Football Saved My Life: Gildas Awuye on his soccer story and Montreal art initiative

An interview with Awuye about how his experience with the sport inspired him to give back to football.

Football — or excuse me, soccer — has always been more than just a game. Gildas Messan Awuye has taken this to heart, so much that he’s telling his footballing story by building an art initiative literally called Football Saved My Life.

The Montreal-based photographer and entrepreneur developed FSML to raise funds and increase accessibility for those wanting to pick up the sport. With Football Saved My Life, Awuye marries his love for both football and art, and uses them to give back to the community. Its first project, FSML0001, is dedicated to Montreal’s Ringleaders Football Club and Canadian footballing culture in general, and includes a self-curated, 300-page photo journal-style book all about the club and how his involvement with it shaped him.

Having moved to Canada at the age of four from Togo in West Africa, Awuye calls Montreal home, though he also spent a couple years in Ottawa. For the past decade, he’s been working in art, design and fashion, having co-founded Atelier New Regime alongside his brother Koku and fellow co-founder Setiz Taheri.

After eight years with the streetwear brand, Awuye sold his shares to his two older brothers in 2020, all while not being sure what was next for him. But his love for art, fashion and design never wavered, so he started a boutique consulting agency offering services for creative direction, design, and fashion production called Messan Studios, which he’s been doing for the past three years (Football Saved My Life is his side hustle). But football has always been his passion, and one Awuye has been trying to harness during that time.

“Around 2018, I started this this book idea that had no legs, really,” he says. “I just had a bunch of pictures from my travels with my soccer team, the Ringleaders, and I started this book. 

“A couple of years later, it turned into this bigger project that is now Football Saved My Life. The seed was planted when I started that book. I realized that I had something tangible there that I could turn into something a bit bigger.”

For Awuye, playing footy as a kid was a life-changing experience. One day, at the age of 10, he’d been playing with some friends in a park in Ottawa while a local coach happened to be watching him. That coach later offered him a spot on his team. Though Awuye lacked the necessary funds to join, this wouldn’t dissuade the coach from finding a way to get him on the squad.

“I told him that right away, and he was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. We’ll figure it out. There’s a place for you if you want to play,’” he continues. “That stuck with me for the rest of my life. I got these opportunities where the community surrounding football really helped raise me and make me the person I am today. I always thought, ‘How could I give back to football eventually?’ 

“As I was growing up, I always thought maybe I would coach one day, and be able to do the same thing [for other kids] that coach did for me. It wasn’t just not paying for football, but also driving me around to practices and to games — being that support system so I could actually enjoy the game… I could be a role model in that way, and give back to kids.”

In March 2020, shortly before the pandemic’s onset, Awuye signed up to help coach a team in LaSalle, where he played in his youth after moving to Montreal from Ottawa. After only one practice, COVID hit, and everything became indefinitely postponed. Realizing he didn’t yet have enough time to be a coach, Awuye decided to find other ways to give back to the beautiful game. 

While developing his book, he saw it growing into something involving products and art projects he could sell and wield into a new stream of income. After deciding he wanted to tell stories related to football and those involved with it, Football Saved My Life was born.

“I had no plans on starting this project,” he admits. “But as things started adding up in my head, I’m like, ‘Well, I love art. I love football. I want to give back. How can I bring all of that under one umbrella?”

So when has football actually saved Awuye’s life? He points to 2018, when he and his nearly 40 Ringleaders teammates travelled to Iceland to play some intra-squad football on a random field in Reykjavik — in fact, his book’s original title was Ringleaders Saved My Life. 

While there, one of Awuye’s teammates asked everyone to tell her what she should know about the Ringleaders. His response? “Ringleaders saved my life.”

Bold as that statement may be, his teammates agreed with the sentiment. But when it came time to work on the book, Awuye realized the title would be difficult to explain to broader audiences who aren’t aware of the Ringleaders, hence why “football” was used instead.

“(Players on the team) understand what that community did for us, because we all have a similar story,” he continues. “We all fell out of love with football at some point, like around 18 or 21. Playing competitively is not as easy anymore. If you’re not semi-pro or pro, there’s nowhere for you to play, really. We all have that story.”

He also credits the Ringleaders as a support system for one another, calling it “a big part of keeping us all together.” For example, Awuye leaned on them while experiencing mental health issues as he was building his business.

“If I didn’t have the Ringleaders at this time, I really feel like I wouldn’t have made it,” he adds. “That community really helped me. There’s that in recent years, but during the years when I was younger, (football) was my escape. 

“It’s crazy to say that at 11 years old, you’re battling that many demons. But I did, and football was always an escape for me… Many times along the way, football’s saved my life. It’s always provided that safe haven where I could go kick a ball.”

The community aspect of the project is a very important one for Awuye, who wants Football Saved My Life to inspire kids in a similar situation to his to play the game and grow as footballers, and use the sport as an escape just like he did. “Even if you don’t have the money to pay for for football, you should have access to it, because the benefits are huge,” he continues.

Awuye — who idolized Cristiano Ronaldo growing up, and also loved watching fellow Portuguese ballers Nani and Ricardo Quaresma — owes a great deal of gratitude to the coach who took that chance on him all those years ago, despite only playing one year under him before moving to Montreal. That coach even knows about the project, and Awuye sent him a copy of the first FSML book upon its release. The two still keep in touch. “He’s just an amazing, amazing guy,” Awuye says.

Football Saved My Life intends to improve accessibility by helping foot the bill for a portion of kids’ registration fees, removing an important barrier to entry for those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. 16% of funds raised for the project, such as products bought on the FSML website, will go to partner organizations able to help give kids a chance to play competitively.

“For me, it was accessible because I didn’t have to pay the full fee,” Awuye adds. “If I knew I had to pay [all of it], I wouldn’t have played. I would’ve just kept playing at parks with my friends.”

FSML0001 consists of both a photo book and concept jersey designs, but Awuye says the types of art used from project to project will vary. “The next project could be sculptures,” he says. “I really want it to be just (about) finding other football fans. If you’re an artist or a sculptor, we could make some sculptures and sell those sculptures. We’ll give back 16%. Or we can make tables. I really want it to be diverse. 

“As a footballer, you’re a creative person. I want to showcase all the things you can do that have to do with football, even if you don’t make it pro. There’s football photographers, football journalists. Those are fun ways to stay involved with the game… I just want to find creative ways to tell footballing stories, all the while raising money.”

With Canada’s men’s soccer program reaching new heights despite an early exit from the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and with the women’s World Cup coming up this summer, there’s plenty of reason to see an initiative like Football Saved My Life gaining traction in 2023. Better yet, the feedback it’s gotten so far is described by Awuye as “incredible,” and unexpected given the personal nature of the statement it’s named after.

“When I first started it, I made a few T-shirts for promo, for friends and family. I started giving them out and was like, ‘Nobody’s going to wear this. It’s too deep. Who wants to walk around with ‘football saved my life’ on their chest?’. People really relate to that message… Now, I’m getting all these stories of how football had an impact on their life. It’s been very special.”

As far as what FSML has planned for 2023 and beyond? The main objective remains to give as many kids as possible the opportunity to play. For now, an art show to celebrate the initiative’s launch was scheduled for this month, but has been moved to January due to ongoing renovations at its venue. 

Awuye also intends to close the loop on FSML0001 by March, as well as continue spreading the word about the initiative and form new creative and business partnerships. He ideally wants to do four projects per year, but admits he’s a bit of a perfectionist and unsure if he’ll “have enough juice” to develop them at that clip. He also doesn’t want Football Saved My Life to become a burden.

“That’s four opportunities to raise money, but I think it’s going to take a little while to get there,” he says. “For right now, I’m trying to not put too much pressure on it… It took me four years to do the first one. Ideally, it’s not going to take four years for the next one. But there’s no perfect date… They’re in the works, slowly. I don’t want this project to be draining in a sense. I want it to be fun, light, and give back in a good way.” ■

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