For most young players, the thought of a full professional debut is a nerve inducing prospect. The culmination of years spent working towards a goal, it can be easy to see it as the defining moment of your life.
Mamadou Coulibaly was different. He had a more harrowing set of experiences preceding his career in football, ones that gave him a sense of perspective.
“I left with a backpack,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport when asked about his two year journey from Senegal to the Abruzzo region of Italy. “I only told Mamadou, my best friend. My parents thought I was at school.”
Coulibaly’s parents were already familiar with his dream of professional football. Discussions with his father — a P.E. teacher — resulted in a promise to one day take Mamadou for trials, but his son felt they were empty words.
The teenager eventually took matters into his own hands, and embarked on a journey to Europe. “They thought I was dead,” he said, admitting he turned off his phone and lost contact with home for several months. “I had enough to eat at home, there’s me and my two sisters. My dad didn’t want me to play though. For him studying was important, we’re a family of teachers.”
Fueled with the exuberance — and perhaps naivety — of youth, Coulibaly began his mission north. “I paid for a ticket for the bus from Dakar to Morocco, and that wasn’t dangerous,” he said.
The danger began in Morocco. Coulibaly was ill-prepared for his trip, and after running out of money he was forced to sleep in a port while waiting for a boat. “A man saw me there for a few days and asked me what I was doing sleeping on the street,” he explained. “I told him I wanted to go Europe. After a few days he came back, he was working on a ship which was going to France and he told me I could go.”
The notion of a desperate migrant heading to Europe via boat conjures some upsetting imagery, but Coulibaly quickly dismiss any such comparisons. “It wasn’t a boat like the ones you see on TV, it was bigger and it was transporting food,” he said. “There were 20 other boys with me. I was there for football, I don’t know about them, I didn’t know their dreams. It wasn’t dangerous, but then I can’t swim. If the boat had sunk I’d be dead.”
Now in Europe, his wandering had only just begun. He went to Marseille, and then later to Grenoble to stay with an aunt. Amazingly, his passion had not diminished, and he eventually moved on to Italy to stay with friends. “The start at Livorno was the most difficult,” he admitted. “A man had taken me there to present me to some teams, then one morning I woke up in a hotel and he wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t have money, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak Italian.”
Coulibaly was in need of luck. It seemed it had arrived when scouts from Livorno spotted him playing on a local beach. The club showed an interest in signing the midfielder, but given the nature of his journey he had no paperwork. Denied by red-tape, he continued to navigate the peninsula. He took trials at Cesena, Sassuolo, Roma and Ascoli, all of whom rejected him.
“I was sleeping on the streets and maybe in a day I managed to eat a sandwich,” he said. “I was in Rome and then they told me that there were many Senegalese in Pescara, so I took the train without paying for a ticket. I got down at Roseto, the wrong stop, and I slept on a sports field.”
The teenager slept on the field for three days before the police found him a foster home in Montepagano. Once there he received documentation, and after a trial at nearby Pescara he was officially signed. “When he arrived he didn’t have anything, neither clothes nor documents,” Nadia Mazzocchitti, who was in charge of the foster home, said. “He was immediately very humble, smiley, very polite and respectful. Now he still calls me all the time. He’s still a boy, maybe even a bit shy.”
After just two games in the club’s youth team he was called up to the senior side by coach Zdeněk Zeman. The 69 year old had worked closely with Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile during his last stint at the club, and has preached patience with Coulibaly. “The boy has talent but has to work a lot because it [talent] is not enough,” Zeman said.
Handed his debut last month against Atalanta, the Senegalese midfielder was then trusted from the start against Milan, (the club he grew up supporting). Finally a professional footballer, (he made his third appearance at the weekend against Empoli) and also revealed his football ambition was not solely self-motivated. “I risked my life for football, but I did it for them,” Coulibaly said, referring to his family. “Soon I’ll be able to help them.”
Settled in Italy, Coulibaly has also reconnected with his family. The teenager speaks to his father daily, and has since apologised for leaving so suddenly. “I haven’t seen him or my mum for two years and I miss my mum,” he said. “When I left she cried, she didn’t think I was still alive.”
Unable to overcome Milan, Coulibaly still managed to impress. While Zeman has preached the need for hard work, some outlets have compared him to Paul Pogba.
Whether Coulibaly will ever be able to match the Frenchman’s accomplishments is unclear. Granted, they sound like lofty ambitions, but so too did dreams of a professional football career and a meeting with his boyhood club. A man that risked it all for football, Coulibaly appears unafraid of anything, and that’s understandable when you consider how bright his future looks.