Children playing with footballs made with paper and cloth. Smiles and laughs in the slums of the Adjamé neighbourhood in Abidjan. Among these young
children, a toddler named Seydou Doumbia.
In those early years of the nineties, who could’ve imagined that little Seydou would one day wear the venerated Orange jersey of the Côte d’Ivoire national team ? The Elefants, their nickname, is a breath of fresh air for the people of Côte d’Ivoire. A way to forget their daily misery.
« These childhood memories live with me every day of my life. I know where I come from and will never forget that. It’s part of me »
Today, he is a rising star in his country. Nevertheless, he often visits « his » neighbourhood in the heart of Anidjan.
« What has changed ? The way people look at me. I still see them as I saw them in those days. I know that I‘m a bit special for them. But today I can help them. I listen and do what I can to give a helping hand »
Little Seydou has become a big and successful man. But the path to his current status wasn’t really paved. He could’ve lost his way, but some luck on the way up definitely helped.
« It’s true, my childhood was a tough one », recognizes Seydou. But his shy nature doesn’t allow him to say more about those times when he couldn’t afford to eat every day.
« To eat, I used to sell handkerchiefs in the streets.»That’s the way it is in some parts of Abidjan. Parents count on their children to bring some money home to help the whole family.
Even though it is hard to believe, those days in the streets of Abidjan will help him to make his first steps towards his footballing dreams. Aged 12, little Seydou kicks the ball in the club of his neighgourhood, the Conservatoire Inter FC. And in his spare time, he sells handkerchiefs in the streets of Abidjan to earn some money to eat.
One day, as he’s on his money earning duties, a familiar figure comes up to him. It’s Olivier Koutoua, Chairman of the Conservatoire Football Club. « I was walking in Abidjan’s business area, and suddenly I see this child. It was Seydou. I catch him and tell him he ought to be at school at this time of day. He shows me then his handkerchiefs. I understand immediately the boys’ misery, and decide to help him out. »
Chairman Koutoua will from then keep an eye on young Seydou, and make sure that he does not need to go back to the streets again. Slowly a real and important relation begins between the President and the boy. And one Christmas, Seydou and other youngsters of the club come to the Chairman’s house with a small present and a handwritten card. « We don’t have much to offer you, but we wanted you to know that we consider you like our father. »
Infinitely moved by this attention, the Chairman gets ever closer to young Seydou. « One day, I decided that he would come to live in my home. And from that point, it has been more or less, a father-son relationship. » And most importantly, the Chairman, doesn’t forget that the boy is a very talented young footballer.
« We made him work like mad. He’s a natural, got tremendous speed, but we taught him to become a striker. He didn’t get there the easy way, but the end product is there for everyone to admire. »With the Under-15 team, the goals start to flow in.
At 16 years old, his height doesn’t allow him to get into the top flight so he joins the Jean-Marc Guillou Academy.
« At this stage of my life, it’s already a dream come true. This Academy, is the one that gave so many brilliant footballers to our National Team ». But the dream doesn’t last long. The young boy from Adjamé is considered as a reject by other people from the Academy.
« It’s true, I wasn’t welcome. I got the impression that I bothered those people. »Chairman Koutoua remembers these hard times for Seydou. « Except Gervinho, the others rejected him. But he knew to take his chance when it came. When the Manager played him, he’d score. But I couldn’t leave Seydou in such a hostile environment. We pulled him out of the Academy for his good. This didn’t go smoothly and didn’t please everyone. People even tried to forge his signature to keep him at the Academy.“
After bidding farewell to the Academy, Seydou left to play with a mid-table 1st division club, AS Denguélé d’Odiénné. There again, nothing is given for granted. Seydou, is a bench warmer in the first three games. But when he comes on in the 4th game, he scores within 2 minutes. He’ll then start to ship them in, week in, week out. And despite the modest profile of his club, he ends topscorer of the league at the young age of 17!
Of course, all the big clubs of the country are by now aware of the gem. French clubs, Lille, Guingamp and Nice offer trials to Seydou. « I couldn’t go because the French embassy in Côte d’Ivoire failed to deliver my visa in time. » Apparently, bureaucracy is not a major problem in Japan. Seydou flies there and scores 3 goals in a friendly…
Kobé wishes to sign him straight away but Seydou wants to fly home to discuss with his « Chairman-Dad ». The agents who sent him to Japan disagree with the move. « They confiscated his passport so he couldn’t go home, remembers Olivier Koutoua.
These people literally kidnapped him and I had to intervene so that Kobé puts him on a flight to Abidjan. The hassle lasted two days before he was granted permission to leave Japan.“
But the Japanese are stubborn. And now Kashiwa Reysol is in the mix. Members of the Management of the club fly quickly in Abidjan to seal a deal.
« They wanted me so much that I finally accepted. »Koutoua is glad to see young Seydou fly back to Japan.“The pressure here in Côte d’Ivoire was getting difficult to manage. It was better for him to fly away. »
Starts a new episode of Seydou’s career. Made of ups and downs.
Japan is a totally different universe by regards to the places Seydou had lived in before. He starts to study the language as soon as he gets there.
He’s still nowadays perfectly fluent in Japanese today.On field, adaptation to Japanese football is a bit tougher though.
« The coach didn’t really believe in me. But my morale was always high, and I knew that my chance would come if I continued to work hard. After 18 months of bench warming, I asked the club to transfer me, but they didn’t want me join an other 1st division club. So I had to go to Tokushima, a small town on the Island of Shikoku. The club was in 2nd division.“
Score, and score again
«Finally that is when and where everything started. I started to score, score & score again. » In less than three months, Seydou scores 7 goals, is voted best player of the league and helps his team save it’s 2nd division status. His accomplishments are echoed in his home country and he gets his first cap for the national team.
« A dream come true, says Seydou. From a benchwarmer to a player of the Côte d’Ivoire national team ! »
Thousand miles away, one of his fellow countrymen is putting in his mark in a European league. Thierry Doubai is an old friend of Seydou. They played together for Chairman Koutoua. And Thierry remembers well his old mate. Impressive with Young Boys Bern, in Switzerland, he invites Seydou to join him in the Swiss capital. „Suddenly, Kashima wanted to keep me, but as my contract was expiring I managed to leave and join Thierry.“
June 2008 : Seydou arrives in Switzerland. A totally new universe for him. A step further in his career… and new hurdles to face and to brave.
«Back on the bench at Young Boys»« Competition is tough at Young Boys, but I know that my hour will come. I’m getting used to this kind of debuts in a new club. I do my best to get my chance and take advantage of it when it comes. But I don’t put myself under any kind of pressure. » And then again, everything suddenly clicks for Seydou.
The « super sub » he has become is the nightmare of all Swiss premier division defences. He’s shipping goals week in, week out but doesn’t manage to get rid of his „super sub“ status. He becomes top scorer in the swiss league with the incredible feat of only starting 8 games out of 32 ! He has the best ratio goal per game of whole Europe.
The most famous clubs of Europe come to Bern to see him play every week.
And usually they leave quite convinced. At the end of the season, Young Boys Bern miss the Swiss title for a mere couple of points. Top scorer, and also voted best player of the league, Seydou gets offers from all over Europe. He keeps his head cool. « I had an excellent relation with the Manager, and felt ok in Bern. So I decided to stay another season in Switzerland. »
He becomes a first regular and continues to score, score & score again.The following season, he manages 30 goals in 32 games. And wins trophies of best scorer and best player of the league once more.
A national team regular by the time he ends his stay in Switzerland – he plays alongside his childhood hero Didier Drogba – he scores his first goal with the elephants against Germany. He knows that from now on, his career will take him to new horizons. He gets offers from France and Germany. But decides to join Russia.
« I had several opportunities but CSKA Moscow was the ideal one in a career perspective. They have European ambitions and that will allow me to take a step further. »