Mali breathes football ever since the black panther preached it's talent across Europe. The 70's Valencia forward lives in Bamako, the capital of his country where he founded a club that later produced players like Mahamadou Diarra or Seydou Keita.Bamako. The land is more blood than earth. The humidity is suffocating this times of the year, where days often end in dense curtains of water From April to June, the thermometer crawls upwards of 50 degrees celsius and the river Niger is empties itself to the brink of suicide. The sand becomes yellow and disintegrates into a cloud when the horses impose upon it. But during these months when the clouds appear at last, the land of the sun gets wet and embraces the sandals, the closest thing in this border of the world, to the boots in Europe, the fascinating Europe, towards which the African idols look .
"I always had...always! always! a lot of problems with the crowds". In one of those vacant lots drawing a city perforated by channels contaminated by dyed textile mills outside it, he started kicking football. Mali was still one of the pantries of France when the great Salif Keita (Bamako, 1948) kick them until he became the best player in the country's history and one of the best of the continent. He kicked them until he gave the then body of 1.78 centimeters and 62 kilograms the lethality of a panther addicted to goals. If all of Mali breathes football and the country has boys in the best teams of the world, Salif Keita is the main responsible. "The Black Pearl of Bamako" was the alias with which he ruled the 70s. He was after all the first African to climb to the pinnacle of football. And as such he is respected. Leisurely dialogue. She lives next to the Hippodrome Bamako, in a semi-paved street without exit. On the left, her home, radiant white, two floors and a small porch protects the entrance. It was built in the 80's when he returned to Mali to deliver his legacy. He just ate in the company of his wife, changing TV channels from the couch, leaning slightly. She says she does not like football, "but I got used to tolerate it (....)". Keita started his career at Stade Malien and consolidated himself at AS Real Bamako. At 15 he was undisputed the lineups and at 17 and he was the national totem. A friend searched for, and found, a team abroad; the French Saint-Etienne in the first division of the majestic metropolis. And Keita, with a sack of dreams to fulfill, rushed to the conquest of Europe also fleeing the incomprehension of his audience. "I always had...always! always! a lot of problems with the crowds" he says raising his left hand above his head still expressing boredom. "They thought I didn't do everything I could do. I was injured and could not play the final of the African Nations Cup in 1972, for example. We lost to Ivory Coast 3-2 and they reproached me that I had not played. They said my injury was a lie. And I said; I'm going. "
It was no easy arrival. The day after landing in France, the press reported that the exotic signing taxi had travelled from Paris to Saint-Etienne, 600 kilometers of nothing, and a bill which caused new president shock. The story has always haunted him as if it defined him. "The problem was that when I came here I had to do it secretly because the authorities of Mali did not want me to go." He began his flight across the Ivory Coast and then to Liberia. "There they stole all my money. So when I arrived in Paris, I had nothing. I had no choice but to take a taxi. It was not easy because no taxi driver trusted me to take me to Saint-Etienne. But at the end one took the risk. And I arrived. That is the explanation I caught an expensive taxi". The change was violent. From the Sub-Saharan Africa to the shadow of the Alps. "In Saint-Etienne it was very cold," he says, shrugging his shoulders as if he could still feel it. But having the first three buttons of the shirt undone and even the air conditioning was not enough to cool the interior of the room. "When I was alone I was miserable. With the team it was different. I was better. I did not like staying at home or at the hotel and was always thinking of returning to Mali. Actually, many years after I left I was still thinking of going back to Mali. But I couldn't. I had to work to make my career a success. ""Running as a black man today to be able to live as a a white man tomorrow" as Samuel Eto'o later put it.
He got adapted. He truly did. In five seasons with the Greens (1967-1972) he played 167 games and scored 135 goals. In the 70-71 season alone he scored 42 goals, a stratospheric record that earned him the European Silver Boot. That same year he achieved another record: more than four goals in four league games. His instinct, his technique and his amazing verticality decorated with take ons, bicycle kicks, tunnels and heel passes. It is out of the camera candy. It was a shout of football on the heavy mat of Geoffroy-Guichard. Albert Batteux, his coach at Saint-Etienne, said of him that he had it all, "as any of the greatest Brazilian players." "I've seen him try to do supernatural things," he confessed. The goals of the Malian striker gave Saint-Etienne three league titles and two French Cups. It shocked the fans of the club so much that, weary of consistent but uninspiring results, the club changed its badge to introduce in his honor a black panther pouncing on a ball. The cat would disappear in 80's but the club again included it in the 90's. His sparkling fascinated Olympique Marseille, who signed him in the summer of the 1972-1973 season, but discrepancies in the transfer led to his departure. Only six months later. He had time to play 18 games and scoring 10 goals, one against his former team. And he celebrated it pointing at his former club president from the middle of the park.
"The other teams have been strengthened and we have not, we have a black man who can't even play ball" said QuinoIn 1973-74, coinciding with the opening of the Spanish league to foreigners, Salif Keita ended up in Valencia. Maybe it was then that his star began to fade. "I scored many goals. But I injured my right groin and spent almost 18 months without playing well. I played, it hurt again, I returned to play ... I had no luck in Valencia. But I have to say that there were very good players in the team. A few years before I arrived, the team was champion. But when I arrived, the people who had been playing best were gone. Sol went to Real Madrid in my second season, for example. It was a new team, but with the same reputation. People asked us to win but it could not be, "he says, pulling the good Spanish he learned back then. Time has revalued its performance but then, Keita was criticized even by peers. "The other teams have been strengthened and we have not, we have a black man who can't even play ball", Quino said. The fans of the Luis Casanova, who was already one of the most demanding, seemed not to consider enough his 26 goals in 81 games, despite that those times belonged to the tough South American players who had come to Spain to bleed the attacking football . Leagues were won with 50 goals. And then there was the racial factor. A black in that Spain? "Everyone was telling me things. People shouted at me black. And it hurt, it bothered me a lot, but I had to get used to the rival fans, "he says without grudge.
He also earned the reputation of a spoiled diamond, a lover of the night. The same stain that later pursued other African figures (Yaya Toure, Adebayor, Eto'o again) victims of colonialist worldview that distorts the image of the African player into a savage incompatible with the modern world. "The problem was that that was my reputation arriving at Valencia," he says suddenly uncomfortable. "It was information given to destroy me. Marseille wanted to change his nationality because they had three foreigners. And I said no. And they set out to tell the Spanish press that I went out much at night. But in three years at Valencia, they realized that was a lie. It was confirmed to me by the manager of the club, Jose Maria Zarraga. He said he did not know why they said that about me. Di Stefano also said this: "his life was very pure, his healthy living was incredible." I know of no club in Valencia. But the reputation was different." The reality is that there were few things more modern in football than what Keita offered. He lived at a stage with constant turmoil. Except Di Stefano, who trained him in his first season in Valencia, nobody used him in his role. His height tempted coaches to make a battering ram to receive and hold up the ball. The short-term interests prevailed. But Keita was more than that. 'The elusive' they had also called him in France.
"My relationship with Di Stefano was very good. He was a great coach. He knew and understood me. He knew I could do many things on the field. He said I was introverted. He knew he had to talk to me and be around me to make me feel good. " In that stage, we had Sol and I will not forget that dull, hard football with no shine. "Sol was my friend. The only one who spoke a little French. Di Stefano asked him to stay with me. When we were traveling we were always in the same room. It helped a lot. It is true that Sol was very hard in the field, "he says with a smile. "When I went to Real Madrid I played against him. And he gave a lot of knocks. I also played against Camacho. He was very young and was mad. He was very aggressive. I also remember Atletico Madrid. It was a very strong team, which also gave many knocks. Oops! Especially a defender, Eusebio [Bejenaro]. And Granada. They all gave too many knocks. Football has changed a lot in Spain. Back then, I had to jump all the time. It hurt a lot when I was hit. It was full of Argentines and Paraguayans. And they threw a lot of knocks around"he concludes, tightening his face, still feeling the studs. His next stop was the Sporting Lisbon. He spent three seasons there, from 1976 to 1979. He played 77 matches and scored 33 goals, which served to give the club a Cup of Portugal. Finally, like so many stars, he sought retirement in the US. He ended up at the New England Tea Men of Boston, of the defunct North American Soccer League (NASL).
"In this league there was Eusebio, Pele, Carlos Alberto, Cruyff ... I once played against Pele and Cruyff. It wasn't easy either, because they brought many very hard young defenders to accompany the stars. The artificial turf fields were of poor quality. And when you fell you got burns. The trips were very long. Hours and hours of flight. Once we played in Boston, the next day in Toronto, then in Edmonton, Vancouver and then to San Jose and to finish, another game in Boston. All this with 34 years. In a single week. Here it is hot but Boston was freezing! ". It's hot in Mali, indeed. Lesser and lesser so in his hosue, because the air conditioning is working. In the visible parts of his home, at least, there are only a few souvenirs: scarves of Valencia and Saint-Etienne over the stairs, a plate, a trophy. From the context and the irrelevance with which he seemingly treats his epic, he seems a retiree who had not left the neighborhood social club.
In a second, his wife appears at the door with a plate of rice, a bowl of goat meat with peanut butter and pineapple soda. It was not in the plans, but in Mali, to refuse an invitation carries a jail sentence. In 1981 he hung up his boots but did not say goodbye in football. He returned home to create his own school, but did not succeed until several years later. In Mali everything happens painfully slow, if it occurs at all. You lose one day looking for a house. And finding out who lives there can take a week. In comparison, the agony of Josef K. is pure relaxation. "Mali is a difficult country," he admits. "When I arrived people did not believe in my project, they said I was crazy. That what I wanted to do was not possible. BBut I was decided. I had talked to many people, I had seen many things and had been in many countries. I knew what I wanted, but people do not believe in change and did not believe in me." He overcame local resistance and created the Centre Salif Keita (CSK), first as academy and since 1993, as a professional club in the First Division.
A bumpy road, escorted by small stalls of fruit and bottled gas, leading to the stadium of CSK, located between the oxidized metal sheets of Yirimadio, one of the more modest neighborhoods of Bamako on the banks of the Niger, bereft of official buildings. In theory, the alleged stadium holds 4,000 spectators, but at the CSK home there is only a temporary stand, with a field of grass and other of dirt. From this club, with little more than a piece of moon landscape property they produced Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra to enlarge the work of the Black Pearl of Bamako.
"We have to give our descendents the country that we have received. One day the people will rise up, "he predicts. His face gets harder, already signing up to the revolt.- Do you feel you are the precursor to the success of an entire continent? - I can not say that. When I was little, education of the citizens of Mali was to be always humble. Always. Of course, now things have changed. Young people now are different. - But it's true. Now there are many African players in the football elite. When you started, none had succeeded.
"When I arrived in France some had been playing before me. In Spain there wasn't, it's true. The success I had.... it was maybe the first time an African player experienced that", he finally concedes, although he is lowering his eyes. It is difficult to see another Salif Keita come out of Mali. The Malians are passionate about the Spanish league but they seem to feel more for Pepe, Puyol, Ramos ... They love strength, power, courage. Get up and keep running. Their current vision circulates far from creation, far from the horizontal pass, but they revere the Spanish team and the taxi drivers recite from memory their successes and line-ups. Diarra and Keita and are proof of a football that made too many defensive midfielders, a pandemic that runs through the African continent. "Before we played as Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Xavi ... we were very technical. We did not run much. The truth is that now there are many defensive players in Mali. The style of Mali was once more technical. Now people want force. And we have to return to the game before. "
In this old man library, as the greatest writer of Mali, Ahmadou Ba Hampaté, said in his day; he feels the painful cracks that have ruptured his homeland, a conflict in the north and a coup in the South, and he speaks of inheritance and epic. "The situation is terrible. I do not see a clear future. Noone does anything. Nobody thinks. This would never have happened in the first moment of independence. Impossible. People were informed, had a political education. But things have changed. A people must have a political education. If you do not, people can not understand what is happening. We can not allow the fall of Mali. We have to give our descendents the country that we have received. One day the people will rise up, "he predicts. His face gets harder, already signing up the revolt.