Avoiding the bright lights and casinos of Monaco at the start of his career paid dividends for FC Barcelona's Éric Abidal, who said: "If I wanted to fill my leisure time I went for a walk."
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FC Barcelona defender Éric Abidal started his professional career at AS Monaco FC and ahead of Friday's UEFA Super Cup against FC Porto, he says the lessons he learned in the Principality provided the foundations for the success he has enjoyed since.
Abidal joined Monaco from his local side in Lyon back at the beginning of the last decade. Now he is feted, famous and financially comfortable – a well-loved and valuable member of Barcelona's UEFA Champions League winning team. At Monaco, his gaze never was diverted by the glitz and the gloss around him, and lessons were learned at Monaco's La Turbie training ground which remain important to him to this day.
"It was an enormous leap forward in my life and career when I signed for Monaco back in 2000," the 31-year-old Frenchman says ahead of his return to the Stade Louis II. "I had only ever lived and played in my little, quiet neighbourhood and this was my first professional contract. You arrive in Monte Carlo and, of course, at first it is a big impact that there are superb cars and plush hotels and the spectacular life as I would call it. There is the Prince and the royal family, the fiestas, all kinds of spectacle to distract you.
"It really could have been pretty tricky, but I had this absolute determination that I was there only to work and work really hard. My view was that if I worked hard and rested properly and listened to what I was being told then the other things in life might follow on later. I didn't really have any interest in the glossy things which surrounded us."
It was a relatively successful era at a club which over the previous years, particularly under Arsène Wenger and Jean Tigana, had enjoyed a high domestic and international profile. In fact when a young Abidal joined Monaco in 2000 they were reigning French champions.
"There was so much more to learn then," he recalled. "Claude Puel was our coach [and went on to train Abidal at his next club LOSC Lille Métropole] and that was a good education. I had only ever met or worked with amateur coaches until that point and when you meet a guy like that, and his staff, you have to pay total, total attention. They are going to show you everything which will make your career successful if you apply it so we knew this was an important part of our development. The key thing they were teaching us was how to win matches. You are suddenly paid to do that – winning becomes far more important.
"It is a whole new ball game on tactics, physical work and the idea that we were there to do things right, first time every time and to win trophies if possible. I recall that one big change was that they taught us our bodies were athletic machines and unless we treated them properly then they wouldn't do our jobs properly for us."
Abidal the man was developing too. Extremely popular for his calm friendly demeanour at Barcelona, he is at the absolute peak of his career right now, and like some senior footballers, especially those who are repeat champions, there are things about Abidal – dignity, seriousness, honesty and loyalty – which add to his worth beyond how he actually plays the game. Perhaps moving to Monte Carlo at a young age helped him focus, immediately, on what was and was not important to him.
"Perhaps some with a different background might have found it harder not to get involved in the good life of casinos and smart cars. But everyone chooses his own values and his own behaviour. I used to have a favourite haunt which was simply a 24-hour salad restaurant at the foot of the road leading up to the palace. My apartment was actually down by the stadium where we will play the Super Cup and around there, as compared to the heart of Monte Carlo, there were ordinary working people and if I wanted to fill my leisure time I went for a walk."
So he is back, not home, but where it began. However, there is not a lot of sentiment involved for Abidal. He is a steely-eyed winner and has been back once already with Barça for a UEFA Super Cup victory over FC Shakhtar Donetsk two years ago. Naturally he wants a repeat experience. "This isn't about me coming back here. It is significant because we have won the Champions League in order to qualify for this and at Barcelona you must win when you have the chance to. Always."
This article is from the official UEFA Super Cup programme. Purchase your copy here.