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The serenity of Kalidou Koulibaly

The serenity of Kalidou Koulibaly

Kalidou Koulibaly says he values serenity over most things. After turning down a chance to play for France and several top European clubs, his poise paid off when he lifted the Africa Cup of Nations for Senegal last weekend.


Transcript

Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world of football.

Today, why serenity is the name of the game for Africa Cup of Nations winner Kalidou Koulibaly.

***

The 2002 World Cup was memorable for a few reasons. 

Japan and South Korea were the hosts… it was the first ever World Cup in Asia. South Korea knocked Spain out to become the first team outside of Europe or South America to have reached a World Cup semi-final. 

David Beckham was relieved to score his penalty in a one-nil win over Argentina after being  sent off against the same team four years earlier. 

And it was the first time we had seen the African nation Senegal at a World Cup. They kicked off the tournament versus the holders France. 

They shocked the world. They won one-nil. 

“But in the 30th minute, Senegal, whose players coincidentally all played for French clubs, took the lead. El Hadji Diouf was sent clear and Papa Bouba Diop scrambled the ball past Fabian Barthez.”

FIFA

Watching on TV in a French classroom that day was ten-year-old Kalidou Koulibaly. 

He was born in North-Eastern France after his father moved there from Senegal. 

His town was multicultural. Kalidou Koulibaly said playing football with his friends was like playing “a World Cup every day.” And that made him very aware of his roots. 

Which is why, on that day in 2002, Kalidou Koulibaly cheered for Senegal over his native France.

***

Fast forward two decades and Senegal have just won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time. 

Defender Kalidou Koulibaly was the team’s captain.

“Champions of Africa, ladies and gentlemen are Senegal. The trophy in the hands of Kalidou Koulibaly and celebrations can begin.” 

BeIn Sports Asia

When FIFA President Gianni Infantino and African Football Federation President Patrice Motsepe tried to insist that Kalidou Koulibaly must lift the trophy with the dignitaries away from his team-mates, he refused.

Instead, he insisted on taking the trophy back to the centre of the pitch so the whole squad could enjoy the moment together. 

After all, this was the first time Senegal had won AFCON. In fact, it was their first major tournament win.

And the celebrations back home were wild. 

[Celebratory music and crowds cheering in Senegal]

When Kalidou Koulibaly insisted that he shared the moment with others, those who knew him couldn’t have been surprised. 

This is, after all, a man who named friendship, family and serenity as the three most important things in his life. 

***

In international football, Kalidou Koulibaly has been loyal to Senegal when he was perfectly entitled to play for France. 

And it’s the same in club football. This is his eighth season playing for Napoli, in Italy. 

Just as he says he feels both French and Senegalese, he says he feels Neapolitan too. But he could have easily left Naples. He’s an elite defender but has no Italian league titles to his name.

In almost every transfer window, he’s been linked with a big-money move away, usually to the Premier League.

“Reports in Italy suggesting Koulibaly could be leaving Napoli, three big clubs leading the chase: Manchester City, Manchester United and PSG. Jules, out of those three which is the most likely destination?”

ESPN FC

The answer was none. He stayed at Napoli.

He says that Naples is a city that loves people. In that way, it reminds him of Africa and his neighbours treat him like a son. 

***

Perhaps other players in Kalidou Koulibaly’s position wouldn’t have made the same choices. 

Maybe they’d have played for France. Maybe they’d have taken a move to one of Europe’s elite clubs and enjoyed the money that would’ve come with it.

But it seems that Kalidou Koulibaly is wired differently. It looks as though his early experiences as the son of an immigrant growing up in a multicultural part of France have shaped the player, and the man, that he is today. 

Of course, he’s faced difficulties. He’s been racially abused several times during matches in Italy. But throughout he’s stayed serene. He says “we are all brothers.” 

And his Senegal team-mates were surely grateful to have Kalidou Koulibaly as their brother when they lifted the Africa Cup of Nations trophy last weekend.

***

Today’s story was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Studio Klong.