His autobiography had been written and was at the printers when international football star Patrice Evra decided he had something important to add about his life. But first he had to tell his mum. “That was the hardest challenge,” he says. “And I was a 40-year-old man.”
Until that point last year, the former Manchester United and French national team captain had never spoken about being sexually abused by a teacher when he was 13.
Last week the Senegal-born Evra stepped on what he called “the most famous podium in the world” – the stage of the UN general assembly in New York – to speak about the abuse and his decision to take up a new role campaigning for the protection of children, especially in Africa. That moment, he says, and the standing ovation for his impassioned call for action, meant more to him than any of the trophies he accumulated in his world-class football career.
“People were in shock when I wrote this in my book. So I wanted to share,” Evra says. This year the former player visited several African countries with the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking in schools and meeting survivors of abuse.
“I’d started to be on social media and, OK, I’m a bad singer, but every time I did a video I was singing and people were starting to say to me that this helped them. So I thought, ‘OK, I can do more than that,’ and I started working with the WHO, to go to Africa.
“I met a lot of survivors. I’m just in a learning process. Just because I experienced sexual violence at the age of 13 doesn’t mean I know everything. So it was pretty simple, to start to talk.
“Abuse is taboo, but I love everything taboo, bring it on. In African culture, for a black person it can be even difficult to talk about love. I never saw my mum kissing my dad. I never saw that. So for an African person to have succeeded in his life and then talk about things like this, they were in shock.
“I went to a school, the teacher asked the kids, ‘Do you think it’s possible for a black person to be abused?’ They all said no. Then I shared my story. They couldn’t believe it. For them it was impossible for a man.”
Evra says his retirement from professional football in July 2019 was a catalyst. For starters he learned to cry.
“I grew up thinking that crying was a weakness but actually now I understand that you actually should cry. You should share your emotion. Women are 10 years in advance, maybe more … but men should cry.
“It would have been too difficult to show emotion when I was still playing. I remember once with a team, we were on a plane and there was a player and he was watching a movie and he was crying and I was like, ‘Why are you crying?’ He said, ‘This movie, I’ve watched it five times and it always makes me cry.’
“My first reaction was to turn to my teammates and say, ‘This guy cannot play a game of football. This is weak.’ But now I am a different man, I would watch this movie with him and I would cry with him. But back then, for me it was impossible.”
Evra did not speak out even when the police officers investigating his abuser contacted him. “I remember at 24 I was playing for Monaco and the police called me and said, ‘We have had some complaints about this man, do you know anything?’, and I said no. So I lied. You don’t want to deal with it.”
It was when he was watching a documentary on paedophilia with his partner, the Danish model Margaux Alexandra, that the realisation came. “She saw my face and I just let my emotions out and I said, ‘You know what, I think I have to put it in the book.’
“For my mum, she was devastated. To that 13-year-old kid, now a grown man and facing her, she kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, but I said, ‘No mum, I’m OK, I’m fine.’ And that is why I don’t call myself a victim, I’m a survivor.
“You feel shame, you feel guilty. I just blocked it. I said: ‘Mum, I don’t even remember his face … I don’t want any pity for myself.’
“When I was captain of Manchester United or the French national team, people always saw me as someone who never showed their emotion and [they] say that’s because I am from the street and tough, but actually it’s because of this trauma that I was this way.”
Evra’s father was a diplomat and moved the family from Senegal to Brussels when Evra was one, before settling in the Paris suburb of Les Ulis two years later.
“School is normally a place where I should have been safe. I should have had someone protect me … I didn’t have it. It was instead a place that took all my emotion away. It was difficult for me to trust people after that,” he says.
On top of growing up in a difficult neighbourhood – with 23 siblings and half-siblings – Evra also had the deep-seated racism prevalent in Europe’s football clubs to contend with.
“Racism was really tough,” he says. “I played in Italy when I was 17 and I was the only black player in the league. I had the whole thing of monkey noises and people throwing bananas. For me, it made me think, ‘I’m going to hurt you in a different way, on the pitch.’ The racism was not bad at Manchester United but of course it is there. Even when England had the three black players who missed the penalties, on social media it was just crazy. It’s not only England [but] in France too: when you play well you are a French player, when you play badly you are a Senegalese player.
“Silence is the crime. For racism, for abuse. When they tried to do the Super League, I see everyone talking about this with such energy and I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t we have this energy to tackle racism?’”
Globally, WHO estimates that up to 1 billion children aged two to 17 will have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year.
Evra, a father himself, says something must be done. “We have to end the violence. We are talking about many things but I don’t hear about ending the violence against children. Why is it so taboo?
“The support is important to end the violence, everyone experiences violence in their childhood. We need to support the family. We need to hear the stories of survivors. This is the start.”
In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html