“I’ve never thought I was getting too much money because I knew how to invest it to help people, to have a voice and a positive influence on youth, to be able to change things”
Sometimes you get to know people that you would never imagine you will. It happened to me when I met Frédéric Kanoute. He is a prestigious former footballer who played for West Ham, Tottenham and Sevilla among others.
He is considered by the Spanish team to be the best foreign player in their history and his football has marvelled during the first decade of this century.
As a former football star, he obviously got a really good salary, Kanoute thinks that the money he was getting paid was not an exaggerated amount; “Thank god I’ve never thought that I was getting too much money because I knew what to do with it. You have to understand the economy of football, if you get this money it´s because you worth it.”
However he considers it a little unfair to other professions: “There are professionals who really change people’s lives and they earn much less money, then you feel bad; but if you know how to invest the money and help people to improve their lives you stop feeling like this, that’s why it´s never been a problem for me,” he says.
Kanoute’s words transmit a peaceful energy, feelings of calm, quietness. It is like there is no signal of a football star at all when you are talking to him. In fact, his modesty, humbleness and his humanity, as people who know him say, are his greatest values.
His dedication to charities, humanitarian help and the needed kids in Africa are well known in the world of football. Projects as Kanoute’s Foundation, Champions for Africa and the Kid’s City in Mali among others, have marked Frédéric Kanoute out as one of the most caring and charitable figures in football.
“My dedication to the others started a long time ago. I have always thought to help people, I think it came as a mix of everything: my religion, my education, my personal experience, and also my status as a footballer. I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility towards the other.”
He remembers the start of this journey well: “I started with a charity when I was in England. I used to come back from training and I sat down to write down ideas until I thought about my project, the city of orphaned children.”When Kanoute talks about his projects, he puts an emphasis on his tone, his French accent seems to become clearer when he is in a conversation about serious stuff. “It is in Seville when it took another dimension, also thanks to my success as a footballer I started to organise the Champions for Africa with UNICEF, which was a great success, we have raised a lot of money from people from the entire world.”
Champions for Africa was a charity match where football stars played each other to raise money for children from the Horn of Africa. Every year this match brings together more than 30,000 people to the stadium.
Kanoute talks about his village: “This is also how Sakina, the village of children, settled outside of Bamako (Mali),” he continues, and explains: “It is a small town for orphaned children with adoptive mothers. There is a primary school, high school, kindergarten, there are sports activities and we are developing courses about agriculture, livestock and vocational training”.
His commitment can be appreciated in every word when he is talking about ‘the children’s village’. “The idea is to provide these people with a better life, to be capable of self-development. Everything is almost finished and, in a short time, it will be autonomous,” he says.
Although Kanoute’s best years as a footballer occurred when he was playing in Seville, where he scored more than 100 goals and won both European and Spanish titles, he holds onto happy memories from his time in England.
“London is where I learned to be a man. I arrived at 21 years old, it was the first time I left my city, I was living alone, in a foreign country, I had to learn the language. It was a lot of responsibility.”
He looked back at his memory and outlines a grin: “I was really fortunate to arrive at West Ham, which is a great club with incredible fans and a familiar atmosphere. They helped me a lot,” he says.After hanging up his boots in 2013, Kanoute is still linked to football; “I have a consulting and sports management company that covers many activities related to the world of football. We accompany smalls clubs from Mali, Zambia, also in Brazil, and we take care of giving it a touch of professionalism in regarding the development of young players”. Frédéric talks about his business interested today: “We also work with other institutions, with the Dubai Sports Committee, we are developing football academies in China too.”
As a businessman, Kanoute is aware of the importance of money in his life. For him, it would be really difficult to develop his projects without it. “It is very important for the activity that we do because we help clubs with less money and we prevent that larger clubs take advantage signing their players without giving the money back to those small clubs. We make sure that the money has to come to the training club.”
When you hear a conversation about football today, fans usually end up talking about the huge amounts of money involved. Many people argue about the commercialisation of this, the king of sports. The simple definition of football would be: A sport played with a ball, in which two eleven-players-teams compete with the foot kicking it to score in the opponent’s goal. Everything in this definition is true but nowadays, football is much more than a sport but is considered one of the greatest business in the world.
In most countries, football is the main social sportive activity. In the last century, the importance of football has been growing and growing in comparison with the rest of sports.
The evolution of the game means today, it is considered one of the biggest economic activity in the world. Football represents the 0.7 per cent of the total GDP in the world, said, in other words, football is the 24th biggest business in the world.Asking Kanoute about the controversial changes that are shaping football today, he gives us his perspective: “Football is the most popular sport in the world and it generates a lot of money, it’s an economy that moves so much money,” he says.
“It’s true that sometimes the essence and the spirit of football is lost with all this money. But whenever money is used for development and giving more opportunities to people who need it most, is positive, but sometimes clubs spend and splurge where it is not necessary, it is a pity,” he tells us.
The commercial exploitation of this sport has attracted numerous large investors coming from different countries. In every main football league, there are clubs owned by wealthy foreign businessmen. Kanoute thinks that it is normal, and it belongs to our economic system and the market.
“I believe that football must be regulated with the economic laws of the international market, there is no difference between football or any other company bought with foreign funds. All sectors must be regulated,” he says. “It could be positive because it develops a League, as Qataris are doing with PSG, but there are also negative aspects because the competition diminishes.”
While the football industry has been growing for many decades, last year was a revolution. Paris Saint-Germain, the principal club of the French capital, paid almost £400m for two players. The team, owned by Qatar Sports Investments, paid £197m to get Neymar from FC Barcelona, the Brazilian player became the world record transfer.
But there was another transaction which totally changed the football market. The French team paid another £166m for signing Kylian Mbappé, just 18 years old at that time. Currently, the prices of young players have doubled or even tripled in comparison with the previous year.
As the topic of PSG came up to the conversation, I asked his opinion about the Parisian team splashing out hundreds of millions. “When something is wanted in the entire world, it is normal for prices to skyrocket, but it is true that the spirit and essence of football is lost, we must maintain an ethical essence,” he tells us.
“PSG fans will be really happy to acquire players like Neymar and Mbappe for sure, it is also an added value for French football, and it can attract more business and the League One can get more value. Although for the competition is worse and probably they will win the League every year, but now they can get their goal to win the Champions League playing with the same weapons than Madrid or Barcelona”.
Kanoute is concerned about speculation in the football industry: “I think there is a lot of speculation with the prices, in football and in any other business, when prices go up without meaning the bubble could detonate and there will be negative consequences.”Another controversial topic surrounding football is the high salary of the players, and there has been debate about his fellow countryman Mbappe, who is getting a net £16m salary at just 19 years old. “It is clear that this amount of money for such a young player can blow anyone up. It is dangerous for young people’s career because they don’t value what it is to grow as a person and as a player.”
Kanoute knows it is happening constantly and it worries him: “The most important thing is education, I don’t talk about school, I mean knowing how to live, what matters in life, they will need people who teach them to know what to do with money and what do not, otherwise it could be very harmful.”
After his brilliant period in Seville, he played for one year in the Beijing Goan; China is another country which is investing huge amounts of money in football. They are pursuing to be the capital of this sport in 2050. “They are investing a lot of money, a bubble has been created investing in European players”.
Kanoute thinks there was a change in the model of growing and now Chinese clubs and the Chinese Football Federation are trying to regulate football in a better way. “They implement now limitations of foreigners, they need to have at least three players under 23 in the starting eleven and every team have the obligation to have their own academy to develop their youth”.
His experience as a professional on and off the pitch there tells him that Chinese football will grow significantly: “They are developing their football with European professionals, coaches, doctors, technicians and investing a lot, at first it was a bit of a barbaric thing, but now it is improving and there will be results in a long-term period.”
Frédéric Kanoute is the only footballer not born in Africa to win African Footballer of the year (in 2007): “For me, it’s a pride that people from Mali consider me as another fellow citizen although they know I was born and raised in France. Since I was a child I followed African football. I always liked African football and I imagined myself playing with the Malian National Team.”
The Franco-Malian was born in Lyon and he played for France Under-21s until 1999, then he decided to play for Mali. “I was close to the French national team but in 2004 the legislation changed and I was able to play for my other country, it was not an easy decision. But it was a wise decision because it has opened the door for me to work in Africa.”
A new FIFA statute was introduced 2003 which meant players could change the nation they represented internationally as long as they had not already played for another nation in a competitive game. It was in his first year playing for Tottenham, back in 2004 where Kanoute was eligible for Mali through his father.
The West Africans call him straight away to the African Cup of Nations. Spurs were not very happy to lose their forward in the middle of the first season. They even put it in an appeal to FIFA seeking a confirmation that he was truly eligible for Mali.
David Pleat, the Spurs coach at the time was very angry with that decision: “I don’t know where Mali is, I am going to have to ask someone. We signed him as a French international,” he raged.
Kanoute said it was a significant decision in his life. The impression that he feels to be more linked to Africa drives me to a necessary question. Do you consider yourself more African or European? “I feel I am African, European, French. Sometimes I feel more European but I have always felt linked to Africa, I have family there and I have a great link with my roots”.
He tries to explain his notion of being African, “Being African is not only where you come from, but where your heart is. I certainly don’t see any conflict in being French and African.”
Kanoute tries to be clear about this particular issue that nowadays has become a real problem in France. “I am not a nationalist at all, I don’t understand much about flags. We are human beings and we have to do as best as we can in this life.”Frédéric Kanoute has always shown solidarity with vulnerable people. He has been involved in many charitable causes, such as the Palestinian cause showing a shirt in a goal celebration with a support message after Israel’s attack which killed more than 700 people. He was fined by the Spanish Football Federation for showing political messages.
His eyes show a peaceful standing. There are no awkward silences, nor a ruthless gesture. Asked about what he considers is the best side of being a footballer, the answer also does not go in the way we anticipated: “The best thing is that you can make your passion your profession and dedicate yourself to what you like,” he says. “Also it is great to have a voice and a positive influence on youth and be able to change things. To be a good example for youth.”
Kanoute leads by example and lets his actions speak for themselves; in Seville in 2007 he paid more than £500.000 of his own money to buy a mosque which was about to be sold. The local Islamic community could not afford it anymore. Kanoute tried to keep it as an anonymous contribution.
Talking about his childhood, Kanoute feels grateful to his parents; “My mom took me to a small football club when I was very young because I couldn’t stop kicking everything at home, she was really patient, I was playing with the ball all the time,” he laughs. “My father taught me not to be satisfied with my performances.”
His family seems to be fundamental in his life. “My parents have always insisted in human values. Education was the most important thing for them, to be a respectful person and to be respected.” He continues talking about his father: “He is probably the reason why I got to be professional. He was never satisfied, he tried to get the most out of me so I always looked for something to improve. He always made me look for ways to improve and keep me down to earth.”
As a follower of the Muslim faith, he is critical of the growth in Islamophobic discourse in recent years; his values are totally in opposition to the xenophobic views of Islam’s critics, especially the values espoused by Donald Trump; “I deplore him not just because I am Muslim. I think any human being with a minimum of common sense cannot understand how this type of person can rule the most powerful country in the world. He is a danger,” he says.
“There are many people who support him, but also there are many people totally against him in the US. You have to understand the history of the US, it is not by chance he became president, there is a lot of racism and cruelty in their history, if you go back to the history books you can perfectly understand why a person like Trump can be president,” Kanoute tells us.The footballer has lived in many different places, diverse countries in Africa, Asia, Middles East and Europe. His experience in life as a wealthy person does not disturb the reality his parents instilled in him during his childhood: “I don’t really know which is the first and the third world. Here we separate everything depending on money. The third world has much to teach to the first,” he says.
“I have seen a lot more joy and more hospitality in there. People know what is really important in life.” He is not afraid to be critical of some Western societies: “There are higher rates of suicide, depression, and crimes in the first world. I have seen much more happiness in Africa despite being much poorer.”
Frédéric Kanoute has been an important figure in both Spanish and African football, he was considered by football fans who have watched his games, a very sophisticated footballer, tall as a basketballer but with an ability to control the ball and getting past rivals with a fine style.
However, how he uses his influence off the pitch and his philanthropic legacy is more important to him than his footballing one: “I enjoy training my children, in my academy, I love spending time with the kids. I have always been attracted to touch people’s lives and to be able to help. It is great to have a voice and a positive influence on youth.”
Featured image provided by Frédéric Kanoute.