It is a question that often crops up with footballers, although it rarely elicits the response that Charles N'Zogbia gives so candidly.
"People have asked me what I would have done if it had not been for football," the Aston Villa winger says. "The answer is: 'I don't know'. To be honest, I might have gone to jail, because all my best friends I grew up with ended up there, and I might have been the same. Football has saved me."
Behind N'Zogbia's frank admission is the untold story of a young child brought up by a single parent on a tough estate on the outskirts of Le Havre, where street football took place in between skirmishes with the police that were part of everyday life. It was a deprived area that served as a breeding ground for criminals, which helps to explain why N'Zogbia finds it impossible to track down any of his old friends whenever he returns to France to retrace his roots.
"Outside Le Havre, where I was from, in Caucriauville, it's a big estate. And when you are not from the city centre [in Le Havre] it's really hard. You were fighting against bullies and having trouble with the police," he says. "It's not good because when I go back to Le Havre, I don't see any of my friends because they all ended up in jail. They were involved mainly either in robbery or drug dealing to make money. It's crazy."
The bleak picture that N'Zogbia paints of the "ghetto" where he spent the first 12 years of his life strikes a chord at a time when debate is burning in England about the underlying social problems that some have blamed for the riots in London and other major cities.
N'Zogbia knows how disillusioned youngsters can feel when they grow up in a town where unemployment is high and there are few opportunities, yet he shakes his head when asked about the events of the past week. "For me, it's difficult. If you don't go to school, you don't find a job. But I don't think it's right to do what they did," he says.
"I know it's hard, but if you believe what you can achieve, you can work on it, because there is always people who can help you in the ghetto. There is a bad part but also a good part. Where I used to live, there were a lot of people who did try to help me and told me to get involved in activities such as sport and stay away from the trouble with the police. You have to believe they are trying to help you and stick to it."
N'Zogbia's salvation was his natural football talent, yet that could easily have gone to waste without Le Havre's intervention. The Ligue 2 club spotted him at the age of nine and invited him to join their academy, where he trained after school, honing the left foot that would later torment Premier League defences. His ability was never in doubt but the same could not be said for his behaviour, which Le Havre became increasingly concerned about due to the company he was keeping in Caucriauville.
Although his home was not far from the academy, Le Havre offered him the chance to board with the youngsters who came from further afield to prevent him from continuing to mix with the wrong crowd. His mother, who was born in Congo and had been left to raise four children on her own after splitting up with N'Zogbia's father six years earlier, knew that she had to accept the invitation. "My mum said [to Le Havre]: 'I know that my son is good, but I want him to stay with you because he could end up doing crazy stuff and I don't want him to end up that way'."
It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to N'Zogbia, who admits that he had started to get involved in "trouble" just before he left home.
"In the centre they taught me discipline because I was a bit wayward," he says. "We were told that there should be no fighting. It was about respect and working together and that's what Le Havre gave me. Sometimes, when you are from the ghetto, you don't trust anybody. But at Le Havre you have to trust everybody and everybody is your friend. I was there eight years and everyone was happy."
At least they were until N'Zogbia departed for Newcastle United at the age of 18, leading to a bitter dispute with Le Havre in which Fifa and the court of arbitration for sport became involved. It is easy to see why Le Havre felt so frustrated given the lengths they had gone to to help N'Zogbia, yet the 25-year-old bridles at the suggestion that it must have been difficult to leave. "It wasn't hard to walk away because at that age I was a man and I knew what I wanted to do," he says.
"If anybody tried to stop me from playing football they couldn't do it because that's the way I am. I can be a good guy and I can be a bad guy, because I know where I came from and the street will be inside me.
"I was with Le Havre for eight years and they were asking me to sign a two-year contract, which was like an apprenticeship. I just said to them: 'If you believe in me, you give me a professional contract, or if you don't I will be happy to be out of the club and move away'."
He remains indebted to Sir Bobby Robson for bringing him to Newcastle, although he looks back on his time at St James' Park with mixed emotions. N'Zogbia played under six managers in five seasons, including Joe Kinnear, who left him out of the team and upset him further by mispronouncing his name as "insomnia". Asked whether he confronted Kinnear about the remark, N'Zogbia replies: "No. I wasn't speaking to him for three months. The club just told me: 'Charles, you can go', so I took my car and went. Simple."
He flourished in his two and a half seasons at Wigan, where his exciting performances on the wing attracted interest from a number of Premier League managers, including Alex McLeish, who had hoped to sign N'Zogbia last year, when he was the manager of Birmingham City, only for the move to collapse at the 11th hour. He had more success as Villa manager, sealing a £9.5m deal for N'Zogbia last month in what has the potential to be one of the best pieces of transfer business this summer.
N'Zogbia, who will make his debut at Fulham on Saturday, views his move to Villa as a "big opportunity to show myself" but he also hopes that his burgeoning reputation can serve as an inspiration to the young children who are growing up in the same community where he was raised.
"When I go back to the ghetto, they look at me as a star," N'Zogbia says. "I tell them: 'I'm just like you, you can do it.' I see a lot of kids playing football and I say: 'I came from here and if I ended up being a professional, you can do it as well'."
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