“I have always known what I wanted to achieve in life,” says Mamadou Sakho. “I have grown up with quite a tough mentality. When I was growing up it was in a fairly tough area of Paris. To illustrate that – some of the people I grew up with are either in prison. Or dead. I guess that gives you an idea.”
It does. That is no ordinary statement; but then interviewing Sakho, the Liverpool and France defender, is no ordinary experience not least for the evocative way in which he illustrates his points, the expressive language he uses and the self-possession he has which means he has always accepted responsibility.
For family; for club; for country.
Sakho recalls that he was just eight when he first heard “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung by the Anfield crowd. He was at home in the 18th arrondissement (Goutte d’Or – known as ‘Little Africa’) in Paris - one of the city’s roughest; bleakest areas. Sakho did not understand a word of English but was captivated by the emotion he saw on the television.
At Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, ahead of today’s Premier League encounter away to Chelsea, Sakho recalls that sense and how it stayed with him. “I didn’t have a clue what they were saying,” he says. “But now to have the opportunity and the luck to be on the field before a game when they do sing that song as part of this legendary, mythical stadium then it really warms the heart.
“It gives you a real frisson, a real shiver down your spine. But what it also does is transform you into a warrior who wants to go and fight for the ultimate, fight for that shirt.”
Sakho, 23, joined Liverpool on the summer transfer deadline day for £16million. It meant leaving Paris Saint-Germain having been their equivalent to Steven Gerrard; a symbolic local player the French club would give everything to keep, according to president Nasser al-Khelaifi, despite the Qatari millions that have been pumped in to transform the team with big-names to challenge Europe’s elite and despite Sakho’s career having stalled.
His story at PSG is remarkable. Captain at just 18 – “I was 17,” he quickly corrects – he distinctly remembers when football became an escape from the poverty that threatened to engulf his family. “I was fortunate enough to get into the Paris Saint-Germain academy (Camp des Loges) at a young age and I attached myself to that, I threw myself into that and that really helped,” Sakho, the fourth child of seven, explains. “It gave me the chance to take my family out of the difficult existence that they had up to that point.
“I grew up very, very quickly. When I was 13 I probably thought like an 18-year-old. I managed to cross the barriers very, very quickly and it was certainly a chance that I could not miss out on because I was living my passion and through living that passion and enjoying that passion I was able to provide shelter for my family.”
But, with that strong personality, he also rebelled. The PSG academy was governed by rules and regulations and Sakho admits he struggled to accept them. “Suddenly I had all these rules,” he says. “Someone was now telling me to go bed at 10pm! And not even my parents told me to do that and these guys were not my parents, so why should I listen to them!
“It was a bit scary at first because where I am from there are no rules. It was a case of settling in to that mentality of working hard and living to a timetable.”
But Sakho also realized the opportunity that football presented him with that attitude hardening when his father died. Sakho was 14. “Maybe it was strength of character but I was also quite bright and realized I had been given this chance and that I would not let it slip,” he recalls. “I think it was the best way, the best reply I could give to life. Certainly football provided me with the best path I could take.”
Beyond his talent, PSG quickly recognized something else: here was a leader, something he has also demonstrated with France - scoring twice in the recent play-off to help overturn a 2-0 first-leg defeat to Ukraine and dramatically gain a place in next summer’s World Cup Finals. Remarkably they were the first goals he had scored for France.
“I think I stay the same person, I am quite natural about it,” Sakho says. “I don’t consider myself a great leader. It’s true that certain managers throughout my career have maybe seen qualities in me to make me captain but I see my role as trying to improve the team and take the team forward. I bring my own little grain, my own little pinch of salt, I do my own little bit for the team.”
Except he had felt his role at PSG diminished and a new challenge and a new approach, with Liverpool, was presented. “I gave it a lot of thought, of course,” he says. “I had been 12 years at Paris Saint-Germain…but as soon as I saw the overall project of Liverpool that was what made me make the decision. It was what I was aiming at.”
Interestingly Sakho, who conducts this interview in French, speaks of Liverpool in terms of “values”. “The values of respect,” Sakho says. “It’s a mixture of a lot of different values which make me feel at ease. Respect; the spirit of wanting to help people. There is a stability here, the objectives are very, very high, the targets are set high. There is very much a union, almost a communion, between the fans and the club itself. The ultimate thing is the respect for the history, the respect for everything that has happened before at this club.”
That message is also brought home by Gerrard. “In the dressing room he will tell us stories or it might when we are away, at the table having dinner, he will recount these different stories that are all very, very positive,” Sakho says. “He is a massive player for this club with huge charisma.”
As was Jamie Carragher, who retired in the summer, and there are parallels – in terms of character – between the two central defenders? “I am not a replacement for Jamie Carragher. I have ultimate respect for him, he has made history here, he has created his own page of history and he was a very, very important player for this club,” Sakho says.
“But my intentions are to come here and write my own page of history and be known for my time here. Hopefully if I do things well then the fans will remember me and I can carve my name in Liverpool’s history.”
There is a new Liverpool emerging under Brendan Rodgers – with Luis Suarez as its talisman. “He’s a goal-scoring machine, he’s right up there with the top strikers in the world,” Sakho says. “But I think what is really important is that he puts himself at the service of the club, of the team and he’s there, he sacrifices. He gives everything, you can see how he plays on the pitch, he’s not egotistical, he’s not in it for himself. And I think one of the reasons why we are in the position in the top four we are at the moment is that everyone is taking that attitude.”
Defeat away to Manchester City was a frustrating set-back that saw Liverpool knocked off the top of the Premier League table, but what can be achieved this season? “I said this when I arrived at the club and my speech has not changed – it is absolutely vital that this club gets back into the Champions League,” Sakho states. “We will see where we are with two months, a month and a half left of the season and we can talk about any trophies at that time but Liverpool – the place, the club, the supporters – needs to be seeing European football and by that I mean Champions League football to be back at Anfield next season.”
The Premier League – so far – has been everything Sakho expected. “I think the tough mental approach really works in England, teams do not give up and I think I am quite tough mentally,” he says while he and his family have settled quickly in Liverpool.
“There’s no Eiffel Tower in Liverpool and I guess I have struggled a little bit with the scouse accent but nothing in the world would change my decision,” Sakho says. “I’m so proud to wear this shirt, I am full of pride.”
What of that responsibility – for family, for club and for country? “I suppose you learn soon enough if you have got the shoulders broad enough to take that,” Sakho says. “The best reply to see whether I succeeded is that I am here today. I am also the sort of person who likes stability and I see myself staying here for a very long time.”