KALIDOU KOULIBALY, the new defensive cornerstone for Chelsea, grew up using rocks as goalposts.
Mohamodou Ndiaye, a childhood friend, has fond recollections of their makeshift pitch in Saint-Die, an industrial city in north-eastern France.
Ndiaye stated, “Kalidou and I have known each other for approximately five years.
“We always played football on concrete after school.” It hurt to fall, but after a while you grew used to it.
“Behind his home, we constructed a football field with large stones to serve as goals.
“Later, Kalidou was the representative of her cohort at school. We were granted his request to have appropriate goals on the playground.”
As soon as he entered the youth section of SR Saint-Die, Koulibaly stood out.
Coach Philippe Pissot, who first met the youngster when he was eight, remarked, “Even at that age, he was the leader of the defense and the entire team.
“Every decision he made was the correct one. And he tackled with an air of authority and confidence.
Now, when I observe him on television, I recognize the same characteristics.
Pissot’s day employment was as a teacher at Ecole Vincent Auriol, the elementary school in the heart of the Kellermann working-class and immigrant neighborhood.
Ndiaye stated, “Our fathers worked in factories.”
“People of various origins lived side by side, and they were friendly and tolerant.
“We had companions and acquaintances of Portuguese, Turkish, Algerian, Moroccan, and Mauritanian descent.
We all spoke the same ‘peulh’ dialect and were like one large family.
The boys spent their final year of primary education in Pissot’s class.
In the summer of 2002, France traveled to the Far East to defend the World Cup they had won on home soil, but were stunned by a certain West African nation in their inaugural match.
Pissot stated, “The France vs. Senegal match occurred in the morning, French time, while we were in school.
“There was a television in the back of the classroom that was used to broadcast documentaries.
“Kalidou and Mohamodou were ecstatic when I announced that we would be attending the game.
“I told Kalidou: ‘France 5 Senegal 0.’ But Senegal triumphed 1-0 and the fans were ecstatic.”
Nearly two decades later, Mohamodou and the rest of Kellermann’s Senegalese community were celebrating arguably Koulibaly’s greatest moment: leading his nation to its first African Cup of Nations victory in February.
But the path to triumph was riddled with obstacles. Metz, who had signed Koulibaly when he was 13 years old, released him when he was 16 years old.
According to Ndiaye, the rejection pushed his companion forward as a football player and a scholar.
Koulibaly studied diligently and considered becoming a physical education teacher while playing for the club’s adult first team in a regional division.
“Kalidou was the youngest athlete on the first team,” said Ndiaye.
“Sometimes he needed a note from the club in order to leave school early during the week to train or play a game.
Even though the club was amateur, Kalidou maintained his regimen from the Metz academy, which included a healthy diet, additional training, and never going to bed late.
“I used to go to his house on Sunday evenings to watch television, and he would frequently fall asleep before halftime.”
When Metz realized their error and called again, however, Koulibaly was thoroughly awake.
After making his professional début there, he transferred to Belgian club Genk, a talent factory that has produced, among others, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois.
Then he spent eight years at Napoli, where he contributed to the club’s revival as a domestic and European power and was repeatedly voted Serie A’s finest defender.
Back in Saint-Die, they have followed Koulibaly’s development with pride and joy.
The former SR Saint-Die club, of which Pissot was secretary, amalgamated in 2019 with Saint-Die Kellermann, of which Ndiaye is president.
Koulibaly’s younger brother Seoudou, a Chelsea supporter, plays for the first squad, and Koulibaly himself frequently returns to where it all began.
Koulibaly was named an Honorary Citizen of Saint-Die in 2015.
According to Ndiaye, his friend prefers to keep a low profile and not discuss how he assists the club with equipment, finances development projects in Senegal, and plays a prominent role in combating racism in football.
Ndiaye stated, “Kalidou is a role model for the young athletes in our city.
“He has demonstrated that with perseverance and self-belief, it is possible to realize one’s goals.
“When he returns to our Kellermann neighborhood during the holidays, he remains very accessible to the youth.
“He frequently visits the area where children enjoy chatting, drinking coffee, and viewing sports.”
Pissot stated, “Many children wear Napoli shirts with Koulibaly’s number, 26, on the back, and a large number of people witnessed his matches on television.