In a remarkable, exclusive interview with L’Équipe Magazine, one of France’s most interesting, well-travelled footballers, Mathieu Flamini, discussed the end of his career, and his rather financially-sound off-field interests.
No French athlete has received more media coverage during the month of March. Hundreds of articles from the French press have deemed Mathieu Flamini “the richest footballer in the world.” This honor is more down to his off the pitch investments rather than on the pitch activity, despite his impressive career path, with Marseille, Arsenal and AC Milan, before signing for Getafe.
In 2008, he co-founded GB Biochemicals with Pasquale Granata, a biochemical company specializing in levulinic acid. A substance sometimes described as capable of working miracles, and potentially able to be an alternative to oil, and which may have supposedly allowed him to earn €30bn. This would make him the fourth wealthiest person in France ahead of Serge Dassault and François Pinault according to a ranking done in Forbes magazine.
He put a stop to this rumour, because he is also suspected of tax avoidance, after being cited in the Paradise Papers – an investigation done by many media sources across the world on offshore accounts. The former French international (3 caps), who rarely speaks in the press, agreed to host us in the luxurious Villa Magna hotel in Madrid.
By refusing to disclose the sums invested in GF biochemicals (likely to be in the millions of euros), and talking about Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov’s 30% stake in the club, who supposedly provided him a form of financial backing of around €7m, the Frenchman seems to have mastered the discretion of a businessman.
Are you really the richest footballer in the world?
It’s important to put things right. Contrarily to what has been said, I don’t have €30bn euros in my bank account. And that amount doesn’t correspond with the value of my company, GF Biochemicals. That amount is the total value of the market we hope to get into, thanks to the new technologies developed during these last few years. There’s a misunderstanding. It’s as if you value a restaurant at the total cost of the whole dining industry.
True, but if GF Biochemicals could establish themselves on the market, you could earn more money after your footballing career than during it. It would be a really unique path for a professional footballer…
If I were to manage that, that would be a great source of pride. But to reach that objective, there is still plenty and plenty of work to be done… I’m not asking myself that question right now anyways.
So, today, if we understand you correctly, you’re not a billionaire.
Oh no, not at all.
How did you react upon hearing articles that you were richer than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?
At the time, I was a little surprised obviously. But, when you’re a public figure, you learn to read between the lines and to look at what’s written about you with some perspective. But I have to say that this story makes me a bit sad because I didn’t get into this field because of the money. My main motivation was to have a positive impact on the environment. It’s a field where everyone has a role to play.
Where does this environmental consciousness come from?
I grew up between Marseille and Corsica. During my childhood, I did a lot scuba diving, hiking, and had a unique relationship with nature. I was convinced that we have to be in harmony with it, and that we weren’t. At the time, I was struck by a certain sight — the trash which covered the ground around us. Later, other holes were dug where new trash was left. I found that absolutely crazy! So I looked into it, and understood that the problem had to be tackled by finding a way to reduce our use of plastic and dependence on gasoline.
When did you decide to start investing in this field?
For many years, I looked for good investment opportunities. Before signing for AC Milan (in 2008), I met my future business partner. Later on, I met an Italian engineer, one of Giulio Natta’s (Nobel Prize recipient in 1963 for chemistry) former apprentices. This engineer told me about levulinic acid. This substance is made from part of cellulose present in agricultural waste (wood, corn, sugar cane etc.) What’s interesting, is that the waste from these substances can substitute components found in oil. Levulinic acid’s property is well known, but until now, no one has been able to exploit it from an industrial perspective and at a competitive cost. So, I decided to invest to try take on this challenge.
In 2008, you created GF Biochemicals, who has recruited engineers and chemists, to take on that objective.
Yes, for many years, we did research on the production of levulinic acid in our factory in Caserte in Italy, which allowed us to apply for the patent. Today, the production takes place in the US.
Concretely, how can large scale production of acid have a positive impact on the environment?
The by-product of this acid can be used to make detergents ,solvents or even plasticisers, which could be used to create PVCs (polyvinyl chloride). When I brought up the 30 billion, I was talking about the whole market. A market which includes all these products which we can use to replace the components of oil with vegetal components. Briefly put, thanks to this acid, you can get less toxic products and be less dependent on oil.
Are these products already on the market?
Yes, there are detergents and solvents which are made from levulinic acid by-product. Seventh Generation, Method or Ecover (companies specialized in natural cleaning products) offer these kinds of products.
Is it conceivable to have a fuel created from levulinic acid?
My company currently focuses on household products and plastics, and not fuel. I think that the future of the automobile industry is pointed towards the electric car rather than natural fuel.
Why did you never publicly speak about your investment in GF Biochemicals over the years?
It was to avoid exactly that — misunderstandings in the press. Plus, like every startup, there’s always a risk of failure. I see this experience as a challenge, and I’m a competitor both on and off the field. In the world of business like in sports, you have to be persistent, accept pressure and find your place in a group.
Was there a moment where you knew your gamble paid off and that your investment would ultimately be profitable?
It’s not that simple. But if I were to point to a key moment, it would be two years ago, when we produced our first samples of levulinic acid. The outcome made my team and me happy.
Why did you end up revealing your “double life” to the Sun in November 2015?
At the time, many Italian politicians were praising our work and initiatives. The Sun found out about that, so obviously, they contacted me and I had to explain things.
How did your Arsenal teammates react at the time? Did they tease you for thinking you were the world’s saviour?
(Smiling) Yes, I did get teased at times. Especially when arriving to training in a suit because I would have an important meeting prior to or after training.
At the time, did you talk about this off the pitch endeavour with Arsène Wenger?
I only ever spoke football with Arsène. With that being said, he influenced the way I manage GF Biochemicals. I played under him for seven seasons and I had the chance to observe how he manages his group of players and his way of taking decisions. Arsène is a rational person who always analyzes situations before acting. Me being from the Mediterranean, I always try to “play it like Arsène”, while taking using his example of trying not to react abruptly when bad news comes along.
How did react upon seeing your name in Le Monde’s Paradise Papers investigation in November 2017?
I tried to put things into perspective and get to grips with why this misunderstanding occurred.
The article revealed that GF Biochemicals was established in Malta in 2014, even though you had no activity there. Why go to Malta then?
I signed my first professional contract with Arsenal when I was 20 years old, and I’ve worked abroad for 14 years, most notably in England. And it isn’t forbidden to base a company in Malta when your tax system allows for it, which is the case in the English system, and when your patents are used internationally, as is our case.
But the offshore location help you evade any taxes, didn’t it?
GF Biochemicals’ situation has nothing to with a French company looking to evade the government taxing them sums of money. When we based our company in Malta, it wasn’t earning any money. It is currently based in the Netherlands, one of the European Union’s founding nations.
Currently, how much time does this activity take up?
After training, late on in the morning or after a nap in the afternoon, I often go over my current projects. I have a team of experts who I can distribute tasks to. Especially seeing as my investment for the environment.
Along with my partner, I launched a project called the Bio Journal (in 2016), an online magazine intended to inform the greater public on renewable energies. We also created, along with the Italian bank called Intesa Sanpaolo, the first masters program in bio-economy in Europe, in collaboration with the universities of Naples, Milan, Turin and Bologna. This initiative was praised by the president of Italy. That’s a great source of pride for me.
When we listen to you speak, we feel like we’re not dealing with a footballer…
(Firmly) Football remains my priority, I spend most of my time on that.
How did you find yourself in Getafe in early February seven months after leaving Crystal Palace?
I started my career with Marseille, then I played seven seasons with Arsenal, faltering for five seasons in AC Milan. What I can say, is that, once my contract ended at Crystal Palace, I had many offers from clubs, but I didn’t feel the absolute obligation to continue my career because it had been filled with good experiences.
The seven months which followed in Palace, I trained everyday in London with a personal trainer. The opportunity to join Getafe came about and I accepted it. The footballing project really interested me, and I liked what the coach (Jose Bordalás) had to say. It also allowed me to discover a new culture and league, after having played in Ligue 1, the Premier League and Serie A.
What do you take away from your beginnings with Getafe?
Little time after arriving to the club, I was subbed on late on against Barcelona (February 11th) and I felt a strain behind my right thigh. I rushed back into things… But I’ll be back in the group against Real Betis on April 2nd.
After competing for the title with Arsenal and Milan, are you frustrated to currently be in a mid-table team?
Quite the opposite. After a long career, I’ve realised that I have had the chance to play in some of the best leagues in the world. And with Getafe, we still hope to get a Europa League spot, it is motivational. We are only four points off seventh place (final qualifying spot for the Europa League in La Liga). It’s an attractive competition. Just take a look at the teams in the running this season like Arsenal or Real Madrid.
Isn’t it odd to go from the world of football, which can sometimes be futile, to an endeavour that hopes to – in some form or another – change the world?
Oh no, I won’t change the world! (smiling) I’m just trying to contribute to sustainable solutions for the environment. But, you know, this activity helped me a lot as a player. It allowed me to put things into perspective in difficult times, because a career always has highs and lows. Some, to get their mind off of things, play music or cook. I think about all these questions on topics that I hold dearly.
Footballers are often depicted as not being able to have other interests outside of the sport…. Do you have the personal desire to dissociate from that?
No because that stereotype doesn’t affect my daily routine as a modern footballer. Today, more and more players have businesses on the side, whether it be in real estate, fashion, or dining. It’s been a common trend for American athletes for a while. I’m not the only player who puts on his investor’s hat.
Yet, we don’t know many others in the field of biochemistry…
Maybe, but in reality, other players are also involved in protecting the planet. For example, Aaron Ramsey works with the WWF to raise awareness to the greater public about protecting rhinos. Honestly, isn’t it great to see a big player like him ask his fans to take action on this topic? That made my team and I very happy.