This article was first published in the 2018 UEFA Europa League final programme. Buy the programme here to read the original article.
Growing up in Saint-Genis-Laval in the south of Lyon, playing for Olympique Lyonnais was always Éric Abidal’s dream. Even if his dad did support arch-rivals AS Saint-Étienne. He credits his time at the Stade de Gerland for opening the door to the French national team and later the chance to play for one of the greatest club sides of all time, Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona. At the Camp Nou, he is remembered for his courage in overcoming a liver tumour, and his remarkable recovery to play in Barça’s 2011 UEFA Champions League triumph. Abidal, 38, tells his inspirational story with a smile on his face.
It was a passion of mine, passed down to me by my father who played the game in the lower leagues. He took me to watch Lyon and St-Étienne matches, because they weren’t far from our house. I made the most of those moments in terms of the atmosphere at the grounds. Youngsters always want to do what professionals do. The next day I would grab a ball and try the same tricks.
It was a mix of both. My father supported Les Verts and I supported Olympique Lyonnais. It was tricky, but there was always a good atmosphere at home. It was always fantastic for my brother and me as children to go to either the Stade Gerland or Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
I used to follow Eugène Kabongo closely. I was a striker, but I liked defenders. At Lyon, it was Jean-Luc Sassus. I used to look at the statistics closely and he was the fastest player in the league. Back then, my technique wasn’t my strength, but I was fast.
Every journey is different, but when you start out as a professional, you always have that desire and drive to play in your home city in front of your family and friends. I started in 2000 and signed for Lyon in 2004. Four years of hard work had paid off and I then spent three wonderful years at Olympique Lyonnais.
He was very happy to come to watch games at the Stade Gerland. As I said, he was a St-Étienne fan, and one day he went to the Geoffroy-Guichard shop to buy a football shirt. He said, “I’d like a shirt with my name on the back.” They asked for his name and he said “Abidal.” The person working there said, “But Abidal doesn’t play for us.” He said, “I know, but I just want my name on the kit.” He was asked to show ID. They wouldn’t do it for him otherwise!
I think my time coincided with the club’s best generation of players. The club won the league seven times in a row and aimed to achieve success in the Champions League. My three fantastic years there helped me reach a new level, particularly on the international stage with Les Bleus. I got to experience the demands that this job requires at the top.
You enjoyed so much success at Lyon. Is there a moment which stands out? The most important one for me remains the first league title in 2005. It’s not easy to win trophies, and on top of that I was playing for my club, which had already won the league three times in a row.
"EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED BEFORE GAVE ME EVEN MORE STRENGTH AND EVEN MORE FOCUS."
It’s extraordinary. It was the logical next step from the president [Jean-Michel Aulas]. It took him time to build a big club, having taken over when Lyon were in the second division. He got the team into the top flight and always had them competing near the top and playing in big competitions such as the Champions League, but something was lacking that could make the club even bigger. Now he’s very happy and proud to have this stadium, which I think is the best in France.
He’s demanding of himself and his players. He’s very focused on small details when it comes to collective tactics. Being one second or two metres out can put the whole tactical plan – which involves pressing – in danger. He has so much determination on a daily basis and I think he’s changed football.
It’s rare to see a dressing room with players who are both respected the world over and also among the biggest stars in football. Trying to create that mix and maintain that humility means that at least 80% of the hard work comes down to the coach. I went there in 2007, Pep took over in 2008 and that recipe still works today.
I didn’t play in the 2009 final, but I can look back on it as a whole. I remember the daily work we put in throughout the season to reach our objective. Obviously, it was a difficult final, against Manchester United once again. We were stuck with them at that time. 2011 was a special year for the club because it’s not an easy thing to win the Champions League. On a personal level, my season was troubled by a small health problem, an illness to be specific, but that’s part of life. It helped the team be more united, and it gave the squad strength in pursuit of their objective. I was very happy that I could take part in the game as I had missed the 2009 final.
No, I didn’t know about it at all. It was a surprise because he was the club captain. A couple of days after the final, he explained to me that the idea had come to him when he was speaking to his best friend. Then he went on to talk to the coach about it and to the other captains of the squad. It was initially a personal decision by Carles which turned into a collective decision afterwards. It stands out as an unforgettable moment for me. I’m still proud of it today and so are my parents. My father was passionate about football, so he’d already seen many great players lift this trophy. I don’t, and will never, consider myself a great player, but I did lift this trophy, and it’s an unforgettable moment for me.
My personal objective was to return to the team before the end of the season; it was the only thing I thought about after the surgery. Obviously, I was aiming at recovering well – I wanted to take my time – but I didn’t want my illness to cause my retirement. It was a daily effort. You might think that I was out for a short period; it felt very long to me, even if it was only two and a half months. When you can’t walk or run, you feel something major has been lost from your daily routine.
I was focused on the present moment and thinking I’d have to give my best on the pitch. Everything that had happened before gave me even more strength and even more focus. The message I told myself was: “Listen, you have come a long way. Enjoy the moment, and starting from here, things will all be great.”
The small bump in the road I had to get through gave more strength to the team. I remember coming back in [the second leg of] the semi-final against Real Madrid, and I could already feel it. I played two and a half minutes in total, but they were the most intense two and a half minutes of my career. I was back at the Camp Nou after my illness. Everyone was waiting for that moment. The players expressed their happiness at the end of the game by lifting me up and throwing me in the air. After that, when you have the opportunity to play in a final, you always play to win.
It’s not just the fact that it’s in Lyon. I was lucky enough to play football at a high level both with my club and the national team. I can only thank UEFA for all the effort they’ve been putting in for the good of football. As for me, I take pride in representing UEFA, whether it’s for the Europa League or other competitions. I’m giving back to society what society gave to me for several years. I’m an ambassador, yes, but it feels special to me as the final will be played in Lyon, and as a Lyonnais I’ll take even more pride in being able to represent my home city.