So cynical and self-regarding have many aspects of football culture
become that it takes you aback when the tattooed millionaire you
thought you had stereotyped reveals a vulnerable and complex character.
Alex Song, the muscular midfielder you will see taking the fight to
Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, is not the kind of man you might
expect.This has been Song’s season. Before the transfer window closed,
Arsène Wenger was considering bringing Patrick Vieira back to Arsenal
but his faith in Song’s ability to play in the defensive midfield role
has been more than justified. As acknowledgement of his exceptional
progress, Arsenal have given Song a new contract believed to take him
through to 2015. At 22 he is married with two sons and has developed
into one of the most important players in one of the most exciting club
teams in the world. But something still is not right. ”My eldest son is
three, the same age I was when I lost my father,” he explains. “When he
comes home from school and he’s saying ‘daddy come play with me’, it
makes me think.”Sometimes I just sit on my sofa at home and think ‘I
just miss something, I miss something’.
Just talking to you now, I want to cry.”
1½ hours with the children on the wards of Great Ormond Street Hospital
so his emotions are raw and this is obviously difficult territory for
him. The death of his father and the absence he felt acutely in his
childhood have clearly been the shaping force in his life.
“I did not have the chance to know my dad – it was very, very difficult
for me. When I was at school I would see my friends getting picked up
by their dads at school I did not have anybody.
That is why, when I was just eight years old, I decided I just wanted
to be a dad, to have my family close. I want to have the love I did not
have when I was young.
When I had my first one [aged 19] I gave thanks to God because I just
wanted to have a family. I have two kids and I try to give everything
to them, every day.” He was brought up by his devoted, but strict
mother, Catrine, with some help and guidance from his uncle Rigobert,
the former Liverpool and West Ham defender.
“He helped a lot, a lot,” he said. “It was not easy for me, but he was
there. I’m happy with my life today. Maybe if my dad is here now, he is
”I have my sons, I have my wife, I have a good life, I play football, I
love my job. If I had my dad with me to enjoy the life with me, it
would be perfect.”
Song left Douala in Cameroon when he was eight and can only recall
fragmented images and sensations of his childhood in Africa – playing
in the street with his friends, the taste of the food. Initially he
moved with his mother to Les Lilas, in the banlieues of Paris.
Cameroon is a francophone country but Song’s thick accent meant he
struggled to adapt to French life for the first six months. Eventually,
after his cousin pleaded his case, Song’s mother relented and let Song
start playing football for the local club. At 12 years old, his life
was about to change all over again.
Needing a bigger flat – the family were five to one room – they moved
to Saint Ouen in Paris, where Song could see the pitch of local club
Red Star from the window of his tower block.
He talked his way into a trial, hoping just to make friends, but the
club were soon writing to the French Football Federation to get special
permission to promote him up the year groups. Red Star prides itself on
nurturing talent: the year before, Abou Diaby had been playing for the
After a youth tournament game with Parma he was spotted by scouts for
the Corsican club, Bastia. “After I got home from the game someone just
rang me that night to say “Do you want to come to Bastia?”
“I said yes, I don’t know why! Why not? My mum of course said “no” –
she knew that when I lost my dad it was very difficult for me.
“To go to Corsica was a very big change and I was just 13. My mum told
the manager: life is not easy for him because he has lost his dad, I
would like to protect him. But, I don’t know why, I had this good
feeling with the manager, so I went.”
That manager was Francois Ciccolini who served as a surrogate father to
Song in Corsica, and as he was promoted up the ranks of youth team
coaches to the first team, he took Song with him.
No gifted player emerging through a French youth system goes unnoticed
at Arsenal. Arsène Wenger invited him for a trial at their pre-season
training camp in Austria in the summer of 2005, signed him on loan for
a year before making the £1 million deal permanent in the summer of
It was another transition in Song’s life and another period of
protracted loneliness as he lived in a hotel and struggled to learn
The following year though, it all came together, as Song’s childhood
dream of having a family of his own was realised. “When I was 18 as my
wife came to stay,” he said.
“That’s why, at 19, when I had my first son, my life is changed. Now I
have the family I want to give everything. I worked for a long time and
I want to give everything.”