“You can’t talk about football in Mali without talking about Salif Keïta”
— Kassoum Keïta (no relation) from DHL Mali.
Salif Keïta is not just famous in his native Mali, he one of Africa’s footballing legends. In 1970, he became African Footballer of the Year, the first person to be awarded the prestigious Ballon d’or Africain.
Keïta, now in his sixties, is the owner and proprietor of the beautiful Mandé Hotel, gloriously situated on the banks of the Niger River in Bamako. We head over there to meet him.
“Please wait while I call through,” says the concierge.
Like so many, Keïta had grown up poor in Bamako, Mali in the 1950s. Football was his escape from poverty playing for AS Real Bamako and Stade Malien. His incredible talents saw him lead Mali, as a teenager, to the most success the nation was ever to have –- second place at the 1972 African Cup. Unfortunately, he picked up an injury and was unable to play in the final.
The Malian government were investing heavily in football. Their thinking went something like this: if we are successful at football, the masses will be content and less likely to fight against us. It has been a ploy used by political leaders across the continent ever since. In Africa, footballing success can be the difference between keeping power and losing it.
Salif Keïta, the young superstar, was Mali’s hottest asset. It didn’t take long for several top European teams to become aware of the shooting star, but he wasn’t allowed to leave the country. Keïta, however, had already made the decision to leave Mali and head for Europe. He escaped Mali overland and made his way to France where he was picked up by St Etienne. His career took him to Olympic Marseille, Valencia in Spain and to Sporting Lisbon. Nicknamed “The Black Pearl of Africa”, Keïta’s goalscoring exploits and outspoken honesty made him a household name in Europe, and a hero across Africa.
The Ball: What is the “spirit of football”?
Keïta: Football is a game that can help people to live together, to have a partnership and to have a friendship. Everyone watches the World Cup final and everyone is ready to be happy with the team that wins or sad with the team that loses. The spirit of football is perfectly forming people together. In this moment the world has many problems and football can help us to solve some of those problems. The spirit of football is for people to accept others.
What do you think about the state of football in Africa at the moment?
African players are playing in teams in top European leagues… Drogba, Eto’o, Traore, etc. Two days ago I saw Egypt lose to England. They were very unlucky. Senegal beat Greece. Cameroon tied against Italy, and Ivory Coast lost to South Korea. I think that African football is in very good shape. A big problem is money. We don’t have money.
What do you think that so many talented young African players are playing in Europe? Is it a problem for African football?
You cannot pay players in Africa like the Europeans are doing. In sub-Saharan Africa we cannot afford to pay the players. If we had the money then maybe they will stay. But you cannot blame young players going to Europe. You cannot stop them.
What are the chances of an Afrian team winning the World Cup?
It will be difficult but it is not impossible. If it happens, nobody can be surprised.
Could Ivory Coast win with Guus Hiddink as the coach?
Maybe he can do something. But he is not playing! (laughter) They are down in confidence. Hiddink can give them some advice. If the players are not right in their own heads then it is difficult. After they lost the African Cup and they lost to South Korea they are very low in confidence.
Nigeria was a big surprise in the African Nations Cup. Everyone said after Egypt beat Nigeria that Nigeria was finished, but they went on to make the semi-finals. They are a good team. I think Cameroon, even thought they are not like they were 10 years ago, can go very far. Ivory Coast, Ghana, even Algeria — they are all good teams. And South Africa are young and they could surprise, they are at home. You never know in football.
Are you going to be in South Africa?
I am invited to go to South Africa but I prefer to watch the games on TV. A while ago, when I was watching France–Ireland, I saw exactly what happened with Thierry Henry’s goal. People in the stadium had no idea. They were too far away. You can’t see this in the stadium. It is too fast live and you are too far away and there are no replays. I like to watch football on TV.
What do you think about the Henry incident? Is Theirry Henry a cheat?
What happened with Henry could happen with any player. It is a reflex. Immediately, he had to do it because he wanted to win. He saw the ball in the net and he was happy. After the match, he went home and everybody said that he used his hand. No, when you are playing you want to win.
You supported a project about cleaning up Bamako. Cleaning up the streets which are full of trash. You did this by using football as a lure to make young people aware of their civic duties.
It is difficult here because you do not have the possibility to continue to do things because there is not enough money. Often projects are a once-off. For success you need to put people to work and talk to them. It can last for a few months or a year. It is not easy. You need to change the mentality. This can only be done through education. When I was young we used to clean the streets every Monday. Everyone would join in. But now, they do not even think about this. And you cannot do it by yourself. People need to understand the problems and the consequences of their actions.
Last week in Dakar, we met Bashir, a Senegalese man who had returned to Senegal after Senegal beat France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup. He got on the first flight home and didn’t return to the USA. You hear about the exodus of people leaving Africa. But on this journey so far we have met people who have chosen to come back to Africa. Who are investing their skills in Africa. What do you think about the phonomenon of Africans coming back home?
Many Africans are coming back to share their experiences. I think the leaders of Africa need to utilise this, like China and India have done. But Africa doesn’t do a good job with this. When these people come back they have difficulties. But they are coming back to share their experiences. African government doesn’t understand this.