was sure and I assured them I was. I have lived with that lie for many years. I can’t tell you how much I regret that.”
And he felt shame. “It was: ‘What are people going to think about me? They see me as a strong man, as a captain, as a leader. When my teammates know, what are they going to think about it?’”
For years, rather than allowing himself to open up, “the way I coped with it was I had to shut down all my emotion”, he says. “I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t show if I was too happy. I don’t want kids to live the same way I lived for so many years.”
It was only after stepping back from elite sport – when the potential knock-on effects would be less – that he was able to speak out.
“It’s something that has to come from yourself; not because someone pushed me,” he says. “For me it was because I was watching a paedophile programme. [Margaux] saw my face change and said: ‘What’s the matter?’ and I said: ‘Nothing,’ and she said: ‘Come on, we don’t lie between each other. What’s the problem?’
“Then I opened myself because I felt safe. I felt like I couldn’t lie. She didn’t force me. And we had this conversation. So that’s why I say: ‘It’s tough to open [up].’”
Even now, looking back, he isn’t sure speaking out while he was playing would have served him well. “I was thinking to myself: ‘Would the Patrice right now – where he’s more open, emotional, more feeling – succeed in the same way that I succeeded as a robot?’ With that robot, with that machine, winning winning winning was all that mattered.”
To encourage more reporting of abuse, and to lessen the stigma, it isn’t simply a case of telling victims to speak up, Evra says. Instead, it is a matter of educating people and creating an environment where they can talk publicly. The same applies to encouraging footballers to come out as gay, and being open about other personal things, he says.
But that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward, or that everyone will be accepting straight away, he says. “I can promote [homosexuality] because I don’t follow any book,” he says. “I just follow myself. I follow my heart. But I think we can’t be too harsh to people that say: ‘I can’t because of religion,’ or whatever.”
He adds: “It’s really tough. For example what’s happening with the player with PSG,” referring to an incident involving Paris Saint-Germain’s midfielder Idrissa Gueye, who allegedly refused to play in a match to avoid wearing a rainbow symbol in support of LGBTQ+ rights. “He didn’t want to wear that shirt, you know. But it doesn’t mean he’s against it. He just don’t want to promote it.”
Problems in football are problems in society, he says. “I always say we like to point the finger at football or whatever. But it’s the society. It’s about education. No one is born as a racist person. It’s not a baby, I wake up and I’m racist. All those footballers are human beings.”
Even so, since retiring from the sport, he has discovered a life beyond the football “bubble” and the “toxic masculinity” he says surrounded him. “A lot of people said: ‘When you stop football it’ll be hard. You’ll be in depression.’ But actually I’m more happy than ever. I’m free. I’m not in that box. I can do everything. If I want to be serious, if I want to be a clown, if I want to motivate people. This is life. I can be whoever I am.”
Most of the time, being whoever he is means being a joker. On Instagram, he has accrued 10 million followers and near cult-like status among young fans for his infectiously cheerful videos, from motivational clips on Mondays to videos of him impersonating Tina Turner and seductively caressing a raw chicken. “Before, all the managers were against social media,” Evra says. “So I wouldn’t be able to do all those crazy videos.”
He is so relentlessly positive online that even the racist trolls got bored. “If someone puts a banana emoji I’m like: ‘I love bananas,’ and they delete it straight away,” he says. “When they send the monkey I say: ‘Send the gorilla. The monkey is fragile. The gorilla is strong.’ And they delete it.”
Beyond giving him more comedic freedom, “retirement” has allowed him to let down his guard. Although he’s “busier than ever” with work – from campaigning to appearing on the BBC’s Freeze the Fear – he is less stressed. He spends his free time at home with Margaux, playing board games, changing nappies and cooking dinner. “I’m a homely guy,” he says.
And he cries often – even at little things. “Before if I was crying I was like straight away: ‘No, what are you doing?’ But Margaux was like: ‘No, you have to let it go. You have to open yourself. Anything you have got inside your chest you have to let it out because it will burn you.’”
Today, if he saw that Juventus teammate crying at a film, rather than teasing them, “the Patrice now would be like: ‘Oh, let me watch the movie and let’s cry together,’” he says. “I can cry of happiness. I can cry if I watch a movie. It’s not being soft. That’s the way I’ve been educated; my dad and people like men around me, crying is a sign of weakness. But no. Crying is a sign of strength.”
Opening up about the abuse in particular has been cathartic. He tries not to dwell on the abuser. “When people talk about this, I don’t even know the face of this person. I don’t know if he is still alive, if he died. Someone asked me: ‘Do you hate that person?’ I said: ‘No.’ Actually, because I don’t have any hate in my heart. Do you want that person to be arrested? Yes, but not for me. To make sure he doesn’t do the same things he did to me to other children.”
But, he says, blocking it out over the years has been destructive. “[Speaking out] made me realise that for so many years to not open myself, it killed a lot of my feeling. A lot of my emotion.”
He doesn’t want to be known as a “victim”, or thought of as “courageous” or a “hero” for sharing his story, as some have described him. But he hopes that it may encourage someone else to take steps toward reporting an abuser. “They might think: ‘If this player, captain of this team, he opened himself up, I can do it,’” he says.
Since his book was published, he has been approached by people in the street who thanked him for speaking about his past, and said they had been abused too. “My mother always said: ‘The more you give the more you receive.’ And the feedback I have received from people in the street is: ‘Thank you,’” he says.
“It’s made me think: ‘Wow, Patrice. It was fine kicking a ball around. But you can do more than that.’”