Andy Mitten

Keita’s fond farewell to Barcelona

Andy Mitten
Andy Mitten

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What do you do if you're Seydou Keita? You play for Barcelona (and Mali), where you're deeply respected by team-mates and fans. Only two months ago, you told both that you're so content that you want to retire at Barca in a few years. Your wish is reciprocated by your new coach and sporting director who've both told you face-to-face that they want you to stay.

You've won 14 trophies since joining Barca as the first outfield signing made by Pep Guardiola in 2008, since when you've earned a reputation for being professional, self-effacing and the most humble player in a squad of stars. You even talked your way out of starting in the 2009 Champions League final at left-back because you felt there were better players in your position.

Guardiola described you as "a guy who never plays poorly and who always makes the right decision." A few of the players knew you from before. Xavi remembers playing against you in the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championships, a tournament won by the young Spain of Xavi, Marchena, Gabri and Iker Casillas.

That only happened after Spain overcame a powerful Mali side whose best player was you. There was controversy though. FIFA's Michel Platini visited the Spanish camp and assured them that Xavi had won the Golden Ball for being the best player. Except at the gala the following day, you won that award to the delight of your Mali team-mates, but to the disgust of the Spaniards who stormed out and ate in a pizzeria rather than attend the gala banquet.

That was 13 years ago. You're 32 and have two years left to run on your contract at Camp Nou, but you also have a clause inserted allowing you to leave for free if you start in less than half the games each season. While you featured in 42 games last season, more than Gerard Pique and Alexis Sanchez, and more impressive considering you were injured and absent for the African Cup of Nations, you only actually started 22 games. That was less than half. You can leave for free if you choose.

Alerted by your agent, other clubs know that and your summer break has been interrupted by a head turning offer. It's far more money than what you're on, probably your last chance to earn stupid money in your life. So you weigh everything up.

The man who brought you to the club has stepped down and you fear that you are going to start even fewer games next season. You're also just about to cross the threshold of five years in Spain since you signed for Sevilla in 2007. That means your tax status will change from one of immense privilege granted in a booming economy, to one of high taxation in an economy on the rocks. You'll be clearing £48,000 a week - a lot of money, but nowhere near as much as people think and there's little public sentiment for giving more tax relief to millionaire footballers as there was when David Beckham moved to Madrid nine years ago. Or when you moved to Andalusia.

You benefited too, but you can earn three, maybe four times that, even if it's playing for a far, far inferior team in China. A club that was only founded in 2009 when it joined the Chinese third division. Bankrolled by a company who makes concrete, they won two successive promotions.

They play in a city you've never heard of, Dalian. A city which has been granted special tax status to attract foreign investment. Given that you're from West Africa and not west China, you could be part of that foreign investment. The figures add up.

But back to Catalonia. While you are popular in the team, you're not a star. Even though you might be the only player aside from Lionel Messi to score a hat-trick for Barca in the last three seasons. You've also scored a goal that won a league title (against Levante in 2011), but you're used most often as a substitute when your team are leading, usually away from home.

You have instructions to add your formidable physical presence, break up attacks and hold the fort. You have the technical excellence and physical presence to do what Yaya Toure used to do and do it well, though you're so versatile you can be played in several positions, primarily as a central or defensive midfielder.

Like Toure you have a shot that would burst nets in a kids' cartoon strip and such is your heading ability, those kids would believe you if you told them you could head the ball to Mars. Or Mali. Like Toure, you know your value. You're a Barcelona first teamer with nearly 200 games to your name and such exalted status attracts a premium.

Toure was starting fewer games for Barca as his role was given to Sergio Busquets. He decided to cash in on his status and become the best paid player in the world's richest league, earning over twice what he was on at Camp Nou. As a bonus he got to play with his brother. Could you blame him?

And while Toure started losing out to Busquets, you've started losing minutes to another emerging talent, Thiago Alcantara. He's the future, not you.

So you decide to take an offer to go and play in China for Dalian Aerbin on a lucrative deal that will take you to the cusp of your 35th birthday and more than double your take home. It doesn't matter that you'd never heard of them, but you know that China is becoming the new Qatar, a graveyard for ageing but still decent A-listers like Didier Drogba, Freddie Kanoute and Nicolas Anelka.

You state publicly how much you've enjoyed Barca and your team-mates say how much they've enjoyed playing with you. So all's well that ends well for the modern footballer who has the luxury of choosing between prestige or money. It's not like that for 99 per cent of footballers, who have choice in deciding the direction of their career.

Barca will now have to buy a new player, probably Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez, who will eat up close to the club's entire summer transfer budget of 40 million euros. Either that or promote a B teamer. Barca can understand why you left, but they'd rather you hadn't, and that's a wonderful compliment.    

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