DAVID BELLION cycles along a Parisian street on a pushbike for lunch without a worry in the world.
The Frenchman — once dubbed the “next Thierry Henry” — has long left his life as a promising footballer behind.
While former Manchester United team-mates Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have retired and become top TV pundits — along with Rio Ferdinand who is also taking up boxing — Bellion has swapped the Beautiful Game for working in an art gallery.
We are scheduled to eat at a small cafe in the trendy Le Marais district.
The waiter tells us there are no free tables but if we come back later they might squeeze us in.
“No problem — we’ll have coffee over the road first,” he politely answers before giving him his mobile phone number to call when there is space.
Two things struck me. First the waiter had no clue he had just turned away an ex-United star who lined up with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and, secondly, Bellion did not play the pompous ‘Do you know who I am?’ card.
We get in after half an hour and Bellion, 34, tells me: “When you’re a Premier League footballer it’s beautiful — but it’s also a golden cage.
“You are very well paid, of course, but cannot just say, ‘I’m off now to do something with my wife’ or ‘I’m going to go here or there’.
“You must train every day and only have a month in the close season away and even then you have to make sure you’re keeping fit. I wouldn’t swap that experience but I’m free now.
“In the bible, it says: ‘You cannot master two slaves.’ You’ll either love one or hate the other. You cannot master for riches or for love.
“If you do something that takes up much of your time, you have less time for other things.
“It was always my dream to play with Ryan Giggs and I achieved that but I had spiritual needs I wanted to fulfil too and I also needed my freedom, otherwise you just have football.
“Players like Cristiano, Wazza, Giggsy and Rio Ferdinand were such stars that it would be difficult for them to go out without photographers following them.
“I never wanted to compromise my freedom and would go to cafes in Manchester to read my magazine. People would want to talk to me about football, football and football.
“Now I can get on my bike, ride along the Seine with my wife, and live a very normal life without anyone talking to me about matches. It’s great.
“In the area of Paris I live, no one cares about it. My friends I grew up with don’t care about it, my mum doesn’t and my dad absolutely doesn’t. We talk about architecture, poetry, art and religion.
“Look, I still like football — but I’m not in love with it as intensely as a typical fan. I’ll be having a nice glass of wine and some food with family or friends and a game might be on in the background.
“I’ll sometimes glance and watch but not with the intense passion of a fan.”
Bellion arrived in England when then Sunderland boss Peter Reid signed him as a highly-rated 18-year-old winger from Cannes before Sir Alex Ferguson paid £3million for him in 2003.
After two full seasons at United and further year out on loan with West Ham and Nice, he was released and moved to Bordeaux where he spent six years before ending his career at amateur Parisian side Red Star.
But Bellion’s sense of perspective about his football career is borne out of deep personal tragedy.
He said: “I had such drama in my life. I had an uncle who hung himself, a step-father who hung himself, another uncle died of an heroin overdose, a cousin who died in a car crash on a motorway and another uncle who died of an overdose.
“I didn’t see any of my grandparents because they passed away.
“All that drama was a strength for me to say football isn’t a matter of life and death.
“A storm that kills people is. We have elite people spending millions of dollars looking for a life on another planet while there’s someone else who hasn’t got one dime to eat in the world. That’s more serious.
“My golden rule is love thy neighbour as you love yourself and carry on playing for your enemy.
“When I was in a game, I was all serious but I’d never treat football like it was a matter of life and death. Some supporters were sad about a loss, I wasn’t like that.”
Bellion, now married to an half-English, half-Italian lady and father to two children, never fulfilled his promise at United but then again he can be excused when you consider he had Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes, Rooney, Ronaldo, Giggs, Diego Forlan, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Alan Smith and Louis Saha to compete with.
But despite that he will forever owe a debt of gratitude to Fergie, who did give him 34 appearances for United.
He said: “It’s true when people say Sir Alex was like a father. How could you ever not listen to his advice? He was the best.
“The last thing he would always say before a home match was, ‘Enjoy the game, you’re playing at the Theatre of Dreams.
“It puts football in its rightful place. It’s a game. Of course, when you’re playing for such a big club you have to be serious — but at the same time we were not inventing a medicine that saves lives.
“It was all about bringing happiness to the wonderful supporters and although I don’t love football intensely I loved my time at that club.”
Art and fashion have always been a passion for Bellion, who laughs as he recalls: “Roy Keane used to always mock what I was wearing.
“I wore strange clothes back then, always colourful and bright and things that didn’t match. I had no fear.”
Not only is he working for an art gallery in the city, he also has created a position for himself at Red Star, which was founded by the legendary Jules Rimet.
He said: “I’m creative director at the club. It’s what I’d call an ‘underground club’ — a little bit like an English non-league side where you can mix with the players and officials in the bar after the game.
“What I’m doing is introducing really nicely designed club-branded clothes, art work, really cool street food and a bit of culture to Red Star.
“The idea is that you might be in Paris and think, ‘I quite fancy checking out that really cool club where you can view art, shop for good clothes, enjoy good food, drink and discuss the game afterwards with the players. It’s really beautiful. I love it.
“I’m also working for Ymer & Malta — a small gallery in the city. I represent it. First of all I was a collector and had some pieces there and befriended them.
“I am a very creative person. I’ve always mingled with art people. It’s a great world to be in.”
As Bellion leaves the restaurant, he gets back on his funky bike — a Vanmoof he tells me — and rides off into the Parisian evening to get on with his happy life after football.
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