SOMETIMES BEING FLUENT IN FIVE LANGUAGES is a curse. Last summer at the World Cup, France left back Patrice Evra found himself at the center of a tempest when Les Bleus went on strike after a bust-up between forward Nicolas Anelka and manager Raymond Domenech. As the captain of what had become essentially a team of quitters, Evra was the target of jabs hurled by journalists from every corner of the globe. And the pentalingual defender understood far more of those barbs than he would have liked.
Evra was stripped of the captain's armband by the French Football Federation and suspended for five international games. (Anelka was the only player to receive a longer suspension: 18 games.) "When you are captain, you have a bit more responsibility," Evra said in March. "At the end of the World Cup, I said to all of [my teammates], 'Go and take it easy on holiday, because if someone has to have his head chopped off, it will be me.' Some people said I was a ringleader, which was totally false. It was as a captain, and not as a ringleader, that I took [the suspension]."
It was a nasty ending to a World Cup that should have been the glorious culmination of a long journey for Evra. It began in Dakar, Senegal, where he was born in 1981. His father was a diplomat who, in Evra's words, "did not watch a lot of TV." So what did he do? He fathered 26 kids, enough for an 11-a-side match with subs. The Evra clan moved to Brussels when Patrice was one and to Paris when he was three, and Patrice grew up in modest circumstances in the suburb of Les Ulis. Like so many players who picked up the game on the streets, he had strong ball skills; his favorite footballer was the dazzling Brazilian striker Romário. Patrice was flashy enough to get a pro contract at 17 but not so flashy that a team above Italy's third division would want him.
After signing with Marsala as a striker Evra almost didn't make it as far as training camp. At the time he spoke no Italian, and when he was unable to figure out which train to transfer to in Milan, he broke down in the station. In tears and resigned to sleeping on the floor, he was approached by a stranger from Senegal who gave him a place to crash for the night and put him on the proper train in the morning. Then, with the help of a group of nuns, Evra figured out which station was his destination.
His time in Italy was a mixed bag. As a striker and left winger he thrived at Marsala (supporters nicknamed him the Black Gazelle), but he struggled when he moved up a division to join Monza. Fed up with life in the Boot, he engineered a move back to France, with second-division Nice in 2000. It was there that his career took off, initially through no doing of his own.
Late in Evra's sixth game, against Laval in the 2001--02 Ligue 2 opener, Nice's left back was carted off with an injury. Evra was asked to drop back from his wing spot and finish out the game as a fullback. He did so, fully expecting to be back in the attack the following week. But manager Sandro Salvioni was intrigued by what he saw: a 19-year-old whose confidence and skill on the ball lent themselves to defense. He told Evra he was staying at left back, which naturally didn't go over well with a kid who considered himself a scorer. But when presented with his options—left back or nothing—Evra relented.
At that time the role of fullback was shifting away from being strictly defensive anyway. Teams started pushing their flank midfielders farther up the pitch, creating space in front of the fullbacks. When France won the 1998 World Cup with a pair of marauders (Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram) on its backline, it was clear that the position had been transformed, taken over by players who could get into that vacant space. In subsequent years it was common for promising wingers to be shifted to fullback.
So while the move initially bruised Evra's ego, it ultimately allowed him to ascend to the elite level. By 2002 he was playing in Monaco, where he often received text messages from his new pal Prince Albert, and two years later he made his debut with the French national team. He put up a strong showing as Monaco made a run to the final of the 2004 Champions League. In the semis, after absorbing a bone-crunching tackle from Chelsea's Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink that tore a hole in Evra's sock, not to mention his leg, Evra refused to come off (he would get nine stitches after the game), a show of resilience that attracted the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager persuaded Monaco to sell Evra in January 2006.
Fergie wasted little time in showing off his new man, sending him out to start in the Manchester derby four days after his signing. It was at this point that Evra's rocketlike ascension stalled. He was removed at halftime with Manchester City leading 2--0. He'd taken an accidental stud to the face, but the general consensus was that the injury gave Ferguson an excuse to take an overmatched player off the pitch without embarrassing him. Puns along the line of WORST DEBUT EVRA were all over the papers, while the austere Times of London put it simply: NEW BOY SUFFERS NIGHTMARE DEBUT.
The rest of Evra's first season in England was uneven. Worse, he wouldn't be participating in the World Cup in Germany. Following another leg injury, in 2005, he had been dropped from the national team. "It hurt me seeing my teammates on TV," he said. "I said to myself, Pat, this year it's make-or-break."