1. Naby Keïta
Problems and rejections were part of Naby Keïta’s daily life until he moved to Europe aged 16. He was told he had no tactical understanding to make it as a professional footballer. A few years down the line, the world of normal kid from Guinea capital’s Conakry has certainly been turned upside down. The Guinean international is now the most expensive African footballer in the history of football, costing Liverpool up to 70 million Euros. Besides that he is one of the five nominees for the African player of the year award alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Victor Moses and his future teammates Sadio Mané, and Mohamed Salah. To understand how his rise to stardom became reality, it is important to take his whole story into account.
Keïta was born in the Conakry in 1995 and soon after that, his love for the game became omnipresent. Due to his family’s financial situation, football equipment was not part of the shopping list, but that did not to stop a young Keïta from playing.
“We would play anywhere there was open space, which was often on the street and we would have to dodge the cars! Nothing could separate me from the ball and I learnt so much from my experiences on the street,” Keïta recently told Melissa Reddy of Goal.com.
He played with whatever he could – often barefoot. Despite his parents advising him to focus on his schooling career, Keïta always prioritised football and his talent did not go unnoticed. Keïta remembers that “everyone in the community would say that I’m the best player in Conakry” and he eventually joined his hometown club Horoya AC aged nine.
At the age of12, the first local scouts already told Keïta that he should focus on a career in Europe, but it took him 4 more years to mature until he got his first trials in France. The Guinean failed to adapt to the European style of play during one of the toughest periods of his life – alone in Europe, hundreds of miles away from his family confronted with an unfamiliar culture. Keita was different to the other players, keeping the ball at his feet and trying to score on his own. He had no footballing education from one of the European academies and his style of play, which he adopted from the streets, was completely unsuitable.
Keïta admitted that “during these trials, coaches were asking him to do things I’d never heard of! They were using football terms that I couldn’t understand and giving instructions that I had no clue about. I didn’t know about tactics.”
Understandably, Keïta got rejected on multiple occasions and his dream of become a professional footballer seemed to be slipping away. But Keïta was highly motivated to prove his doubters wrong and at a tournament in Marseille organised by the Guinea defender Bobo Balde two years later, Keïta finally caught the eye of a France professional side, FC Istres, who signed him later that year on a three-year contract. Keïta made an instant impression on his Ligue 2 debut, scoring once and contributing an assist. He wanted to prove that he belonged into the European football universe and his career was about to kick-start.
His impressive performances earned him a move to the Austrian Bundesliga side Red Bull Salzburg with whom he enjoyed two successful years between 2014 and 2016, making 81 appearance and winning back-to- back league titles. Keïta then moved to RB Leipzig, which was no surprise considering the close relation to Red Bull and the tactical similarities. During that time, Keita also
established a strong relationship with Ralf Rangnick, making it even easier for him to adapt to the German Bundesliga –something that never happened in his career before.
Keïta soon justified Rangnick’s claim that Keïta is “an exceptionally talented player, one of the best players I have worked with in 20 years of professional football” by dominating the midfield in the Bundesliga and being labelled as Germany’s best midfielder alongside Bayern Munich’s Thiago. Last season can genuinely be considered as Keita’s breakthrough to the world class stage as he managed to showcase his unique skillset to a critical mass for the first time ever.
Naby Keïta is equally effective as a creative midfielder as he is as a destroyer – combining the best aspects of his role model Deco and N’Golo Kanté. He’s successfully bridging the gap between defence and RB’s creative attack, breaking up play constantly with multiple interceptions and tackle while also averaging an unprecedented amount of successful dribbles for a midfielder. He excels at launching a quick counter-attack taking on defenders, while also being comfortable to receive the ball in tight
spaces. Keïta can switch the play, keeping the build-up going or transition quickly. To put it simple, he can do everything at an elite level. He is everywhere, and does everything – a true box-to- box midfielder.
Schalke’s sporting director Heidel told journalists after their game against Leipzig: “RB played with 12 players today, Naby Keita plays for two! The kid is unbelievable.”
Abstracting from that, Keïta seems like a welcomed addition to any team in world football, but especially Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp’s high press system seems perfectly suited to the Guinean’s holistic skillset, explaining why the Reds paid a premium on his release clause to secure his services next summer.
A logical step for Keïta, who aims to become the best African footballer on the planet. Nevertheless, Keïta is self-critical and highly ambitious, “planning to only get better and stronger” and declaring his career so far as “just the start.” A scary thought considering his outstanding performances so far, but a realistic one, taking into account that he’ still just 22 years old – years away from his prime – and that he never played in a CL knockout tie.
If things go the right way for Keïta, the sky is the limit for the boy from Conakry, who understood that “it doesn’t matter how poor you are, or where you’re from, if you are willing to make sacrifices, willing to work hard and to never stop fighting for your dreams, you can make them happen.”
By: Max Riegel/@max_riegel