Sadio Mane has had a fascinating journey to the top of European football. The Liverpool forward was one of 30 players nominated for the 2017 Ballon d’Or award earlier this week and it represents another landmark in his progression. There are many that feel he is undeserving of the nomination as he has been included in the list ahead of Alexis Sanchez among others, but he has had a great year for his club especially, helping them to qualify for the Champions League once again.
He is one of only two African players to be on the shortlist, alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and that consolidates his position as one of the best from the continent. During the African Cup of Nations, he managed to score twice and played a prominent role as the side got to the quarter-final stage. It was a disappointment to go out at that point in the competition and they did so on a penalty shoot-out. Mane missed the crucial spot-kick.
There have been better players to have missed a penalty in the history of football and Mane didn’t let that define his year. He returned to Anfield and helped the side return to form in the Premier League, which consolidated their position in the top four. The 26-year-old scored the two goals that earned the three points against Tottenham, before adding strikes against Arsenal and Everton. The former Southampton player regularly turns up in the big matches and that is another reason why he is on the shortlist for the award.
During his first season with Liverpool, Mane contributed 13 goals and five assists in the Premier League, which is a superb return given the initial scepticism regarding his signature. The style of play that Jurgen Klopp promotes suits the Senegal international and his game is developing quickly as a result. At the time, he was signed from Southampton, it would have been ludicrous to suggest he was capable of earning a nomination for the Ballon d’Or as early as 2017, but he has managed just that.
His journey to Liverpool
It can be difficult to break out into European football from Africa and it takes a great deal of luck, not only to be spotted but to be given the opportunity to make the journey. He grew up on the streets of Sedhiou and at the age of 15, he made the long trip to Dakar in the hope of progressing in his chosen career of football. It was a huge risk and not an easily accessible one, but Mane gambled on his talent and that turned out to be a great decision.
His story is another rags-to-riches, as he turned up to the trial in Dakar with old, torn up boots and regular shorts. This surprised one of the coaches, who looked at the 15-year-old like he was out of place. Mane recalled the story to Goal:
“I told him what I came with was the best I had, and I only wanted to play – to show myself. When I got on the pitch, you could see the surprise on his face.
“He came to me and said ‘I’m picking you straight away. You’ll play in my team.’ After those trials, I went to the academy.”
The academy in question was Generation Foot, which also helped Diafra Sakho and Papiss Cisse make the switch to European football. His family were initially against his decision to move to Dakar and attempt to forge a career in football, but they were swayed by his passion and determination to succeed in his dream.
Generation Foot have a deal in place which allows one young player to move to France each year with Metz. Papiss Cisse benefitted from this and Mane followed in his footsteps at the age of 18. It was the breakthrough that he needed to get his foot in thedoor in Europe. He hasn’t looked back since.
The speedster’s time in France was short, but he did enough to earn a place in the Senegal squad for the 2012 Olympics and his performances in that competition convinced Red Bull Salzburg to make a move for him. The transfer fee was believed to be €4 million and it was the third biggest fee that Metz has ever received. Red Bull have been criticised for a lot since their decision to move into football, but their clubs are excellent at developing young players. Mane is one of their notable success stories.
It was during his time at Salzburg that he worked under Roger Schmidt, who he has since praised as one of the biggest influences in his career. He is a coach that shares similar qualities with Jurgen Klopp in terms of pressing from the front and the period Mane spent there has helped prepare him to be a success at Liverpool.
“He was a big influence on my career thanks to the way he believed in me and helped me so much.
“I was still young when I went to Salzburg and working under him really helped me to grow up and grow up as a player. I learned about tactics and different ways to play the game.”
Mane was only with Salzburg for two full seasons, but it was a key period of his development and helped shape him into the player that we see today at Liverpool. During the 2014 transfer window, he was signed by Southampton and became the most expensive player from Senegal. The fee was £11.8 million, which was later eclipsed when he joined the Reds for an eye-watering £34 million.
There were many that doubted the transfer to Anfield, but he has scored double figures in his last five league campaigns, including three successive in the Premier League. Mane is a goal-scorer and a constant threat in the final third.
Mady Touré is the man responsible for establishing the Generation Foot academy after injuries ended his promising football career. After Mane’s great start to life in England, his mentor told The Guardian:
“Of course I am very proud of Sadio. But he is not my player. He’s my son. I’ve known him since he was a kid so to see him doing so well is fantastic. Today we talk about Messi and Neymar but honestly I don’t think these players are as good as Sadio Mané.”
At the time, many believed Touré was looking at the player with a heavy degree of bias. He had started well for Southampton, but it was ridiculous to make the comparisons to Lionel Messi and Neymar, two of the best players in the world. There is some element to that in his statement, but it is difficult not to see Mane as one of the best players Africa has produced in recent times. Although it wasn’t a straightforward journey to the top, he is now there and will be keen to continue pushing on to bigger and better things.