Emmanuel Eboue: I wanted to kill myself - this is the lowest I have been in my career
Former Arsenal star tells James Ducker how year-long ban left him depressed and contemplating suicide
It is not easy listening to a footballer who has a reputation for being larger than life talking about the times when he has contemplated suicide, the occasions when he locks himself in his bedroom for a day or two at a time and cannot bring himself to come out.
It is a clear, crisp day in north London and Emmanuel Eboue is sitting in an empty bar at Enfield Town football club, across from the park pitch where he trains most days with a local semi-professional footballer he has befriended in a bid to stay fit while he serves a one-year ban from Fifa over his refusal to pay an agent.
Over the course of the next two hours, the mood is mostly sombre as the former Arsenal, Galatasaray and Sunderland defender paints an anguished picture of a footballer denied the opportunity to do what he loves best and the heavy toll it is taking on his mental state.
But the darker tales are interspersed with moments of real levity that, behind that rather pained expression, help to explain why so many former team-mates cite Eboue as the funniest, most boundlessly positive player they shared a dressing room with. Take, for example, Arsenal's visit to Buckingham Palace in 2007 to meet the Queen.
"We went there and Thierry Henry said to me, 'Please, Emmanuel, this is Buckingham Palace, it's the Queen's house, don't do anything'." Eboue recalls.
"'No problem,' I said. 'Don't worry'. So the Queen came in and went along shaking each player's hand.
"After she'd finished I saw all her corgis so I said, 'Ma'am, Ma'am'. She turned back and asked, 'How are you?' and I said, 'Ma'am, I am OK, thank you but please, I don't want to be a footballer any more, I want to look after your dogs. I want to take them for walks, wash them, feed them. I want to be a dog carer.' The Queen, honestly, she was laughing. Prince Philip was laughing too. All the team were laughing."
It is nice seeing Eboue chuckling away because most of our conversation is no laughing matter. Eboue had only been on Sunderland's books 22 days when the Wearside club terminated his contract in March after he was barred from all football activity by Fifa until he settled a debt - understood to be around £1million - with his former agent, Sebastien Boisseau.
There have been some very difficult days since. "There are a lot of days when I don't feel like getting out of bed," he says. "One day I wanted to kill myself. My family keep me strong, it's them that I have to think about but if I was alone, I worry about what I'd have done to myself by now. There are times when I stay in my bedroom and don't come out. One, two days in that room. Alone. I lock the door and am just thinking.
"I spend a lot of my time reading the Bible and will say, 'Emmanuel, why are you doing that? It's no good for your family'.
"My son Mathis is seven and plays for Arsenal's academy. Every time I go there with him people ask me what's going on and it makes it worse. 'Emmanuel, have you retired?' So I have to explain my situation. It makes me more depressed. The people who know me, when they see my face, they can tell I'm not happy. This is the lowest I've been in my career, it's a bad time."
The contractual dispute with Boisseau relates to his move from Arsenal to Galatasaray in 2011. Boisseau says he is owed money in relation to that transfer, Eboue claims otherwise and argued he negotiated the move independently, but Fifa came down on the side of the agent.
There have been attempts since to settle the matter, according to Eboue, but, until a resolution is reached, the defender, now 33, fears he will not play again.
He is keeping in shape, training for two hours most days in the company of Hairo Shehaj, a 19-year-old college student who has recently represented Billericay Town.
But Eboue's delicate state was not helped by the deaths, in October, of his grandfather Amadou Bertin, who raised him as a child, and brother N'Dri Serge, one of his 12 siblings. Bertin had prostate cancer. Serge died in a motorbike accident.
He is indebted to the unwavering support of his Belgian wife Aurelie, mother of their three children, Mathis plus daughters, Clara (12) and Maeva (11).
"Aurelie is very supportive," Eboue says. "It's not easy for her. I've been hard to live with."
There is no bitterness, but it upsets Eboue that Didier Drogba, the former Chelsea striker, and Romanic, once with Sevilla, are the only old Ivory Coast team-mates who have registered concern for his plight.
When Kolo Toure, his former Arsenal team-mate now with Celtic, was banned by Fifa in 2011 for failing a drugs test while at Manchester City, Eboue was on the phone regularly to his fellow defender. But Toure has not been in touch, nor, he says, has the Ivorian Football Federation.
"When Kolo was serving his ban, I was always talking to him," Eboue says. "He's had some difficulties at Celtic so I understand (why he's not been in contact). I'm not going to say something bad. All of them are my big brothers. I know they know my problem but I hope one day they will call me.
"Of course it's disappointing. I thought the friendship was stronger. You have to be friends in difficult times. But that's life. I take it in a good way."
Eboue was the random topic of conversation on the television sports game show 'A League Of Their Own' in October when Jamie Redknapp explained, amid much laughter, about how he received daily text messages from Eboue encouraging him to convert to Christianity.
Redknapp's son is also enrolled in Arsenal's academy, which is how their paths crossed, but Eboue provides some context to the story.
"I pray a lot and read a lot of the Bible," Eboue explains. "Every morning at four o'clock when I wake up I pray, read the Bible and write a message in my phone and every day I will send a thought for the day to each person in my contacts book. A few people said, 'Hey, he's laughing at you on television'. I think he thought it was just him I was sending the messages to when actually I send them to everyone in my phone.
"So I sent him a message saying, 'Jamie, I'm very sorry, I didn't pick on you, it's just what I do each day'. So he sent me a message straight back saying 'No, it's no problem, it was just a joke' so it's not a big deal."
Eboue still lights up at the mention of Arsenal, for whom he played in the 2006 Champions League final in Paris, when they lost 2-1 to Barcelona.
He became a cult hero among supporters, although few forget the day when he came on as a substitute in a Premier League game at home to Wigan Athletic in December 2008 only to be hauled off 67 minutes later following a poor performance when he was mercilessly booed. It is a surprise to discover then that he has since sat Mathis down to watch that game.
"I said, 'Mathis, come and watch this'," Eboue said. "I showed him to let him know if you're a footballer these things can happen. So you have to be strong."
A quick trawl of the internet helps to illustrate the extrovert in Eboue.
There was the time during a World Cup game between Ivory Coast and North Korea in 2010 when he pretended he could understand Korean, nodding knowingly in earshot as the opposing coach relayed instructions on the touchline to one of his players.
"It was funny, we were at the airport the next day with the Korean players and one of them came over and said, 'Eboue, You speak my language?' I said, 'Yeah'. So he says, 'OK, how do you say 'good morning' in Korean? So I shout, 'Yang!!!' and he literally fell on the floor laughing."
Or how about the occasion when he turned up for a party at Arsenal team-mate Gilberto Silva's house wearing a full Tiger costume he had bought himself from a fancy dress shop to surprise the kids present.
"I said to Gilberto, 'Hey, it's me Eboue, but don't tell anyone'," Eboue said. "So I went inside, dancing, messing around and no one had a clue it was me. It was hot in that suit so I lasted about an hour before taking it off!"
Sadly, there is a caveat to the story. "Now when I go to friends' parties I try to be normal, like I was," Eboue says. "But it's hard because I always have this problem in my head."