When Garra Dembele was asked in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com just what the beautiful game means to him, his answer was clear: "Football was and still is my whole life." And when you consider just what the Malian international has been through to get this far, journeying from the streets of the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers all the way to the German Bundesliga with Freiburg, via a number of stops on the way, then you can see what he is getting at.
Last weekend, the self-styled "warrior" finally made the big breakthrough, notching his first Bundesliga goal in the match against 1899 Hoffenheim and securing a valuable point for his relegation-threatened club in the process.
The 25-year-old grew up with his Mali-born parents to the north-west of Paris, but in a suburb that was far removed from the chic and glamour of the French capital. Dembele took matters into his own hands however, leaving home at the tender age of 13 to join the famous football academy at Clairefontaine. "Believe me, it was tough being away from my family, but by the same token I had a great time growing up," said the striker of his formative years among the French footballing elite. "Others may look back on their school days and grimace, but for me it was football, football and more football".
Hope is always the stronger emotion.
Dembele learned how to stick up for himself from an early age, and the time he spent at the academy run by the French Football Association (FFF) to the south-west of Paris enabled him to face up to all of the challenges that life might send his way, both on and off the pitch.
"Even though only a few of the players made it through the ranks to become pros, you never really think of the risk that you might fail," Dembele said of his time at the Centre technique national Fernand-Sastre (CTNFS). "Hope is always the stronger emotion, and this just made me work harder. But I'm glad that I got the benefit of all this training since I learned a lot of things both as a footballer and as a human being – things that are still helping me even today."
Dembele signed his first professional contract as a 17-year-old to play for the reserves at Ligue 1 side Auxerre, but the club suspended him due to disciplinary problems. He then moved to a lower-league French club, Istres, before trying his luck with AGF Aarhus. He failed to establish himself with the Danish club, however, as was also the case when he moved briefly to Pierikos in Greece. "I made a few mistakes when I started out as a pro, but overall I learned a lot. And I now think a lot more about who and where I might want to be transferred to," said Dembele.
The "warrior" may have been wounded, but he was not down and out, and his career was about to take a turn for the better. He moved to Bulgaria and made a name for himself in the top division with Lokomotiv Plovdiv. His goals in the later half of the 2009/10 season made plenty of teams sit up and take notice, including 26-time national champions Levski Sofia.
Dembele then scored no fewer than 26 goals in 24 matches for the team from the country's capital city, making him by far and away the top scorer in the Bulgarian league last season. "Bulgaria was definitely the most successful stage in my career to date," he smiled.
New Bundesliga challenge
This time it was Freiburg who were alerted by the 6'2 striker's feats, and they picked up Dembele in the hope of qualifying for more European football after their UEFA Cup forays in 1995 and 2001. "I really like it in Freiburg. Not just the city itself but also the feeling you get from playing in the German Bundesliga. And Freiburg's a peaceful city, which I enjoy," Dembele said to FIFA.com.
That said, the Malian has struggled to come to terms with the pace of German football thus far, and has spent most of his time on the substitute's bench. Nevertheless, his last-minute strike to salvage a 1-1 draw in Hoffenheim means that he can now legitimately hope to get more regular time in future, even though he realises that Papiss Demba Cisse is the uncontested leader of the line for Freiburg.
"Papiss isn't a rival as far as I'm concerned. We sit next to each other in the changing rooms and we get on very well, on and off the pitch," said Dembele. "He's explained a lot of things to me and he helps me out wherever he can. Ideally I would like to play alongside him up front, but I also realise that Freiburg have had success with him at the top of a 4-1-4-1 system. So I'm just going to remain patient and carry on training hard."
Good performances at club level are what Dembele needs if he is to further his international career, with Mali taking part in the CAF African Cup of Nations in 2012. He made his senior debut on 8 February this year in the 1-0 defeat at the hands of Côte d'Ivoire, only to create quite a stir by promptly withdrawing from the team. He has since made a comeback, however, in the 1-1 draw away to Burkina Faso in mid-November. "He wrote to me saying that he would like to make himself available for the 2012 African Cup of Nations," a delighted Mali coach Alain Giresse explained to the state-run ORTM TV station.
It looks therefore as if the self-styled "warrior" will be fully focused on finding the back of the net in the coming months, for both club and country.