For decades, Patrice Evra could not cry. When he watched sad movies, the former Manchester United and France captain didn’t feel much. When friends and relatives died, his eyes were dry. If something amazing happened, like winning the Champions League, he would be smiling on the outside, but inside he was numb. “I was a robot,” he says.
When others showed emotion, he was not understanding. One day, while playing for Juventus around 2015, he remembers seeing a teammate get better.
“I walked past him and said, ‘What happened?’ It wasn’t like he had gotten bad news about someone dying,” says Evra. “I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ and he told me: ‘I’ve seen this movie four times and every time I see 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 and allowed himself to fall apart. Last year he spoke publicly for the first time about being sexually abused as a child.
Evra was 13 years old and lived in his principal’s house because his own house was too far from his new school. The teacher would break into her bedroom at night and, believing that she had gone to sleep, she would try to touch him under the covers. “I knew what he was doing was wrong, so I tried to push him away and beat him up,” she wrote in her autobiography, I Love This Game, published in October. “There were no words spoken in the dark, but he was touching himself and getting sexually aroused by what was going on… The last night at that man’s house, when he found out I was going back to my family, he finally made it. He put my penis in his mouth.” And he added: “I didn’t tell anyone. He was too embarrassed to talk to my mom and didn’t know if anyone else would believe me.”
This week, the footballer will speak at the #ENDviolence conference, a UN-sponsored event aimed at ensuring children around the world are better protected from abuse.
Alongside speakers including French President Emmanuel Macron and actor Ashton Kutcher, Evra will speak publicly about his experiences and call world leaders to action.
Speaking via Zoom from a hotel room ahead of Tuesday’s conference, he is thoughtful and candid. He wants to talk about the abuse because he cares. He wants governments around the world to legislate to ensure children are better protected. “We need to reach the most important people,” he says. “It’s easy to campaign, but we need laws.”
Referring to the notes he has prepared ahead of time, he adds: “I was so shocked to see that whipping was banned in England…we haven’t done it yet. But in Wales they did it, in Scotland they did it. Children around the world deserve to be protected. So for me it 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 “robot” football to speaking openly about his private traumas has been a bumpy one.
In recent years she got engaged and welcomed a girl, Lilas, who is now one year old. Her partner, Danish model Margaux Alexandra, whom she describes as “the woman of my life,” has helped her open up by making her feel “safe,” she says.
But he is not sure he would have been as vulnerable if he had still been in the world of football. Among colleagues, talking about emotion and difficult moments was not a sign of strength. “It’s that toxic masculinity,” says Evra. “People are not open-minded. And as soon as you prove you’re a human being, that’s when they’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t go to war with this guy.
Before going public with his abuse, Evra was nervous that people’s perception of him would change. He also felt guilty. Years before, at the age of 24, he received a call from the police asking him if he had been mistreated by the director, but, fearing the consequences, he did not want to admit it.
“Some children had complained about this man and the police wanted to know if he had ever tried to do anything to me,” he wrote in his book. “Because he was famous and I was worried about the reaction, I lied and said no. They asked me if he was sure and I assured them that he was. I have lived with that lie for many years. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
And he felt ashamed. “It was: ‘What are people going to think of me? They see me as a strong man, as a captain, as a leader. When my teammates find out, what are they going to think about it?’”
For years, instead of allowing herself to open up, “the way I dealt with it was that I had to shut down all my emotions,” she says. “I couldn’t cry. He couldn’t show if he was too happy. I don’t want children to live like I did for so many years.”
It was only after stepping away from elite sport, when the possible side effects would be less, that he was able to speak.
“It is something that has to come out of oneself; not because someone pushed me,” she says. “For me it was because I was watching a pedophile show. [Margaux] He saw my face change and said, ‘What’s up?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and she said, ‘Come on, we’re not lying to each other.’ What is the problem?’
“So I opened up because I felt safe. I felt that I could not lie. She didn’t force me. And we had this conversation. That’s why I say: ‘It’s hard to open [up].’”
Even now, looking back, he’s not sure that talking while playing would have served him well. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Would Patrice at this point, where she’s more open, emotional, more sentimental, have success in the same way that I’ve succeeded as a robot?’ With that robot, with that machine, winning winning winning was all that mattered.”
To encourage more reports of abuse and lessen stigma, it’s not just about telling victims to speak up, says Evra. Instead, it’s about educating people and creating an environment where they can speak in public. The same applies to encouraging soccer players to come out as gay and to be open about other personal things, she says.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that everyone will immediately agree, he says. “I can promote [homosexuality] because I don’t follow any book,” he says. “I only follow myself. I follow my heart. But I think we can’t be too harsh on people who say, ‘I can’t because of religion’ or whatever.”
He adds: “It’s really hard. For example, what’s going on with the PSG player,” referring to an incident involving Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Idrissa Gueye, who allegedly refused to play in a match to avoid wearing the rainbow symbol in support of the LGBTQ+ rights. “He didn’t want to wear that shirt, you know. But that doesn’t mean he’s against it. He just doesn’t want to promote it.”
Problems in football are problems in society, he says. “I always say we like to point fingers at football or whatever. But it is society. It’s about education. No one is born a racist person. It’s not a baby, I wake up and I’m racist. All those footballers are human beings”.
Still, since retiring from the sport, he’s discovered a life beyond the “bubble” of soccer and the “toxic masculinity” he says surrounded him. “A lot of people said: ‘When you leave football it will be difficult. You will be depressed. But actually I’m happier than ever. I am 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.
Most of the time, being whoever means being a prankster. On Instagram, he has amassed 10 million followers and nearly cult status among young fans for his infectiously cheerful videos, from motivational clips on Mondays to videos of him impersonating Tina Turner and seductively stroking a raw chicken. “Before, all managers were against social media,” says Evra. “Then I wouldn’t be able to do all those crazy videos.”
He’s so relentlessly positive online that even racist trolls got bored. “If someone puts up a banana emoji, I’m like, ‘I love bananas,’ and they delete it right 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 comic freedom, the “retirement” has allowed him to lower his guard. Although he is “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 diapers, and cooking dinner. “I’m a homebody,” he says.
And he cries often, even for little things. “Before, if she was crying, she would immediately say, ‘No, what are you doing?’ But Margaux said, ‘No, you have to let it go. You have to open up. Whatever you have inside your chest you have to let it out because she will burn you.’”
Today, if he saw that Juventus teammate crying in a movie, instead of making fun of them, “Patrice now would be like: ‘Oh, let me watch the movie and let’s cry together,'” he says. “Can I cry [from] happiness. I can cry if I watch a movie. It’s not being soft. That’s how I’ve been educated; my dad and people like the men around me, crying is a sign of weakness. But not. Crying is a sign of strength.”
Talking 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 arrested? Yes, but not for me. To make sure he doesn’t do the same things he did to me to other kids.”
But, he says, blocking it over the years has been destructive. “[Speaking out] It made me realize that for so many years not opening up killed a lot of my feeling. A lot of my emotion.”
He does not want to be known as a “victim”, or regarded as a “brave” or a “hero” for sharing his story, as some have described him. But he hopes he can encourage someone else to take action to report an abuser. “They may think, ‘If this player, captain of this team, opened up, I can do it,’” he says.
Since her book was published, she has been approached by people on the street who thanked her for speaking out about her past and told her that they too had been abused. “My mother always said: ‘The more you give, the more you receive.’ And the comments I’ve gotten from people on the street are, ‘Thank you,’” she says.
“It made me think, ‘Wow, Patrice. It was okay to kick a ball. But you can do more than that.’”