Gerard Depardieu, a giant of world cinema with over 100 films under his belt, including global box-office smashes such as Going Places, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Cyrano de Bergerac and Asterix & Obelix Take On Caesar, is also a passionate football supporter.

The Chateauroux-born actor fulfilled the role of goalkeeper as a young boy, and has followed the ups and downs of Auxerre from the stands at Abbe-Deschamps Stadium with his friend and club chairman Gerard Bourgoin.

The living legend of French film, who is a keen observer of the world game and is fascinated by FIFA, paid a visit to the headquarters of football’s governing body on Friday 19 October, where he met and chatted with FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter. While there, he kindly took time out to accord an exclusive interview to How long have you been a football fan?
Gerard Depardieu
: I’ve been passionate about the game for a very long time. It’s a great way to keep kids off the streets in deprived areas. It’s another form of intelligence – a new language, a separate culture. When you’re not that academically inclined, as was the case for me, sport can often be a way to gain respect. As far as I was concerned, when I was 12, I was unusually tall for my age. There were therefore two sports available to me: boxing and football.

Did you play football in Chateauroux when you were a boy, then?
Yes, I used to be a goalkeeper. My technique was quite simple: I would shout so loudly that the little forwards advancing towards my goal didn’t even dare to shoot [laughs]! I was brought up in Chateauroux, near an American army base. I first tried my hand at boxing; I was a sparring partner for some of the GIs there. I used to aim for the body, focusing on the stomach. However, I never could understand baseball or American football. And so for me, the obvious and easiest option was football. It’s a sport where you can be aggressive or even get angry, especially at refereeing mistakes, but you never act violently.

What made you play in goal?
The unique mentality that you get with goalkeepers fascinates me. He’s the last line of defence but also the one who relaunches attacks. I have fond memories of a keeper from my childhood, Francois Remetter, and I was a big fan of Fabien Barthez later in life. Gianluigi Buffon is also a great goalkeeper, because he provides his team with momentum, while reassuring his team-mates at the same time. But it’s a position that’s becoming increasingly difficult, as the game gets faster and balls fly through the air.

Are there any other players that have impressed you?
I’ve got a lot of admiration for top centre-forwards. I was never able to perform well in that role, and you could say that they also have a different mentality. For example, I love Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s warrior-style approach, with his chest sticking out proudly, and Lionel Messi, well, the little guy is always capable of surprising you. Zinedine Zidane made everything look simple, when he was in fact a master of his trade, and Michel Platini – who, in my opinion, was a complete genius – was a very intelligent player, to be frank. There’s no doubt it was a different kind of football back then, with less money flying around. That French side of the early 80s, with Platini and Dominique Rocheteau, had me on the edge of my seat. Obviously, I wasn’t such a fan of Harald Schumacher’s style of play [laughs]. That’s not one of my fondest memories.

Do you follow football now?
Yes, and I’m going to let you in on a little secret; I think the future of the game is female. I really admire women’s football, in fact. It’s a game that calls for physical strength but somehow they never lose their femininity. When I saw France win the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup recently, I was amazed how good they were. On top of that, I feel as if the men’s game has, especially over the last decade or so, been criticised a lot for the players’ attitude and their tendency to fall over a bit too easily. Conversely, I find that the women act more bravely out on the pitch, and that they indulge in less play-acting. On that topic, it’s the same thing in the film industry – the women are always braver!

What is it about the sport that really interests you?
Well, when you peel away the sport, you find a whole culture beneath it. Football is a culture. You have to get all these individuals, from different countries and with different values, to gel into a single unit that can perform together. That’s what football’s all about. A winning team is one in which each player shares the same values. When you look at Spain and their measured passing game, it can be staggering to watch at times, because they display a harmony that all football fans look for in their teams.

Do you believe that football has a social role to play?
One thing is certain: no other sport has as many member countries as FIFA does. Even the United Nations has fewer members. There’s no other activity that’s as universal. I suspect that one day China will emerge as a top football nation. The Chinese are very positive people. When you see their athletes burst into tears at the Olympic Games because they ‘only’ obtained a silver medal and view that as a loss of honour, well, that’s incredible. Look at Korea DPR, a small, isolated country with a population of 25 million or so. They have one of the world’s best women’s teams – that’s remarkable. Even in the United States, where there are so many other sports and where football didn’t catch on so quickly, the women’s team has had some great results, winning gold at the Olympics several times.

Do you see any similarities between football and cinema?
Football, like cinema, is a cultural phenomenon. Each country boasts its own style of film-making, just like each country has its own football style. But I’d say that football is even more important, from one particular aspect. FIFA was founded in 1904 as a little organisation that had stemmed from what might be regarded as a trivial idea. And in quite a short space of time, it has succeeded in attracting 209 member associations and in generating a crazy level of passion for the game. When you watch matches in South America, you’re struck by the absolutely incredible atmosphere, by entire stadiums crying together when their heroes lose. I’ve also attended matches in Algeria, where the atmosphere in the stands is unbelievable. Another unique thing about football is that it never stops, even in times of conflict. The ball keeps rolling. This sport is so important that even those who don’t particularly care for it are swept up by it.

But what is the key to its immense popularity, in your opinion?
In 1998, when France beat Brazil in the Final of the FIFA World Cup™, all of a sudden the whole country was behind the team, championing football’s ability to integrate. As an aside, this was unlikely to be a new concept for FIFA, given that when it first started, it was founded on a desire to bring people together. Football is all about truth and feelings – it’s fascinating. In this sport, people find what they’re constantly looking for elsewhere: emotion.

The FIFA Ballon d’Or is due to be awarded in January in Zurich. Who, for you, is the favourite?
That’s a difficult one. Messi’s already won it three times, and I like Cristiano Ronaldo a lot. It seems as if his pride has been hurt recently by not winning the award. I believe it might be time to help him regain his confidence, so I’d give it to Ronaldo, as he’s a bit fragile at the moment, as is often the case with truly great players. In any case, Messi will probably consider himself the rightful winner of the Ballon d’Or in his own mind.