Thursday 19 April 2018

The real Naby Keïta: Meet the Liverpool new boy who was destined to play at Anfield

Naby Keita will join Liverpool in July
Naby Keita will join Liverpool in July
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Thirteen years have passed since Naby Keïta was honing his football skills on the streets of the Guinean capital Conakry and even then, this boy wonder was wearing a Liverpool shirt.

Back in 2005, Keïta could never have envisaged the day when he would eventually sign for the club his father Sekou supports with a passion, with his tales of Steven Gerrard’s heroics in the that year’s Champions League final part of the daily diet in Naby’s formative days as he developed his passion for football and Liverpool.

Little Naby always wanted to believe he could one day be a football superstar, with Barcelona midfielder Deco his inspiration as he had plotted a route to the top of the game despite being short of stature, lacking the physical qualities generally required to catch the eye of football scouts.

Keïta shared those weaknesses with his idol Deco and because of that, his fanciful dream of playing in front of The Kop or at the Nou Camp seemed impossible to turn into reality for a kid thousands of miles from the heartbeat of football and unlikely to be spotted in distant Guinea.

Yet the boy who used to sell ice-cool water with his beloved mother Miriam on the streets of Conakry has achieved the impossible by overcoming his physical limitations and convincing his doubters that he is good enough to be a top player on the world stage.

Liverpool’s decision to agree a £60million deal to sign Keïta from RB Leipzig is confirmation that the wannabe who dared to believe he would get out of his impoverished life back home has hit the financial and sporting jackpot.

Rags to riches? This story certainly ticks that box in bold ink and Keïta deserves the credit for emerging from nowhere to become the idol of his nation.

He will earn well in excess of £100,000-a-week at Liverpool when he signs for the Anfield club on July 1st, with such lavish riches impossible to comprehend for the kids he used to play alongside back home in Conakry.

There was no academy for him to hone his skills at, no great tactical education and no media training for this diminutive youngster when he was looking in on the football world suspecting he would always be an outsider, but he has made it.

"As kids, we played on the streets without shoes and the game didn’t stop for oncoming traffic," he recalled in an interview with the German Bundesliga website last year.

"You needed to have your wits about you. When I go back home now, I still see this happening.

"To come from there and to be where I am now is amazing, but I never forget where I come from. To see kids with my name on the back of their shirts when I go home now is very special for me."

Keïta’s towering talent has allowed him to overcome the lofty hurdles thrown before him, with his 5’8 frame ensuring his abilities needed to be exceptional before professional would take a chance on signing him.

French second division side FC Istres offered him a first chance to prove his worth in senior European football, but it was only when he landed at Red Bull Salzburg and formed a friendship with Sadio Mane that he found his feet in the European game.

Named Player of the Year in the Austrian top flight in his second season with Salzburg, Keïta admits the influence of Senegal attacking star Mane on his young life was crucial at this pivotal stage of his career.

"Sadio was so important for me when I started at Salzburg and this is why I say he is my big brother," reflected Keïta. "I was not playing at the start and found it hard, but he helped me with everything.

"I will always be thankful for the education I had at Salzburg. I needed to learn about the tactics of football, how the game worked and that is what the club gave me, so I was ready for the next level when I got to Leipzig."

The Red Bull sponsorship connections at both Salzburg and Leipzig ensured his switch to Germany’s Bundesliga was smooth in 2016 and from there, this story moved to a whole new level, as Keïta took centre stage in the most improbable title challenge in German football’s recent history.

Leipzig eventually came up short in their effort to dethrone mighty Bayern Munich, but Keïta did enough in his first season in Germany to ensure he was highlighted as a talent ready to play for one of Europe’s superpower clubs.

While Bayern was inevitably linked with a move to snap him up, it was Liverpool who won the race for his signature, much to the delight of his father back home in Guinea and Liverpool forward Mane.

"He is a really special player and is like family to me. Naby and I were close at Salzburg and still keep in touch," Liverpool’s Senegal forward stated in a club interview.

"He asked me about Liverpool and I told him this is an amazing club with talented players, a great manager and lots of ambition. The city and the people are really nice and he will feel at home here.

"I’m excited. We are lucky to have him because he’s an unbelievable player, as you will see."

Liverpool’s decision to accept Leipzig’s demands to wait 12-month before they signed Keïta could have backfired if his stunning progress from the previous two seasons had come to a grinding halt and when he was sent-off three times in the opening three months of this season, question marks over his temperament were inevitably raised.

Yet the new-boy tipped to inherit Gerrard’s old No.8 jersey at Liverpool was making headlines for all the right reasons one again last weekend as he scored in a famous win for Leipzig against Bayern Munich to confirm his ability to shine against the best of opponents has not waned.

It may be asking too much of young Keïta to turn Liverpool from Premier League title contenders into champions next season, yet this diminutive dynamo has got used to defying the odds.

NABY KEITA FACTFILE

Born: February 10th 1995 in Conakry, Guinea

·      * Started his career in European football with French second tier side FC Istres.

·      * Moved to Red Bull Salzburg in 2014 and helped them to win the Austrian league a cup double for the next two seasons.

·      * He scored the winner on his Bundesliga debut against Borussia Dortmund and led Red Bull Leipzig’s improbable push for the German title.

·      * Liverpool announced they had agreed a deal to sign Keïta last August, with the player staying at Leipzig for another year.

·      * He has been capped by Guinea 28 times, scoring five goals.

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