A month and a half after the quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup, have you digested the defeat of the France team?
The first moments were hard. After the final whistle, on October 15 (at the end of the France-South Africa match, 28-29 defeat, which sealed the fate of the Blues, Editor’s note), It took me a few seconds to understand what was happening. Then I went on vacation to Crete and resumed the championship with my club, Racing 92. A break which allowed me to move on to something else. This defeat made me suffer but I often lose matches. Of course, this one was special, because we wanted to win this World Cup in France, but I rarely dwell on events for long. My nature wants it, I quickly switch to something else.
You say that rugby is a philosophy. How much has he built you up?
I wouldn’t be the same man without rugby. He made me grow up, educated me. As a teenager, structures and clubs saw my potential: my parents understood this and entrusted me to educators. I learned rigor, seriousness, the virtues of the collective, the founding values. I had them in me but rugby brought them out. I grew up in a housing estate in Seine-Saint-Denis and if, in addition to my parents, I had not had rugby as a safeguard, I might have fallen into delinquency.
You are 25, an astonishing age to publish your autobiography. Why did you embark on this project?
It was offered to me a year ago, and I made the same remark as you: “What will I be able to say at 24?” But I let myself be convinced. I was told that I had an atypical background, education and success that deserved to be shared. I also wanted to talk about my relationship with God.
In fact, your book is called I will always believe. What special place does the Catholic faith have in your personal history?
My faith dates back to childhood. And my first memories at church around the age of 6. My big brother, Marvin, was by my side, in Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis), in the small Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours church. The parish priest was African, the choir was made up of happy women and men, there was repeated singing, I liked it. At first, however, I was reluctant, Téléfoot (cult football show, broadcast every Sunday on TF1, Editor’s note) was on television at mass time, and I, the football fan, missed it! (Laughs) But gradually, I took great pleasure in going there, as well as in catechism. I met friends there and talked about God with them. My faith came like that, taking pleasure.
Was there a founding moment of grace?
No, but I always saw my parents praying for me that I would be okay. Their attitude left an impression on me, especially in my youth. As soon as they prayed, I succeeded in what I did. Over time, I realized the obvious: God exists.
Does this faith still guide you now?
Yes, I thank the Lord every evening for the day I just had. Before each match, I pray in the locker room, before putting on my jersey. On my knees, I recite an Our Father, a Hail Mary. I also make the sign of the cross before entering the lawn. I turn to the Lord to give me extra spiritual energy. I went through difficult times, injuries, periods of doubt when I wasn’t playing well, I always relied on him.
You write in your book: “I have a Muslim teammate with whom I speak a lot, I am fascinated by his belief, he has his god, I have mine.” Where does this interest come from?
I like seeing other people believe, no matter what god they are. In this case, my Muslim teammates Ibrahim Diallo (at Racing 92, Editor’s note) and Reda Wardi (in the French team, Editor’s note) are very pious, very upright. After training, on Fridays, they hurry to go to the mosque. I like to see that. Once, while Reda was praying, I walked past him. He taught me that this was not done. I’m happy to learn, I like the devotion.
The “Catho” label is sometimes somewhat mocked in public debate. What do you think?
I’m happy to wear this label. It represents my roots, a parental transmission that worked. I am Catholic and proud of it.
Speaking of your roots, tell us about your youth.
I was born in Saint-Denis, I grew up in the city of Abreuvoir, in Bobigny, then in Pantin (Seine-Saint-Denis). My parents are Congolese, my father worked in mass distribution, he ended up as a department manager, my mother did housework. With Marvin and our little sister, Victorine, I spent a very happy childhood, far from imagining the sacrifices made by our parents so that we lacked nothing. School bored me a little, I dreamed a lot. My adolescence turned out to be a little more troubled. I was insolent, withdrawn, a bit of a fighter. But my parents didn’t let anything go to waste. Fortunately for me, I had started rugby a little before. At 10 years old, I went to watch my older brother’s training one day and it was like a revelation. I saw Marvin running on the field, happy. So I asked to make some, too. My mother didn’t want me to play rugby, but I held on.
You also talk about your first vacation in Congo, at 8 years old. Do you have a special relationship with the country of your parents?
We are going back with my parents, my brother and my sister next summer! This will be the first time since I was 8 years old. When I was younger, my parents didn’t want me to go, I still don’t know why (smile). Then, as a teenager, I preferred to stay with my friends. But for several years, I have felt the need to discover my origins. Today, the whole family is impatiently waiting for this moment.
At a time when the world is overheating and many athletes are speaking out on current issues, you are not intervening. For what?
I don’t want to talk about things I don’t know. I find it difficult to be relevant about current conflicts, so I keep quiet.
Likewise, high-level athletes are sometimes asked to set an example for young people. What do you think?
Leading by example is sort of the goal of this book. I try to inspire through my journey and my faith. Three driving forces have driven me forward in life: God, my family, and rugby which represents a second family for me. It’s always good to say who you are.
What do you hope for next?
Sportingly, winning titles is what drives me. For the rest, be happy with my partner Alizée, have more successes than failures in life and, above all, keep the faith.