Mikaël Silvestre: a Frenchman in Dubai

As his two former clubs Manchester United and Arsenal prepare to face off on Sunday in a crucial end-of-season clash, the decorated ex-footballer sits down to talk Sir Alex Ferguson, politics and his love of Dubai. Words by Gruffudd Owen

Having spent nine highly successful seasons at the club between 1999 and 2008, Mikaël Silvestre is best known for his time at Manchester United, winning no fewer than 11 trophies as a Red Devil. It was after coming up against the club in the UEFA Champions League that the Frenchman knew his heart was set on a move to Old Trafford – where he would thrive under the guidance of a certain legendary manager. 

“I got to know Manchester United very well as an opponent because of the 1999 UEFA Champions League quarter-final, when I was playing for Internazionale.

“I didn’t play the first game because I was injured, but I still travelled with the team. We eventually got knocked out, and of course Manchester United went on to win that famous final against Bayern Munich.

“I then received a call from Sir Alex Ferguson in August of that year, and signed for the club the following month, ready for the new season. On my first day Sir Alex picked me up from the airport. The next day I went into his office, signed my contract and went down to train. Then on Saturday – the day after – I was playing against Liverpool at Anfield.       

“I feel fortunate to have played under him. When you win so many trophies it’s not about lifting the cup: it’s what leads to those moments that brings you as a team together, and brings you closer to your manager.

“It wasn’t always la vie en rose – happy and sunny at all times – but in general it was fantastic. You look to play at the highest level, and United is at the highest level.

“Sir Alex was very good at doing background checks on players. He always took in as much information on a player as he could.”

As a mixed race man playing for France, Silvestre represented a continuation of Les Bleus’ multicultural spirit, one that had so captured the imagination of the French people – and beyond – during the country’s historic FIFA World Cup win on home soil in 1998. However, growing up in the small town of Saint-Pierre-des-Corps on the periphery of the city of Tours, he still faced prejudice and discrimination from a young age.    

“My mother is French, and my father is from Guadeloupe. I grew up having to face racism: just silly kids repeating what they’d heard at home.

“As a player, I spent a lot of time travelling towards the end of my career. It was more about the experience: living in the USA and playing in MLS, playing in India, in Germany.

“My kids are open-minded: they’ve been travelling everywhere, and they can adapt to any culture. I was open-minded before I began my career in football because of my background, and with the travel and my different experiences, I’m even more so now.”

There are enviable perks of being a professional footballer, of course: the admiration of millions, the opportunity to make a living doing something you love, and the vast riches. However, it is the sacrifices that top-level athletes make that often go unnoticed. Such is the fiercely competitive nature of football – the world’s most popular sport – that Silvestre had to adapt to the footballer’s demanding lifestyle early on.

“In France, from the age of 15 you behave like a pro. You don't get a normal childhood where you get to go out with your friends and enjoy your free time as you wish, because you train hard, but you also have to go to school. So your weekly rhythm is all about performing well both on the pitch and at school.

“The main sacrifice is that you don’t get to live the life that your friends do, who are going to the movies whenever they want and doing different activities.

“Then when you’re a pro, you have to watch your diet and how much sleep you’re getting. That’s very important.”

With the global political climate becoming ever more intriguing, and social media enabling the whole world to engage in and debate the biggest issues of the day, more and more notable sportspeople are taking advantage of their significant online followings to share their thoughts – something that Silvestre feels should be encouraged.

“You have politicians talking about sport, so you should have sportspeople talking about politics too. It’s a matter of which hat you wear when you talk about it.

“If I were talking about politics, I wouldn’t be wearing my sportsman’s hat. It’s hard to go public: I’m recognised as an ex-Manchester United and French international footballer, so people will look at that first before judging my comments.

“Politics has forever been using sport for its own benefit, but sport is about bringing people together: for that reason, it’s stronger than politics.”      

Silvestre has a long-standing connection with Dubai, stretching back to his time as a Manchester United player in the early 2000s. Having visited the Emirate for 16 years in a row – whether on holiday with his family or for business matters – the 39-year-old cannot help but be impressed by how quickly it has developed into one of the world’s leading cities.

“The transformation of Dubai has been unreal. Growing up in France, you don’t witness these sudden transformations. The high quality of the infrastructure here is spectacular. With every trip, you’re going to discover a new area, new activities and new centres of interest. It’s always fascinating coming to Dubai.

“It’s the crossroads connecting the Middle East, Europe and Asia. You get to meet a lot of different people, and it’s very cosmopolitan: a bit like London, except you’re by the seaside and in the desert!

“You can never get bored here. You’re always going to meet someone who tells his or her story, and it’s going to be interesting.”