Speaking in an extensive exclusive interview with France Football, Olympique de Marseille midfielder Abou Diaby talked extensively about the current status of his career and notably his longstanding injury history.
Do you know who Chuck Roland is?
It does not ring a bell.
He is the hero in a film called Castaway with Tom Hanks…
I do not know him at all.
With your numerous injuries, being a castaway in a team sport like football, is that your reality?
When you are injured for a long period of time, you are often left on the sidelines away from the group. You feel a bit alone. But, when they accumulate, the period becomes longer and longer.
Have you accepted to be alone?
When you come to training in the morning, what you enjoy is to have the ball at your feet, to be with your friends on the pitch, to share great moments together, but also the most difficult ones. To be looking from the outside in on everything has isolated me.
Have you sometimes thought to yourself that you are actually not playing the same sport as them?
A football club exists to play football. To be in recovery, in rehabilitation, that is not football. It is part of the job, so I do it to 1000%. I remember days with an enormous amount of work, much more than what my teammates on the pitch had to do. I was so far behind that I had to work a lot more, for, sometimes, so little (when he relapsed).
At certain points, you broke from the group to go and rehabilitate elsewhere…
Paradoxically, that helped me to concentrate better on my work, my problems. It was a sort of escape.
Do the club doctors and physios become team-mates?
You could say that. They have always been there for me, I will never be able to thank them enough for that.
Have you ever felt that they are exasperated by your situation?
Sometimes, yes, but never abnegation. They have empathy for me. But I can understand them, it has so be so recurrent in terms of the time that has gone by.
Injury after injury, each time you come back, are you constantly worried about relapsing?
Sometimes, yes. When it began to accumulate, I was apprehensive. Especially when you see that your reactions are worse, that you are going a little less quickly. You have the impression that you are more greatly exposed to danger. It is all psychological. Only by playing matches does the apprehension dissipate.
Does going to watch your team play a match from the stands torment you?
At Arsenal, there was a moment where I couldn’t take it anymore. It was hard not to be able deal with it. I was always being asked the same question: “When are you coming back?” But I never became depressed.
In the mornings, when you woke up and the alarm went for another session, have you ever just said to yourself: “No, I am not going.”
That has never happened to me. I do not know if I can claim to be proud of it… but I do things to the maximum.
When was the first injury you ever suffered, whether it was in the playground or during training?
When I was small, I had the same problems that everybody else had, like growth problems. I had a few niggles when I was with INF Clairefontaine (2002-2004), but no more than anybody else. The first big injury, the one that had the greatest impact, was my ankle when I was 19, with Arsenal.
Without this Dan Smith tackle in May 2006, would your career have been different?
Certainly. It brought about other muscle problems that prevented my progression. Because otherwise, honestly, I think I have always had a healthy lifestyle.
Do you remember the hours that followed that particular incident?
It was quite unique. The match was in Sunderland, and I was driven by car to London to have an operation. It was a four hour journey, but I was not supposed to move, I was on pills. The club doctor was with me. I was not crying, but I was very angry.
I felt that the tackle had been made on purpose even though there was less than a minute of time left. I pushed the ball forward, but he comes from behind. And when someone is purposefully coming to hurt you, you know it, you can feel it. At hospital, in the beginning, I was alone until my mother came to join me. I was so gone, in pain.
Were you made aware of the seriousness of your injury?
Yes, the doctors made me understand that I had lost an enormous amount of mobility in my right ankle. When you think that our entire body weight is piled on to our feet…
Does the feeling of frustration typify your career?
To define me, I would not use this word first. There has been a lot if it, yes that is true. But the most important thing is to know how to deal with that frustration. With maturity, I look at things with greater hindsight. When I was younger, I had the tendency to react to what had happened to me and to draw on my frustrations. But that never lasted for long.
Whatever happens in life, what is important is to advance. That is what I have been taught. And that is what has allowed to me to overcome challenges.
Have you counted your number of injuries?
Where does this mentality come from?
From what my parents taught me. Since growing up in the Paris suburbs, a school for life if you like, I have always been taught to stay dignified, whether or not things go my way. To persevere, advance or find a way out. I am a muslim, faith plays a very important role.
What has this faith helped you with?
It allows me to take a step back from events in life, to continue to progress and to remain optimistic. That is essential. Faith has rounded off the education that my parents gave me.
Have you already tried unconventional methods, like sophrology or visiting a witch doctor?
My belief in God is sufficient.
Talk to us about the importance of your mother…
She is my model in life. I have always seen courage in her, determination. She is the cornerstone of my family. She reassured me when things were going badly. The fact that she is no longer with us… it is a part of my life that has gone. I am struggling to find words, that is how big this is. It makes me even stronger.
Your friends, your real ones, have you been able to count on them?
In life, it is a bit like that, yes. Honestly, my friends, I can count on the fingers of just one hand, they were there yesterday, they are still here today. As ever, I know who is who.
In the Daily Mail last September, you said on the subject of public opinion and the media: “They do not know how much time I give each day of my life to try to come back.”
People do not measure the efforts made on a daily basis. They only see the tip of the iceberg. They do not know just how difficult it is to come back from an injury. To be without fail in the infirmary, to make such great efforts only to relapse.
They do not know that I left home for Clairefontaine at the age of 13 and that, right up until now, there has been an enormous amount of sacrifices made.
Do people’s opinions matter?
No. If you live worrying about what people think of you, you are no longer living at all. Certain comments might have annoyed me, because they sometimes affect people I care about. But for me, no. I am not going to say that I am impenetrable, but the dogs bark and the caravan goes by (French saying: life goes on).
You must have had to develop incredible self-control?
It comes back to my education. Whether it was my mother or my father, sometimes I wonder if they didn’t actually know what was going to happen in my life. Because at the end of the day, to go through all that I have been through, I rely on my values. They take me through each day.
What was your reaction when you were labelled the “Man of Glass”?
That does not make me laugh. We are in a democracy, people are allowed to say what they want, but there are limits. I didn’t like it.
Others believe that at the end of the day all you are really looking to do is get money in the bank…
That is just total villainy. If I was concerned with money, I would have stopped a long time ago. Why would I continue to put myself through this? It is because above all I have values. I think that people say: “He is there, he doesn’t care, he is earning money, everything is going well.” But no! They should come and see what I do on a daily basis, and they will see that it is not easy at all.
Do you already feel like an unemployed person?
What makes dignity in a man is work. That is what people do not understand. Today, it has nothing to do with money. I am not going to lie and say that the idea of stopping has not crossed my mind. But above all this is a question of dignity. Behind my relative calm, I am someone who cannot sit around doing nothing. I need to work.
When did you want to stop your career?
After my ACL injury (March 2013). In the heat of the moment, my reaction was: “Wow, my cruciate ligament, that is it, I will recover, and then I will stop.” 48 hours later, it was more a case of: “Ok, now get back to work.”
An English site counted that you had 42 injuries in nine years at Arsenal. I struggle to understand how you manage to keep fighting…
I understand people who ask that question. The ACL injury, that took a lot of time. That period was difficult because I lost my mother at that time. I spent 8 or 9 months working to come back, but I was so happy. During my recovery, I spent more time with her than ever before. As if things don’t happen for a reason. Everything that I learnt during that period will serve right up until the end of my life.
Did you think about retiring when you left Arsenal on a free transfer in 2015?
No, not at all.
Was this another difficult scenario for you to accept (being released by Arsenal)?
You have to understand it. I had not played for a while. It was hard because I did not want things to end that way. I wanted to confirm my potential, to serve the club. It was a mixture of sadness and rage. But I cannot reproach myself for not doing everything in my power to come back.
Would it upset you if, one day, you were to be put in a category as one of the most ruined best potential careers?
Yes, that is the story of my life, I cannot do much about that. Despite all that, I have been enormously lucky. Because at the age of 19, everything could have ended there. Today, at the age of 30, I feel lucky. I often look at examples of players who have had to end their careers as a result of injuries.
Who are you thinking about?
Dean Ashton. I saw his interview live when he was saying that at the age of 26 he ended his career as a result of an ankle injury. I also think about Fabrice Muamba. He half died on the pitch. Today, for his health, it is better that he stopped. But if he could make it back on the pitch, he would have done it. Look at Abidal! He is strong! I also see Djibril Cissé who, recently, still wanted to come back. For me, they are examples.
Does someone like Michael Jordan inspire you?
I have his book. He inspires me a lot. The culture of winning, the determination, this desire to overcome… Values that you cannot monopolise in order to try to apply them.
Michael Jordan’s career high was at the beginning of the 90s. What about for you?
That is the season when you played the most matches. How was it different?
At the end of the 2008-09 season, I said to my brother: “I am missing something.” I needed to improve my physical performances, so I could play the entire season. In the summer of 2009, I met Renaud Longuèvre. I told him that I was ready to only take 6 days of holiday so that I could work towards the next season. I wanted to give myself a real head-start physically and it worked! I got injured less, I recovered quicker. I was playing one match, then two, then three, then four.
At the end of the season, my body wasn’t causing me any problems at all. It was magnificent! At the end of it, I had a discussion with Arsène Wenger who asked me: “Are you ready to go to the next level?” I said to him that that was my ultimate goal. The 2010-11 season started well. I came on against Bolton and then I got tackled… It ruined my entire season and brought up other problems: I started having difficulties with my hamstrings, which had never happened before!
Without the injuries, just how far would you have gone?
I have no limits. Once upon a time, people would ask me about the Ballon D’Or. I told them I dreamt about it. I have always had big ambitions, like to become one of the best in my position. I think that I had the potential to achieve that. I am not saying it pretentiously, but some people in life are ambitious, others aren’t.
Your career can be summarised in two tackles, one against Sunderland in 2006 and one against Bolton in 2010, no?
You can summarise it like that. It was my destiny, there is nothing I can do about it.
What is your biggest footballing regret?
There is no particular event. EURO 2012, the 2014 World Cup… in a career, those are extremely important markers. I say to myself: “You could have done that.”
At the age of 30, how much longer do you want to be playing for?
For as long as possible. As long as I still think it is possible, I will play that card 1000%. It will be me and my determination, and what I want to do.
What would make you stop?
That is a good question.
A doctor who tells you to stop?
Yes, there you go, if I am told: “Listen, there is no point anymore.” I will know to listen to those people. I have loads of projects. There are many things I could do.
I created my foundation. Humanitarian work interests me too. For the Southern countries but also in the Paris region where I preside over an association that works with youngsters. Projects interest me, even if they are not the only thing that does.
And in football?
Why not, but later on. If I stop, I do not think that I can stay in football immediately after.
Are you worried that you will physically you will be affected for the rest of your existence?
I have thought about that. It is true that my body has suffered. I hope that, in 20 years, it will not bring about too many problems.