Ex-Man Utd flop Eric Djemba Djemba now plays in Switzerland’s fifth tier aged 38 for amateur team FC Vallorbe-Ballaigues – The Sun

ERIC DJEMBA DJEMBA played in Wayne Rooney’s debut, frequently ran out at a packed Old Trafford and used to pop to Nando's with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Now, rather than play in front of 78,000 people at the Theatre of Dreams, the ex-United midfielder plays in front of about 88 fans in the Swiss fifth tier.

Now 38, the Cameroon icon plays his football for amateur team FC Vallorbe-Ballaigues, a side based an hour and half outside of Geneva.

Their ground has a river running next to it and there is a bloke whose job it is to fish the ball out whenever it flies in.

It’s certainly a far cry from Old Trafford.

Djemba Djemba, a Cameroon icon dubbed ‘Cantona’ in his homeland, plays for the amateur club based 90 minutes outside of Geneva.

So how did the man who has 34 international caps and played 39 times for United end up in '2. Liga Interregional' at 38?

"I just love playing and when I finish training, I'm happy to carry the balls or the water bottles,” he told SunSport when we went to watch him in action.

After he visited us at our hotel for an interview, we made the trip to Stade Prés-Sous-Ville to take in a FC Vallorbe-Ballaigues' home game.

So, how did Eric find himself playing for a team well below the level he was accustomed to?

"It was because of my friend Jacques Etonde, who I grew up with in Cameroon," he tells us the day before the match.

"We played together as kids and when I finished in Indonesia three years ago, he asked me if I was thinking of retiring or if I had other offers.

"He said he'd like me to come to his team, FC Vallorbe. I asked him if was sure and if he thought the team can afford it.

"He spoke with the President and the Coach, and somehow it was able to happen.

"But it was a boyhood dream for the both of us to play together in Europe after we'd grown up together in Africa."

After United, Djemba Djemba went to Aston Villa, had a loan spell at Burnley before emigrating to the Middle East to play for Qatar Sporting Club in Doha.

Enjoying somewhat of a luxury journeyman experience, he's also played in countries including Denmark, Israel, Serbia, India and Indonesia… there was even a spell in Scotland at St. Mirren!

But while plying his trade in far away shores, he missed his four children from a previous marriage who all live in Nantes, France where Djemba Djemba began his career.

"It was a sacrifice (to come here)," he says. "I'm happy I'm in Switzerland because I wanted to be close to my kids.

"I went everywhere in the world, but in the meantime my kids were growing up fast in Nantes and it was difficult for me. I could only really see them about two times a year.

"Now, living here it's only two or three hours on a train for me which is much better."

Djemba Djemba admits that he took a pay cut to play amateur football, but feels at ease with the lower level of the amateur game.

He compares the standard to "League Two, but slightly lower" and confessed he can skive off training and not feel out of the swing of things come match day.

"Sometimes, if I'm sick and I haven't trained, when it comes to the weekend it's easy for me to play," he says

"I understand the game. I don't have to run a lot and I just have to manage my stamina.

"But I don't think I'm any different to my teammates.

"I just love playing and when I finish training, I'm happy to carry the balls or the water bottles."

Djemba Djemba joined FC Vallorbe-Ballaigues in 2016. Because of his experience in the game, he revealed his coach Jean-Yves Bonnard leans on him for advice.

He tells us: "Sometimes the coach will ask me how to fix a problem in the team.

"He may call me before the match and ask me what I think, who to pick or what positions they could play.

"With my experience, I give him my point of view. But he's the manager and he has the final decision."

But it wasn't so easy for Djemba Djemba with his teammates when he first arrived at the club, he claims.

"The first year my colleagues were scared to talk to me," he laughs.

"And when I first came to the dressing room, I saw someone on their phone Googling me!

"But day-by-day, my teammates would come to me and ask what it was like playing with Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Ryan Giggs.

"And I would say, 'It's exactly like playing with you. They're human beings, they work hard and today they are at a big level. But if you work hard, maybe tomorrow you'll play at a bigger level.'"

Interestingly, just like his former teammate Giggs, Djemba Djemba wants to play until he's 40.

"When we finish training, sometimes I continue to push myself and my teammates tell me to stop," he jokes.

And it's not just his teammates that are in awe of his past life pulling on the United shirt.

Opposition players playing against him are equally as starstruck when they meet him.

"Sometimes the captain of a rival will ask me for my shirt during the game," he says.

"I have to tell them I can't give it to them because the President will kill me. There's only one shirt – it's the amateur league!

"When the game finishes, some will write to me on Instagram and I'll always answer them."

Djemba Djemba was signed by Manchester United for £3.5m by Sir Alex Ferguson, days before Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at the club.

He had met the legendary Scot months before, who had personally come to scout him.

“The first time I met Sir Alex Ferguson was in France. I was playing for Nantes against Marseille," he tells SunSport.

“Originally, they sent their scouts first to come and see our goalkeeper Mickael Landreau play.

“The scouts saw me and they told Ferguson that he has to come and watch some players.

“After the game against Marseille, which I won man of the match, the coach said to me I needed to speak to the President.

“I went to him and he was with Ferguson. He shook my hand and told me I had a great game and told me to carry on playing like that.

"But that was it. I didn't know they wanted to buy me. I thought I was just meeting him.

"A few months later, I was invited to Manchester to sign.

"When I was a kid, my first football shirt my dad bought for me was a United one with the Sharp sponsor on the front. It was a dream come true."

After making his debut in the Charity Shield against Arsenal, Djemba Djemba found himself in and out of the team.

The more experienced Roy Keane, who Djemba Djemba was tipped to be a successor to, was selected instead.

“It was difficult," he says. "I was 22, I came from France and I went straight into a team that was one of the biggest in the world.

“There was a lot of pressure, and Roy Keane was a man. Everybody listened to him. At the beginning it was good, I played matches because Keane was injured.

“But when he came back, it was hard for me. Sometimes I played with him, sometimes with Paul Scholes or with Darren Fletcher.

"And because I wasn't playing for Manchester United, I wasn't being picked for Cameroon too.

"That was tough for me, and Ferguson knew that."

Seeing his latest acquisition was suffering mentally, Fergie offered Djemba Djemba some solace.

"That man, after my dad, is like my second father.

“He talked to me all the time. He would say if I had a family problem, he could give me two days and I could go to Cameroon and see my mum, dad and friends and then come back.

“He always said, 'If you have any problem, please come to me. Your time will come and you will play.'"

Sadly for Eric, it didn't quite work out for him at Old Trafford.

Competition for places was fierce and he just wanted to play rather than sit on the bench.

He left after three years, playing just 39 games for the club. But he's not bitter about his experience.

In fact, he regularly turns out for Manchester United's Masters Football team alongside the likes of Quinton Fortune and Louis Saha.

“If today, they said to me you can change your life and do something different – I wouldn't," he said.

“Today, everywhere I go I am a Manchester United player. Nobody mentions Aston Villa or Nantes.

"Manchester United changed my life, and it was Ferguson personally who changed my life.

“It's because of that I can go and play Masters Football as an ambassador for the club."

Djemba Djemba has plenty of fond memories of his teammates… but Keane wasn't so easy to deal with on the pitch.

“In the dressing room, he was a good guy. He was very affectionate," he recalls.

“But on the pitch…. If you had a gun, you’d want to shoot him. He’d insult you, he’d say anything and everything.

“As soon as the game was finished, he was a different person. I preferred Keane in the dressing room rather than on the pitch. He was like that because he wanted to win.

“Sometimes I’d wear a diamond earring and Keane would say to me, ‘What is this?’ So before I got to the dressing room I removed it because I didn’t want him to see it.”

“I remember he used to shout at Kleberson, who was a very quiet guy who never spoke and was always laughing.

“Keane would always shout at him, ‘Wake up, you’re not in Brazil now on the Copacabana. Run!’

“I remember Rio Ferdinand was always laughing at Keane when he was shouting in the dressing room."

United are a club still in Djemba Djemba's heart. He's clearly hurting about their current plight.

“First of all, for me, Manchester United today are not like they were when I was there.

“In order to make everything work, it’s the manager’s responsibility.

"David Moyes was a little bit like Ferguson, he never really argued with the players and no major incidents came out.

"Ferguson would never give you that chance to do that. He would be close to you like a dad.

“But Jose Mourinho is not like Ferguson. He’s not close to the players.

He’s a man who, when he does an interview, will speak negatively about the player, and that’s a different style."

Djemba Djemba knows the man he would love to see in the job instead.

"I would love to see Giggsy as the manager," he says.

"I was a younger player and Giggs was an older, more experienced footballer.

"But he managed the younger players, he was a good role model for us all.

“I think he would be very good for the likes of Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard.

“Also, he was a legendary player for Manchester United, he won everything including the Champions League. I think they should give him a chance."

Today, Djemba Djemba is playing for a lot less than he is used to. But money wasn't his strong suit in the past.

In 2007, he was declared bankrupt. He claimed the reason why he was unable to pay a tax debt was because he was poorly managed by his former agent, Christophe Mongai.

“When I came to England, my wages were paid as net," he reveals. "It was my agent at the time who needed to pay tax on that, but I didn’t know. It fell on me and I ended up with a debt.

“I was also naïve. I helped a lot of people in my country, in France, helping friends and giving them money.

“But it wasn’t because of them, it was because of me I went bankrupt. If I was a little bit clever, I wouldn’t have lost too much.

“I don’t have any regrets though with what I did. I can see that people who I helped in the past are ready to help me now.

"But if I had made that kind of money today, I would do it differently. I’m more mature.

“If I also had someone near to me, like a financial advisor, that would've helped me.

“Now, I am very happy. My family and my kids are happy and they have what they want."

The day after our interview, we join Djemba Djemba for FC Vallorbe-Ballaigues' final game of the season against FC Portalban Gletterens.

The setting is as far removed from Old Trafford as you can get.

Instead of warehouses, flats and hotels, you're surrounded by sprawling mountains. It's also a chilly 5 degrees.

We step into the home team's dressing room, not just to keep warm, but to see for ourselves what kind of influence their most famous player has on the team.

"It’s a pleasure to play with Eric because he’s played at such a high level," full back Kevin Bertrand, 26, tells us.

“He’s done a lot already for the team on the pitch and he brings a good atmosphere to the dressing room.

“You can tell he has great experience, because as soon as there’s an issue he’s very good at solving it.

“He helps the coach to position the players well and motivate the team. He helps us stay focused and fit.

“Eric also tells a few anecdotes about Ronaldo and Manchester and it’s always funny to hear the stories.

"We get to hear changing room stories of what it's like at a more senior level, which is a great insight."

Before kick off, Djemba Djemba plays the role of team DJ – firing up his Bose speaker, which blares out dance music that echoes around the tiny changing area.

The players take in an animated teamtalk from Coach Jean-Yves Bonnard, who warns his charges against complacency playing against a lower ranked team.

“It’s been two years since Eric arrived, but it’s only been a positive experience for a small club," Bonnard, 40, says moments before his passionate call for arms.

“Everyone does everything, players bring the benches out. It’s very down to earth, and he showed he’s willing to be just like them.

"He’s the captain and has a lot of credibility. He’s also had such a incredible experience, so he can make sure the training sessions come together.

"Eric's very serious, and although his age is not the best physically compared to the other players, he can still motivate them.

“He definitely brings a lot to the team and he’s very professional."

We leave the team during their final preparations to take our seat in the stand.

Immediately we are greeted by FC Vallorbe-Ballaigues President Jean-Philippe Cretin, 46, who has owned the club for 13 years.

“It’s really incredible to have Eric playing for us, and it was a real surprise that he chose to come here," he says.

“We’ve never had a player who has played at such a high level and it’s been a really good experience for the rest of the team.

“And we didn’t realise he’d have such an impact when he arrived, but our small team made the front pages of the local papers."

Cretin believes that signing Djemba Djemba was a spot of luck and doesn't expect to see more internationally recognised footballers pull on the yellow and blue of FC Vallorbe.

“It was a one off, I don’t think it’s possible that we’ll have another player of Djemba Djemba’s quality again.

“It was only because of his friend that he came here to play for us. But it benefitted the community and the club immensely and we’re very happy to have Eric here.”

The game kicks off and it's a slow start from the home team, who in truth should've been 3-0 down in the first 20 minutes but for some wasteful finishing.

After a goalless first half, FC Vallorbe come out firing on all cylinders in the second period.

An early goal, a scrappy free kick that squirms under the keeper's desperate dive, settles their nerves.

Their superiority tells and in the end they romp to a comprehensive 4-0 win.

We join the team in the dressing room once more and congratulate them on their success.

Chanting, "Champions, mon frere," the players dance with joy with Djemba Djemba taking centre stage.

He may be a big fish in a small pond, but he's clearly happy swimming down this stream.

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