“To inspire people to take positive action.”, Fréderic Oumar Kanoute

Fredi Kanouté jokes that he has joined a rock band but none of the motley crew he is touring with claims to be a professional musician. Instead the former West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Sevilla striker shares stages around the world with extraordinary characters such as Emi Mahmoud, a former Darfur refugee and Poetry Slam world champion, and Dr Rouba Mhaissen, the economist and development activist ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the planet’s most influential people under 30.

They were among the speakers at a recent series of free public talks in European capitals including Paris and London and in May they have a date at the Lincoln Center in New York. Their aim? “To inspire people to take positive action.”

The tour accompanies the release of a book entitled How To Do Good, whose contributors include Kanouté, Melinda Gates and the former United States president Jimmy Carter, the whole campaign inspired by the philanthropist Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait. Kanouté says that many footballers do charitable work but choose not to publicise it whereas he believes he has a responsibility to do so, explaining that if footballers can influence the public as much as advertisers seem to believe, then he should use that influence to promote good. “As long as your intentions are pure I think it’s good to talk about it and create this emulation effect,” he says.

Before considering how Kanouté does good, it is interesting to ask why he does good. As a rich former footballer he could, after all, lead a life of self-indulgent luxury, far above the problems of the masses. “I can’t close my eyes,” explains Kanouté, who speaks with a beatific charisma that makes it hard to doubt his sincerity.

“I arrived at West Ham when I was 22 and it really started around that age. I think I received a good and humble education and I reverted to Islam when I was 20 years old. I was reading a lot and trying to understand. I was always attracted by spiritual matters so I was reading books about it and I always felt that my life had to have a purpose, that it was not just about working, eating, sleeping and doing the same again tomorrow. I always felt that hunger to be useful. Also there were some tragic events in life – loss of family members and things like that, which happen to everybody – all that kind of stuff put together.”

Born and raised in France to Malian parents, he was also influenced by what he saw in his late teens when he visited Mali, the country for whom he would later choose to play. “My trips contributed to opening my eyes to another reality,” he says. “The big disparities in wealth and conditions, people having close to nothing over there but nevertheless being more happy sometimes than people here. So on one hand I was developing a conscience that wealth and happiness are not always linked but at the same time there is a threshold that we shouldn’t be under and unfortunately that was what I saw in Mali.

“Putting all that together, I said: ‘OK, I need to contribute in my way, for my own purpose and to be helpful to others.’ It’s a long journey but to make it simple, it’s more that I always felt, especially when I started to practise my religion with more consciousness, that faith had to be materialised by acts, not only be something abstract in the heart or mind. It had to be followed by actions. I was a professional footballer and had this kind of fame and material comforts that go with it so I had no excuse to just turn my back.”

In 2007, when he won a trio of trophies with Sevilla, including the Uefa Cup, and was subsequently voted African player of the year, Kanouté began setting up Sakina Children’s Village, a complex 30km from Bamako, Mali’s capital. He opened the village to give a home, healthcare and education to orphans who had been living rough. There are now some 65 residents and plans to increase that number to 150. Some of the first arrivals will soon be leaving to enter the working world.

“This is the most beautiful part – to see the impact that you’ve had to make their lives a bit easier,” says Kanouté. “At the beginning we had many kids who were traumatised. Some of them we found in really sad conditions. Now they are teenagers. That’s another challenge because now it’s not just about meeting their basic needs; we’ve started training them because they are almost young adults. That’s why we have the school and the skill-training programme, so that they can learn a job. It’s an ongoing challenge.

“It’s a long process. And for the foster mothers that are helping it’s not easy. Because the majority of the kids had some habits from the streets and weren’t used to belonging to a place. We realised that some of them didn’t want to stay because they had got used to street life. It’s really fascinating the way we think sometimes we are helping people but they don’t want your help – they have got used to another reality and for them the change is also traumatising. There are a lot of things involved in learning how to do good. We all know that we have to do good, but knowing how is the most important thing. It’s more important to help just one person and have a positive impact than try to help 2,000 but not really have a positive impact because the concept is not right. So we’ve learned a lot thanks to these kids.”

Kanouté, who is still involved in football through a management consultancy he runs, says he would rather be remembered for his work in Sakina than anything else. “It’s always gratifying to be recognised as a good footballer but at the end of the day, especially as I am a believer, I know what I will be held accountable for. It’s not because I’ve scored some goals or won some trophies, it’s about how I spent my time on Earth and what I did to really improve myself and be useful to others. I’m not saying the rest is not important but there are different layers of importance.”

His faith is his guiding influence and he acknowledges that in these times of strife that is a fact worth noting. “But something I’ve never been is apologetic about being Muslim,” he says. “We often see that before talking some Muslims have to almost feel sorry about being Muslim. They have to prove or justify themselves that they are not terrorists or whatever before being allowed to talk and I don’t like this because you don’t feel associated with the kinds of behaviour that certain Muslims or certain Christians have done.

“I don’t feel associated with the kind of terrible things that people who we sometimes can’t even call Muslims have done. So I don’t feel apologetic about it. But of course it is about creating bridges, not fighting each other. It’s just that people governing us are using this kind of agenda for their personal interests and to get votes but I think that if you go into the street people are way more tolerant. Sometimes it’s true that they get a little bit confused by what is said on TV or by what the politicians are saying. Obviously, this is a period where it is vital for everybody to come close together and not fear the other.

“I think this is going to be the big challenge. But nobody has to feel apologetic or whatever. We all know it’s bad what certain people are doing on both sides but we should just work together with the same purpose against these wrongdoers. That’s the most important thing.”