Mikaël Silvestre: I was happiest when I was playing at Manchester United

The former France and Manchester United defender on football, rum and the Latin way of life

Hello Mikaël. You're speaking at a scarily high-powered conference, the Doha Goals Forum from 10-12 December. What's that about? I'll be part of a group whose task it is to answer the question: how do we use sports to alleviate social challenges facing children and young adults?

Crikey! I'm joining a group with different experiences. For me, I've got to bring in my experience going through the French system, and then also my experience on the ground with my charity.

That'll be Schools for Hope. Can you explain what that's about? I started it in 2006 in Guinea, west Africa. Now we have five different schools, one in Niger, one in Laos, one in Haiti – which we opened last year – and the next one will be in Brazil. The idea is to bring children from very poor backgrounds – lots of them are orphans – and we give them two or three years of school and then also give them another skill they can use in their lives.

So it's got nothing to do with football? They all play football, there's always a coach there. It's good for their fitness, for a start. Because a lot of them live in the streets when we pick them up, they only eat once a day, whenever they can manage. So they are not in the best physical condition. The other good thing is that football is a team game. In the streets they are on their own, they fight for their lives. They learn football, and they learn some of the teamwork that they take into the classes.

What made you do that when you could have happily filled your time buying new Bentleys? It was the birth of my children. I realised then how key it was to be involved not just in school but also other activities, maybe horse riding or playing musical instruments. I realised that a good education at a young age is part of your building as a human being. At Manchester United I worked a bit with Unicef, who are in partnership with the club, but then I said I wanted to be involved from A to Z, to have a bigger part to play. That's when I started my own charity.

It's not the stereotypical footballer's hobby, though. Maybe not. I think players do a lot of important work for charity that doesn't get the publicity it deserves.

So were you a star pupil at school? I did OK. At school I worked – I had no choice. My dad said if I was not good at school I couldn't play football. So I did my A-levels and then when I was 18 or 19, I started a university course to learn to be a sports teacher. Then I started to be a footballer and I couldn't carry on.

What was your best subject at school? PE? No, it was history. I liked to learn about history. I still do now – I read biographies and other books.

You played under Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Roy Hodgson. Who was the best? [laughs] I don't want to … well … they are the top managers. They are the ones, when I come back to England after four years, they are still in charge. Sir Alex has been at United more than 25 years now, it's an amazing achievement. He's got more trophies than Arsène Wenger, so in that way he is the best. He's most successful.

When were you happiest? When I was at United. Nine years, it's a long time in a career but it was good. I've enjoyed all my career. Even the bad moments, I take them in a positive way.

You played in Italy, in France, in England and in Germany. Which is your favourite country? Italy. I say that because I am a Frenchman, and I like a more Latin way of life. I still have friends in Italy, I like to speak the language, I like the food, I like Italian fashion – and I like my friends.

So you speak Italian? I was there for 14 months. It's a Latin language, like French, so after three, four months you start talking. German was more difficult. I studied it for seven years at school so I had the basics when I went there, and I can speak. I couldn't speak for a long time.

What language will you speak in Doha? English, I think.

A lot of the other sporting speakers in Doha – Seb Coe, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz – are Olympians. Are you a fan of the Olympics? Of course. In the summer we were in London, and our children were cheering for England, not France. I didn't go to any events – it was so hard to get tickets – but I watched a lot on TV. I was impressed by the Jamaican performance, and obviously England did amazingly well.

You own a rum company. What's up with that? The idea came from a discussion with friends, when they asked what I was going to do after football. So I started a rum business out of St Barts, because I knew rum on the island. There was a window there, and we took it.

So it was a business opportunity, not a passion for rum? Rum was my background. My dad is from Guadeloupe, in the French Caribbean, and he always used to bring rum back from his holidays. I don't know any other spirits really. I enjoy wine also but rum is my little treat.

Is your rum up there with the best? I'm proud of it. We've won a few medals already. The white rum was awarded a gold medal in the Miami rum festival in April, so that was good. The others have also got medals. It's a learning process for me but I enjoy every minute of it.

What's the last music you bought? I think Alicia Keys. I listen to different types of music – hip-hop, R&B, French, rap, some classical music sometimes, some rock'n'roll. I'm quite open in music. For a different mood, different music.

What about film? What's the last film you saw? [Thinks for a while] Um … [thinks some more] … I want to see the new James Bond, but I haven't got the chance to go yet.

Not much of a cinema-goer, then? We used to go, when we were in England. But now we've been busy with the last addition to the family. The baby is three months old so there's not a lot of spare time.

What's your favourite pasta shape? Spaghetti.

That's a disappointingly simple answer for an italophile. Have you ever seen a ghost? No. I don't believe they exist. Not at all. I believe maybe in spirits but not in ghosts and all that stuff.

Can you tell us a joke? I'm sorry, no. I have a bad memory for jokes. I laugh a lot but I don't tell jokes.

What next, then, for Mikaël Silvestre? Well I'm back training at Manchester United, every day. I still have a house here and the children loved being here. They were born in Manchester, they've got friends from school. Family is important, and they're enjoying being here. They don't mind the rain. Me neither.

So you're playing on? Sure. Hopefully I'll find a club in December or January, and I'll keep going, keep playing. I have to keep going as long as I can.

You're 35 now. How long will that be? Time will tell. It's difficult to say. Football's not as easy as when I was 20, but once I'm warm I feel good enough to carry on. I still love playing, and love training.

You'll keep going until your head or your body tells you to stop That's right. I think it will be the body that stops first. You never stop enjoying football, but I think one day your body says, give me a break.

Cheers for the chat, Mikaël. Bye! Bye-bye, Small Talk.

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