DAKAR, Senegal, Jun 17 – When shy youngster Sadio Mane turned up in Dakar far from his home town, nobody imagined that one day he would become a globally renowned forward for Senegal and Liverpool.
But from humble origins he has scaled the heights and on Tuesday the lightning-quick player will have a nation behind him as he leads Senegal’s attack in their World Cup opener against Poland.
The 26-year-old’s first appearance at a World Cup comes just three weeks after he scored in the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Kiev, ultimately in a losing cause.
Back in 2009, in Mbour, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Dakar, a local talent scout first spotted the boy from the southern region of Senegal, known for its farming.
Mane had come to the capital to compete in the “navetanes”, the district championships, and he was quickly directed towards Generation Foot, a club in Dakar always on the lookout for new talent.
One man who remembers Mane well is Abdou Diatta, Generation Foot’s veteran scout.
First impressions, however, were not encouraging.
“Personally, I didn’t think he’d make it with us because he was too shy. It was as if he didn’t want to play,” remembered Diatta.
But Mane did not take long to make his mark.
“When I saw his touch on the ball I said to myself, ‘this guy is really a good player’,” said Diatta.
– ‘High class’ –
After two days of trials Diatta said to Jules Boucher, the coach at the time: “This one, we’ll take him straight away.”
For Boucher, 15 minutes was all it took to be convinced that this “nice and well-educated” youngster had something special to offer.
“I saw in him qualities of a high-class player, in his speed, his ability to dribble, his intensity and movement,” recalled Boucher.
“Here was a boy who was always hungry,” added the former player, who also highlighted Mane’s “steely mentality”.
But despite his evident skill, Diatta remembers being troubled by Mane’s reluctance to mingle, his preference to train alone rather than with his teammates.
“One day I went to him and said ‘Sadio, you’re a footballer. When you’re here, put yourself in the group, with the group, together, all the team’.”
“I told him that ‘if you continue to be shy like this you risk ending up going back home to Casamance, because football’s like that. You have to be part of the team’.”
The advice was taken on board. After just one week Mane was chatting away to his teammates and was even “more of a talker than the others”.
Deployed in attack, as he is at Liverpool as part of Jurgen Klopp’s speedy forward line alongside Egypt star Mohamed Salah and Brazilian Roberto Firmino, Mane excelled and helped earn the club promotion to the second division in 2010-2011.
But his days in the Senegal league were numbered as he was soon on the move to French side Metz, who had links with Generation Foot.
His relentless rise slowed on his arrival in Europe, with precious little playing time, before his career took off again after his transfer to Salzburg, and his participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
According to Generation Foot president Mady Toure, there was a specific reason behind Mane’s initial problems at Metz.
“When he arrived at Metz he was hiding an injury (groin) because he wanted to succeed so much,” said Toure.
Despite his spectacular progress, Mane has never forgotten his roots, sending 300 Liverpool shirts to his home village of Bambali for fans to wear during the Champions League final.
“He is a very grateful boy, he called me up, and asks after my family,” said Boucher.