Ryan Giggs: In the land of my fathers

Ryan Giggs is coming up against Third World poverty first hand for the first time and he is shocked. “You think this can’t be happening, this can’t exist. You hear about it, but then you see it and you think, ‘How can they be living like that?’ I’ve seen things that beggar belief. You think, ‘That’s what’ll stick in my mind,’ and then you see something else and that has a massive effect on you.” Has it upset him? “Yeah. Yeah. It has, yeah.”
The Manchester United veteran is speaking to me in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser bouncing over the rutted tracks of up-country Sierra Leone. With the Premiership halted to accommodate international matches, Sir Alex Ferguson has given his Welsh star permission to make the three-day visit to West Africa as part of the player’s role as a Unicef ambassador. He chose Sierra Leone for this, his first extended field trip, partly because his father’s parents (or possibly their parents, he isn’t sure) were born here, prior to emigrating to Giggs’s native Cardiff. “I don’t know if I’ve still got family here. It’s not something I’ve tracked down,” he says. “I probably will do.”
It’s a little-known fact that Giggs is mixed race: his dad, Danny Wilson, a famous rugby player in his day, Union in Wales then League in Manchester, is black. “I don’t go around saying I’m black, never felt the need to. People who know I’m mixed race just know; people who don’t know, you have to explain and they look at you and go, ‘How can you be?’ My dad’s black, simple as that. I’m comfortable with who I am. I get asked about it, it’s difficult for people to get their heads round because I don’t look black, whereas my brother does.”
Giggs inherited his principal athletic assets, balance and speed, from his father, but the rest of his paternal legacy is less welcome. His parents divorced acrimoniously when he was a child, and he reverted to his mum’s name. He hasn’t seen his father for four years. “Maybe things will change. You mellow with age.”
A listener, not a talker
Giggs is a quiet, reserved character. At 17, when David Beckham was still merely a promising youngster, he was already a pin-up. As a young man, he says, he was like almost every other young man who comes by wealth and fame, buying cars and clothes, getting into a few scrapes. But his heart wasn’t really in it. On the road, over dinner, although he joins in the banter, he’s a listener rather than a talker, not given to displays of emotion.
Yet the sheer primitiveness of what he has seen in the hospitals and homes of rural Africa has got to him, his empathy heightened, perhaps, by the knowledge that but for a quirk of history, he could be living right here. “You see kids walking around with hardly anything, a family of five sleeping in the same room, a health centre where we saw the table where the women give birth. It was so basic, it was unbelievable. A real eye-opener. I’ve been at the birth of both my children [Libby, 6; Zach, 3]; obviously it was worlds apart.
The women didn’t have any privacy and if it’s your first child it’s a traumatic time.”
After the first day in the countryside we spoke back in Giggs’s hotel in the hills above Freetown, the capital. “Last night I tried to tell my wife on the phone what I’d seen yesterday and it was hard. It’s difficult to explain.” When he returns to Manchester, he wants to try to retain the sense of perspective the trip has given him. “Back home, when I’m moaning about stupid things I can always refer to what I’ve seen here and get on with it. I’ll try to keep that mindset, but it’s hard because of the lifestyle we lead, especially being a footballer where everything is done for you.”
It’s not as if he hasn’t seen deprivation before. Unicef has been arranging similar visits for Manchester United for a decade. “We’ve done various trips on pre-season tours – an orphanage in Bangkok, China, Malaysia, men with Aids in Soweto – but it’s only for two or three hours. We get there and we have to leave. The players’ll go to different places and come back and say, ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve seen today, it’s unbelievable.’ Certain players will talk about it, but then that’ll be it, not because it didn’t have an impact but because they’re not comfortable in the limelight. And then certain players will go, ‘Right. I want to do something.’”
Giggs is of the latter variety. When his extraordinary one-club career (most appearances for Man Utd, most Premier League goals for Man Utd, most league titles of any British footballer ever) is finally over, he wants to do more work with Unicef. “I can’t just play golf for the next 40 years,” he says. “I’m not an extrovert, but I’ve always felt relatively comfortable doing this stuff and talking to the press. Ever since I’ve been in the first team I’ve done stuff for local charities. Bryan Robson got me involved raising money for a scanner, and 15 years on, I tried to raise money for the scanner replacing his scanner.”
Giggs has come to Sierra Leone specifically to try to raise awareness about HIV/Aids. By the standards of much of sub-Saharan Africa, infection rates are low here – at 1.7 per cent, as opposed to, for instance, Botswana, at 24 per cent. Possibly the deplorable roads – poverty in Sierra Leone is extreme even in the African context, the country is seventh from bottom worldwide on the Human Poverty Index – have limited the spread of the disease. Possibly one beneficial consequence of the gruesome civil war of 1991-2002 was that it restricted contact with the wider continent.
The usual myths around the disease prevail: the primary one being that it does not exist. Social shame prevents deaths being ascribed to the disease, so local people can reasonably claim they do not know of anyone who has died from it. The subject is shrouded in ignorance, shame and, mostly, fear. One common view is that Aids is a conspiracy invented by “the Americans” to stop Africans having children.
Unicef and the Sierra Leonean government are campaigning to dispel such myths. Driving through the countryside, subsistence plots of yam and rice dotted around, posters pop up at the side of the road. “I am Mr Condom. Get me, use me. I will defend you from HIV and Aids.” “Get your free test here.” And the more basic “Wrap your tool!” We stop by a billboard attached to a rusty stanchion in a village, chickens pecking the dirt, goats scratching around, barefoot kids everywhere. The billboard shows Giggs, plus team-mates Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, alongside the message “Know your HIV status and live a healthy life”.
Causing a riot
Giggs is shown around a health centre serving the village of Binkolo and its environs, about 5,000 people. It’s a rudimentary building: breeze blocks; tin roof; concrete floor; run by nurse Joseph Bangura, a dedicated man who hasn’t had a holiday in five years. Giggs administers a polio vaccine to a baby born hours earlier. It’s named “Giggs”. The mother, Marion Fornah, is 22. This is her third child. The first one died. This is normal in a country where under-five mortality is one in four and life expectancy at birth is 41. In Sierra Leone, as in the Premier League, Ryan Giggs, at 35, is an old man.
Next stop is a school where a short play dramatises the need for HIV testing, making fun of the prevalent macho stereotypes. Giggs chuckles along. Afterwards, during the regular midday downpour, he plays football with a girls’ team. They’re barefoot. “Decent players actually, well organised, good team spirit.”
The team manager, Mohammed Bangura, resplendent in an Arsenal shirt, says, “I’m so proud to meet Ryan Giggs, so happy.” Bangura’s right leg is missing below the knee: as a youngster, he was shot by the rebels.
There is no doubting the scale of Giggs’s celebrity here. Even in the deepest countryside, a rickety roadside bar is advertising coverage of that night’s Man City vs Aston Villa Premier League clash. British football is avidly followed. Manchester United vie with Barcelona as the most popular jersey. One HIV co-ordinator, Mariama Conteh, literally jumps up and down with excitement in Giggs’s presence.
In Freetown itself, when it is discovered Giggs is in one hospital, the car park fills in minutes with hundreds of chanting fans, people hanging off walls and trees for a better view, so strong in number and intensity that their presence and volume becomes mildly threatening, sufficient for the footballer to be hustled away by his UN minders. When David Beckham, also a Unicef ambassador, came last year, he had to be passed over the heads of the crowd to reach his car.
Our convoy stops a few miles out of town to debrief. Giggs jokes about his fearsome boss seeing the incident on the news (ITN is filming the visit). “See the news last night?” he says, impersonating Ferguson’s gritty Glaswegian. “No, gaffer, what was on?” “You were in a riot in Sierra Leone.” Everyone giggles like schoolboys, imagining Ferguson’s reaction. “Actually,” Giggs concludes, “the news is on past his bedtime.”
In any case, having played so many times at Elland Road, Upton Park, Anfield, Giggs is used to crowds many times larger than this one, hostile crowds, not just young men keen to meet their hero. He remembers one game against Rangers at Ibrox. “We went on the pitch, even the directors’ box were making w***** signs at us… Everyone hates us,” he says matter-of-factly. “Want to beat us, don’t they?”
I put it to him he’s a player opposing fans tend to respect. “Well, you say that, but when I go to take a corner it doesn’t feel like that.
It’s all ‘You Welsh sheep-shagger’, ‘You’re s***’, ‘Player of the year? You’re having a laugh.’ The last one was great, very funny. At Middlesbrough last season, they sang it, then I scored a minute later, gave them a wave. Brilliant.”
As we sat in one meeting after another, Giggs was a picture of concentration, taking in statistics and stories from health workers and young mothers living with HIV, aware that these women, abandoned by their men once they got “sick-sick”, didn’t care about football, they cared about survival. “I probably should have been ready for it but I wasn’t,” he admits. “People asking, ‘What are you going to do to help us? Why are you here?’”
As it was, Giggs made a dignified speech, off the cuff. “Maybe in schools when they’re educating about HIV and maybe the pupils don’t listen, maybe they’ll listen to me because they see me playing for Manchester United on TV. Maybe I can inspire people as you have inspired me.” I get the impression of a man for whom being the centre of attention does not come naturally, but who has learnt how to function in the goldfish bowl in which he has grown up.
Whatever the rewards, the pressure of such fame is intense. At Heathrow on the way home, 7am after an overnight flight, transferring to the Manchester shuttle and straight into training, other passengers recognised him, pressed forward, wanting pictures, autographs, banter, something. Giggs was guarded, polite, patient. “No problem,” he kept repeating, smiling tightly. No wonder he doesn’t go out much at home.
“My life is boring, boring, boring,” he says. “It has to be. Going home and chilling out on the settee is boring. But I’ve come to realise sticking my feet up for two hours has a massive effect. It’s not because I’m lazy, it’s because I need to. After a game, I’m knackered, for one or two days.” In the close season, he says, he’s full of energy, awake at 6am, can’t sit down. As a younger man, he’d head from training into town to go shopping. “Now it’s totally different, feet up, watching the telly.” He’s into boxed sets – The Sopranos, 24, Lost – the usual suspects.
So, why is he here, in Sierra Leone? Born in 1973 (he turns 36 tomorrow), Giggs cites the impact of Live Aid on him as a child. “I grew up in the Eighties. I remember the pictures of the famine, it affected everyone my age. I remember my mum saying, ‘There are starving children in the world, you should be grateful for what you’ve got.’ My daughter’s getting to the stage where she asks questions all the time. She was packing her dolls, saying, ‘Take this for the little girls there. Next time you go to Africa, Daddy, I want to come.’”
As a parent, Giggs admits, “I am relatively old school. You want to give your children everything, but in the long run it’s not good to do that. Every day at the moment it’s, ‘I want to get my ears pierced, so-and-so’s got their ears pierced.’ So she wears clip-ons and says, ‘They’re not real, Daddy.’ I say, ‘Too right they’re not real.’” For those who despair of the antics of the modern footballer, Ryan Giggs is a useful antidote. He’s been through the cars and clubbing phase and emerged as a fully functioning grown-up, not only a model pro, but a man with an awareness of his own good fortune and a desire to use it to help others.
There’s no reason other than social conscience – not money, not fame, not ego – for Giggs to be dripping sweat in the African bush when he could have his feet up at his mansion in Worsley, north Manchester. Or running his kids to school in the Bentley. He certainly isn’t doing it for the media exposure. When he married Stacey Cooke, his long-term partner and the mother of his children, two years ago, the occasion remained private, a mere nine guests, none of them from OK! magazine. “We earn enough from football and sponsorships,” Giggs said at the time. “Why do you need any more?” Prior to the ceremony on the Friday, Giggs went to training as usual.
Ferociously competitive
Actually there is one reason, related to social conscience but distinct from it: self-improvement. There has always been the odd footballer who was different: arty, or eccentric, or academically more gifted than the norm – Graeme Le Saux, David James, Giggs’s former team-mates Brian McClair and Eric Cantona. Giggs isn’t really like them. His cultural tastes are mainstream. His Paul Smith manbag is slung over his shoulder. He likes golf, sports autobiographies and going to Spain on holiday.
And yet, spending two days with him, I got the sense of a man who, having lived in the closeted, cosseted, conservative world of the footballing superstar since he was a teenager, is keen to broaden his horizons. He has regrets, he says, about his lack of formal education. “I was in the top sets at school till 11 or 12. Then football and girls took over. I wanted to play football, that was my passion.” He now wishes he had applied himself more in the classroom.
He finds it frustrating, he says, to be superficially so well-travelled and yet to have seen so little – beyond airports, hotels, changing rooms, football stadiums – of all the places he’s been. In Portland, Oregon, he remembers wistfully, “It was great. We could go anywhere. Most places, in Asia, in South Africa, Europe, we can’t leave the hotel.”
“Sitting on a plane, you read about where you’re going, the buildings that are there. You’re in Istanbul, you learn about the Blue Mosque. If ever there’s a quiz, I say, ‘Right, capital cities, I’ll beat anyone,’ cos I’ve been to most of them.’”
That remark is a rare glimpse of what must be a ferociously competitive character. His longevity, 850-plus games over 18 seasons and counting, at such a high level is, after all, miraculous. He’s looked after his body. His last taste of alcohol, for instance, was a glass of wine on holiday in June. He likes butter, he says, but “after a slice of buttered toast I feel less sharp mentally”, so he doesn’t have it very often. He’s also been lucky with injuries, and, being Welsh, he has avoided the stresses of international tournaments every other summer.
Mostly, however, he puts his durability down to mental strength, an ability to find new ways to motivate himself. “Played at Tottenham last year, I had a poor game. You’re back where you had a poor game: let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I like to learn. I’m learning Spanish. Been doing it for 18 months, the teacher comes to the house on a Friday afternoon, two hours, it’s hard.” Why’s he learning Spanish? “I always wanted to learn a language.” No shock transfer news coming up then? “No. Always wanted to stay at United. Stadium’s full every game, new challenge every season, retaining the title, regaining the title, keeping your place.”
And this work with Unicef, that’s another challenge, a worthy one. Eleven league titles, it’s worth reiterating, more than any player in history. Who says nice guys don’t finish first?