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Francis Benali - what today's football stars must learn
HE is one of Saints most popular ex-players – not only because he was loyal to his beloved club throughout his career, but also because everyone agrees he is such a nice bloke.
Francis Benali, known as Franny to his friends, fans and pretty much everyone, has always taken his status as a role model and position within the community seriously.
I am at his house in Southampton to talk about his involvement in Race for Life – he will be opening the Southampton race on July 14 – and he speaks passionately about how important it is to fight cancer, which touches so many.
It is one of many charity engagements this year, including running a half-marathon with friend Matt Le Tissier in aid of the Dave Wellman Cancer Trust, of which he is a patron.
“Charity work has always been important to me,” says the 44-year-old, who made more than 350 appearances during his Saints career.
“For me and other players at Southampton FC it was a big part of my work. It was our duty, I think, to play an active role within the community, so supporting charities was always a big part of my professional as well as personal life.”
He adds he was always very aware that Saints fans could be looking up to him.
“Part of my role as club captain was organising players and making sure we were doing our bit in the community. You’re in a high-profile position when you’re playing and how you conduct yourself and your life can make a big impression, particularly on youngsters.”
Since Franny’s days of playing top-flight football, for which he was certainly well-paid, footballers’ wages have shot through the roof, widening the gulf between their lifestyles and those of their fans.
He says he thinks some current players have become detached from the world they live in.
“There are some footballers who still take an active role in the community and are continuing the sorts of things we did, but I wouldn’t say that’s the case for every player,” he says.
“With the financial rewards in football now, a lot of players seem distanced from the public.
They’re in a very fortunate position. They are looked up to and can do a lot of good with their profiles.”
But even footballers who do their bit are unlikely to be as deeply rooted in their community as Franny.
He was born and brought up here and signed with Saints as an apprentice in 1985, playing for the club throughout his career, other than a brief period on loan to Nottingham Forest and joining Eastleigh FC when he retired from Saints. And he would never think about living anywhere else.
“I was born and raised here, my wife was, our children are and our family and friends are in Southampton. During my career I was always playing for a club that was in the top flight of English football, so I never had any desire to go anywhere else.
You only have to look at what’s on our doorstep. I see no reason why you would want to move anywhere else.”
Saints are still close to Franny’s heart, and he thinks the team has what it takes to stay in the Premiership.
“I’m confident they’ll stay up but at the same time there is still quite a bit of work to be done to make sure they retain their Premier League status,” he says.
He says retiring from professional football left a big gap in his life.
“It was a strange feeling when Saturday came and I wasn’t playing or watching a game.
When you’re playing professional football it is quite consuming.
It’s about training hard – OK it wasn’t necessarily long but it was intense – and it’s about how you live your life and prepare for and recover from training and matches. It’s a job but it was also a passion, a privilege and something I was very serious about, so when you retire there’s a big void.”
For Franny, maintaining his charity work has been an important part of adjusting to life after Saints, as has his family.
It’s clear from the moment you step into the Benali home that family is very important, from the large family portraits on the living room walls to the affectionate goodbyes when Franny’s wife Karen and the couple’s daughter Kenzie head out to the gym.
And Franny talks warmly about how glad he is that his son, 19- year-old Luke, is living at home while he goes to university.
“I always knew how I wanted to be as a husband and father,” he says, petting the fifth member of the family, Ben, a black Labrador.
“As dedicated as I was to my career, it was never the be-all and end-all. Family always came ahead of that and it will always come before everything.”
- To enter Race for Life visit raceforlife.org or call 0845 600 6050.