How we first fell in love with the game

They are three of football's greatest stars, and each overcame huge obstacles on their way to the top. Here, Messi, Gilberto and Ribéry tell their childhood stories.


Gilberto Silva: Brazil & Panathinaikos



'We played on stoney streets with nothing on our feet'


Usina Luciânia, the town where I grew up, does not exist any more. It's sad: all that's left now is the sugar cane factory where my father used to work, 200km from Belo Horizonte.

Back in the 1980s, there was a strike at the factory – the workers were trying to get better wages. The strike wasn't very well organised and things got out of hand. It turned into a revolt, the workers fighting with police. It was a big, big problem and many people were sacked from their jobs, including my father. So, along with many others, we had to move away. We went to Lagoa da Prata, a town about 5km away. Once we were gone, they started pulling down the houses we'd lived in.

Still, in our village, we were surrounded by friends and family. It was lovely: open and flat. We weren't very comfortably off but I had everything else. We played football all the time when we were boys. There were other villages nearby that had been built by the sugar cane factory too; and in every village there was some kind of a pitch. Not covered in grass, maybe, but somewhere to play football. We were always barefoot: if we wore our shoes to play football, we'd have no shoes to go to school in!

I remember these hard, plastic balls which really hurt when they hit you. On the street, the surface was very irregular, maybe covered with little stones and on a slope. We had nothing on our feet. I think we learnt to adapt to the ground and to the bounce of all the different balls. I think it made a difference to the way I learnt to play the game.

In Lagoa da Prata, there was a little soccer academy that the owner invited me to join. At about 13 I joined a local club, Lagoa Football Club, and had a job as an apprentice upholsterer. But then we had some problems at home – my mother was very ill – and I thought I would have to stop going so that I could work full time and help pay for things at home, like medicines. When I told the guy who had the academy that I would have to give up in order to find work, he arranged a job for me on a construction site. It was pretty hard physically and, at first, I got tired.

I think every kid in Brazil has the same dream. We all like to think sometimes that perhaps we could be a football player. The America Mineiro club talked about me and another boy who played for our team: "Why not take them for a trial?" I was 16, my friend was a year older, and we went off to Belo Horizonte together to try out. I passed but he didn't. And that was it. I joined their under-16s.

I found it very hard. It meant moving away from home. My mum was better but I had to go and stay at a hostel with lots of the other young players. Even the football was hard, training twice a day. Our coach, Edson Gaucho, was very tough, very strict and shouted a lot. At 16, the simple joy of the game had finished, and the job had begun.

After I had spent four and a half months at America Mineiro, I ended up going back to Lagoa da Prata and getting a job in a sweet factory. Eventually I returned and, once I did, things just went upwards so quickly, like a plane taking off.

When I look back to where I came from and think about where I am now: how could I have imagined what would happen to me? How could I have imagined I would become a World Cup winner? How can I explain it now? I had people who put the right situations in front of me. I was lucky. I got a second chance and I took it.

Franck Ribéry: France & Bayern Munich

'The scars from that crash are now part of who I am'

You know, when I was very young – two years old – I was in a car accident with my mum in Boulogne-sur-Mer. We were hit by a truck and I had to have a lot of stitches in my face. Those scars now are part of me, part of who I am. They're a sign, maybe, that I haven't always had it easy and they're a reminder of my past and of my roots. I've never felt any shame about them. The opposite: why would I want to hide myself away? I had that accident and I think, from it, I've found an inner strength sometimes when I've had to. There was a time when we were short of money and I stopped playing football. Instead, I'd get up early every morning and go to work with my dad, as a terrassier [a labourer], to help pay the bills at home. I'm proud of all that I've done and been, but I know – from my own experience – that things can change very quickly in your life, change for better or for worse.

I grew up with my parents, my two brothers and my sister in Boulogne-sur-Mer, on the northern coast of France, overlooking the Channel. The town was always full of other kids. I spent almost all my time hanging out with lots of friends. Football was always big, the No 1 thing people loved doing and watching. I used to spend whole days at a time kicking a ball around with my mates. We'd have games that went on for ever. And, when I was young, at bedtime I used to want to take the football to sleep with me. It goes without saying that football was a very important part of growing up. I was kicking a ball whenever and wherever I could.

I started in organised football with little local clubs and then played for the town team in Boulogne-sur-Mer. I was about 12 when I started with them and played through the ranks until I was turning out in the third division of the national league by the time I was 17 or 18. I can still remember those games as a teenager: every game was completely committed and we fought for every single ball. They were battles! But battles played in the right spirit, I think, even though some of the lads used to get pretty hot-tempered during them. All my friends back then were friends through football although most of them ran into problems and never broke through.

The game was a passion for me, always. I loved it. But I never dreamt what might happen and, of course, there were lots of other things, like schoolwork, that I had to have in my mind too. I suppose it was during my adolescence that I first got the idea that football might be something I could do as a job. But it never felt like work. Not the kind of work that people have to do every day to earn a living and get by, anyway. Yes, it's work for me but it's also a pleasure.

Lionel Messi: Argentina and Barcelona

'One thing I brought with me from Argentina was a hatred of losing'

I was born in Rosario, the biggest city in Argentina's Santa Fe province. We lived in a nice, ordinary house in a neighbourhood in the south of the city called Barrio Las Heras. It's still my barrio. We have the same house – although we've done it up since I was a boy.

I was given my first football when I was very young: three, maybe four. It was a present and from then on it was the only present I ever wanted, Christmas, birthday or whatever: a ball. At first, I didn't want to take them out in the street in case they burst or got damaged.

There was green around the house but no garden to play football in. There was an abandoned military base nearby which had some pitches and sometimes we'd sneak in for a game through a gap in the fence. But usually, playing football meant playing in the streets. In those days the road was unpaved, just dried earth. It wasn't the best of neighbourhoods but it was the kind of neighbourhood where everybody knew everybody, so my mum wasn't worried about me.

I started playing when I was five. At first, I wasn't always allowed to play with the bigger boys. My older brothers didn't want me to join in – not because I was small, they said it was because they were playing against older boys. The other boys wouldn't be able to get the ball off me – my brothers were worried something bad might happen to me if the other boys got angry.

Almost at the same time as I started playing in the street, I joined our little local club, Grandoli. The whole family was involved – all of us played there at different age levels and my dad was one of the coaches. With my dad and my cousins and uncles, I'd go to watch Newell's Old Boys, one of the two big professional teams in Rosario. After a year and a half at Grandoli, I started training with Newell's too, playing seven-a-side. Newell's was a much bigger club and my last year there gave me my first experience of playing 11-a-side on a full-sized pitch. It was also at Newell's that I first went to see a doctor about being small. I had always been smaller than other boys of my age but it didn't really worry me when it came to football. Perhaps at the start of a game I could tell that other boys were looking at me and that made me feel uncomfortable but, once we kicked off, they saw how I played and there were no problems after that!

Newell's sent me to a clinic where they did all sorts of tests and the doctor told us I had a dormant growth hormone. I was growing, but much more slowly than usual. The doctor said I needed a treatment that would wake that hormone up so I'd begin to grow at the same rate as other kids. I was 11, maybe 12, when I started treatment. I had it for a year in Argentina, which my dad paid for. Then, when I came over to Europe, Barcelona already knew all about it and they took over the cost. I was 13, still a boy. Dad came over first to find out about things, then I came over for a trial for 15 days. We went back to Argentina and, a few months later, we all came – the whole family – and I started at the Nou Camp.

It was fantastic but strange, too. And difficult – there was nothing here that I was used to from my life back at home. No playing in the street, none of our little football matches, the picaditos. And the boys I was meeting and training with had very different customs. In Barcelona, I couldn't just run out of the house, meet up with my mates and start a game. One thing I brought with me from Argentina was hating to lose! Hating to lose at anything. At everything. I'm always "heated up" on the pitch. I remember when I first got to Spain and we played in training matches: I'd see local kids didn't seem bothered when they'd lose! I just couldn't understand that.

I still feel completely Argentine, in my habits and way of living – I still drink mate tea, and I still go home to Rosario every Christmas and summer, and when the national team plays. I still see lots of friends from my barrio, although it's different for the kids there now. People are worried about their kids' safety and so you don't see so many picaditos in the street any more.

Extracted from A Beautiful Game by Tom Watt, a collection of interviews with the world's leading players (Abrams, £19.95). Five per cent of all proceeds from the book will be given to Unicef. All interviews copyright Tom Watt. To make a donation to Unicef's sport-related programmes visit www.unicef.org.uk/beautifulgame or call 0800 158 3695

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