When it comes to youth football academies across the globe, and recognising talent, few can step in the ring with Barcelona’s world-renowned ‘La Masia’ – a hotbed for developing top prospects into eventual impact, first-grade stars. Lauded for birthing
graduates like Cesc Fábregas, Gerard Piqué, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and the most important one of all, Lionel Messi, the Catalan system’s churned out one star after the other over the last two decades like a conveyor belt. The system’s nurtured each student by embedding core Catalan culture and values early on, the syllabus that served as the foundation of the Blaugrana’s most recent dynasty.
Barcelona’s infrastructure spawned pure-bred talents that will last a lifetime, long after their playing days are numbered. Yet, while this past generation of excellence will live on as long as the ‘Beautiful Game’ exists, and its era has become nearly
unrivaled in the eyes of many, there is something to be said about the abundance of talent that has seemingly slipped through the cracks. Setting out for pastures new, and departing to live out dreams of glory elsewhere away from Catalonian limelight,
names like Mikel Arteta, Thiago Motta, Pepe Reina, and Mauro Icardi are among those most acclaimed in recent years – plying their trade elsewhere on the biggest and brightest stages European football has to offer. However, there is one individual who only recently, with his emergence in the Italian capital of Rome over the last few years, now belongs as one of those who perhaps wasn’t properly vetted, and gone away too soon.
Keita Baldé Diao was born to Senegalese parents in Arbúcies, Girona, Catalonia where the very first chapter of his footballing career would unfold. After several years strutting his stuff as a child at Club de Futbol Damm, a system predominantly
known around Spain as a feeder club for elite senior sides in the region, Keita was ushered into the Barcelona academy in 2004 as a raw product with the upside to eventually break into the first-team picture. Showing tremendous growth, the attacker was included in Barcelona’s youth team that would travel to Qatar in 2010 for a tournament. Unfortunately, Keita’s time in the Middle East would be remembered for the wrong reason as an ice-cube prank on a teammate led to a sentence served on loan with local affiliate Cornellà who also received partial rights to the teenager.
Demonizing his every opponent, Keita’s offensive prowess saw him make the most of his punishment, bury a striking total of 47 goals for Cornella’s youth side. Shortly after, he would reject Barcelona’s offer for a return in favour of exploring alternative
destinations to carry on with his promising career. According to Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport back in December 2012, Real Madrid, English giants Manchester United and Juventus fancied his services, but it was Roman outfit Lazio
who would win the sweepstakes in the summer of 2011, signing the wonder-kid for a meager €300,000 – a fee well worth the risk for one of La Masia’s top guys off the assembly line.
Following his first full season in Italy season playing for Lazio’s Primavera youth team, manager Vladimir Petkovic promoted the Senegal attacker into the first-team for the 2013-14 term – well aware of what sort of talent he now had at his disposal
up front as a teenager. 15 September 2013 marked his debut inside the ever- intimidating environment that is the Stadio Olimpico, coming on as a late substitution in a 3-0 rinsing of Chievo Verona. Progressively, Keita would solidify starting status for the Eagles that campaign, displaying his versatility to slot into several roles across the attack. Over a total of 25 appearances in league action, his five goals and five assists showed obvious attacking potential, but more than anything else, such sudden growth at a young age. However, in the ensuing campaigns, though demonstrating promise in solo flashes of brilliance, he seemed a
bit too inconsistent at times. Collectively, acting manager Stefano Pioli, Lazio supporters and the entirety of Serie A apologists felt there was more to Keita’s game than met the eye; another tier to move up in, and one that could quite easily make
him one of Europe’s complete attacking forces. Sure enough, it was during the 2016-17 term under Simone Inzaghi in which he’d put it all together, performing with the utmost confidence and consistency.
Amassing over 1.900 minutes in 31 Serie A features, Keita would set the Capitale ablaze with an impressive scoring clout; 16 goals to go along with three assists. Lazio had clinched a UEFA Europa League birth with a fifth place finish, but with Keita’s expiring contract looming in summer 2018 and no intentions of renewing, president Claudio Lotito understood the time had come to cash in and sell the 22year old to the highest bidder. AC Milan’s hungry ownership with lofty ambitions tailed the former Masia academy player, and if reports were in fact true, reached an agreement on fee with Lazio. However, Keita’s entourage waited for Beppe Marotta and Juventus to come forth and match Lazio’s valuation as his will was to join ‘The Old Lady.’ When it became clear neither of the Italian giants, including Inter, were willing to meet Lotito’s demands, Monaco swooped in for his signature on 29 August 2017, striking a deal in the vicinity of 30 million euros.
Last year, Keita full repertoire was regularly on display for all viewers of the Italian top-flight to see. A mesmeric dribbler, his tremendously quick feet enabled him to unlock defenses, beat his marker – either for pace or technical skill – and cast him a
nuisance for the opposition to combat on counter-attacks. Deployed on the left wing, and taking into account his skillset, sharp movements cutting inward kept defensive units honest and respecting his ability to strike for goal, combine play or spot his striker. Though he tallied just three assists, do not let that fool you into thinking he is capped out as strictly as a scoring threat. At 22, Keita has the potential to be a consistent double-digit goal and assist source for Monaco – especially when you consider his surrounding personnel at the principality club. Unlike most wingers today, Keita’s strong physique combined with the technical means will allow him to withstand more contact, draw more fouls and, above all, maintain the fitness to cement himself as a mainstay in Leonardo Jardim’s setup going forward.
By virtue of chairman Dmitry Rybolovlev’s approach to the market, and Monaco’s selling nature in order to maximize gains, all signs point to Keita outgrowing his current surroundings within the next year or two, and moving on for a career-defining switch. Could it be tending to unfinished business in Barcelona, or will their rivals Real Madrid have another go for his talents? In any case, by Keita addressing his early-career inconsistencies and go strength from strength with every passing year, he will have no shortage of suitors. Until then, fans of the Les Rogues et Blancs should just enjoy the Senegalese star at the Stade Louis, savor all he has to offer and reap the rewards of the Barcelona product that got away.
By: Matthew Santangelo/@Matt_Santangelo