From learning football barefoot to World Cup hero: Kalidou Koulibaly delivers vintage performance to enter Senegal’s lore

Kalidou Koulibaly

20 years after Papa Bouba Diop scored Senegal’s first goal at the FIFA World Cup, delivering an otherworldly surprise by winning against reigning champions France, the African side are at it again.

This time, the hero was not a defensive midfielder, but a defender, the captain of the team, Kalidou Koulibaly, who dedicated his crucial goal against Ecuador, that lifted Senegal to a knockout phase berth, to Diop, commemorating exactly two years after his untimely death.

Diop became a worldwide icon, but Koulibaly is already there, having consistently been at the top of the standings regarding central defenders in the last decade, with his summer move to Chelsea only cementing his reputation.

But Koulibaly is not only a star on the pitch, he is also one outside of it, having endured a rough childhood and needing plenty of motivation to succeed. But he was hungry, he was talented and he knew what he needed to become one of the best in the world.

His father left Senegal for a better life for himself and his family and settled in France, where he became a lumberjack. But before that, he worked in a textile mill seven days a week, with no break. It was the only way he could support his family.

Eventually, Kalidou’s mother also come to France, when the situation got better and Koulibaly was born in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, far away as possible from the glamourous cities like Paris or Nice, in the Vosges Mountains. A city in the Northwest of France, Saint-Dié became a bedrock for immigrants from all over the world, like Senegal, Morocco or Turkey.

“My mother likes to tell a story about the first time we went back to Senegal. I was six years old, and I was a little scared. It was my first time meeting all my grandparents and cousins, and it was a bit of a shock for me to see how people lived in other parts of the world. All the kids were running around playing football with no shoes, and I was really upset by this, I guess,” said Koulibaly in an op-ed for ”The Players’ Tribune”.

This is how Koulibaly started playing football, barefoot, in Senegal, without any rules, just a bunch of children kicking the ball. As he returned to France, Senegal’s win against the country he was born in marked him for life. Watching the game in a classroom was the facilitator of Koulibaly becoming a football player.

For this reason, he moved to Metz, one of the biggest clubs developing young players in France and made his debut in 2010 for the side in the second league. Alongside Koulibaly, another Senegalese player, Sadio Mane, the best player in the African team’s squad, made his first steps in football.

Soon, scouters identified his potential and was called up to France’s Under-20 squad, where he played 11 games, even representing the team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia.

He could have been a world champions representing France, as Didier Deschamps, France’s coach, was clearly interested in him, announcing Koulibaly in the line-up, despite not being eligible. Because Kalidou was always set on playing for Senegal, his parents’ country.

“I don’t have any regrets because I want to write the story of the future of Senegal football and I hope I’ll be able to do that. I want to show that Senegal is one of the best teams in Africa. I had the French culture at school and I love this culture but I also had another culture at home – that of Senegal,” he explained for the BBC.

His career just went step by step in the right direction. First, he moved to Belgian outfit Genk in 2012, where he spent two years. When Napoli came calling in 2014, he knew nothing about Italy, but agreed to move to Serie A, in a transfer costing Napoli $8 million.

The first contact with the Italian squad was a shock: owner Aurelio de Laurentiis came and asked him if he was not 1.92m tall. Koulibaly replied that he is only 1.86m tall. De Laurentiis backed down immediately and said he would ask for some money back from Genk.

“It’s alright, Mr. President, you pay the full amount. I will give every centimeter back to you on the field, don’t worry,” replied Koulibaly.

The Senegalese defender became a bedrock of Napoli’s success, played 317 matches, winning an Italian Cup and one Italian Super Cup. Always touted to be the next big transfer for Napoli, Koulibaly only left in the summer of 2022 for Chelsea, who paid $40 million.

But he always was a crucial player for the national team. Since making his debut in 2015, Koulibaly played 67 games, becoming the tenth most capped played in Senegal’s history.

The number of goals? Only one, exactly the one against Ecuador, that handed Senegal their second knockout phase berth at the FIFA World Cup.

“An amazing moment for me and the team. We didn’t want to leave this World Cup with any regrets. Thank God I was in on that and putting it in the back of the net,” said the ever-modest Koulibaly after becoming a cult hero for Senegal.

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