Malian midfielder Mohamed Sissoko was just 18 when he left Auxerre to join Valencia in 2003. The promising defensive midfielder had not long graduated from the Troyes youth academy, but he enjoyed a positive spell in Spain before continuing his rise in England and Italy. Injuries have regularly hampered his progress over the past couple of years, but he appears to have regained something close to his best form since his €8m move to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2011.
A six-month injury lay-off prevented Sissoko from getting into his stride with his new club until mid-October, but he soon established himself in the team and has been one of PSG’s strongest performers in the first half of the season. The tall, industrious midfielder created a goal in his first start for the club against Ajaccio, before continuing his encouraging start by scoring against Bordeaux two weeks later.
“It’s been a very satisfying first half of the season,” Sissoko told FIFA.com. “I’m very happy and hope it will continue. The group get on well together. There’s been a lot of talk about jealousy and other things, but I can assure you that everything is fine and that there are no problems between the players and staff. Everyone is pulling in the same direction, and that’s what’s making the difference.”
Ambition and pressure
PSG are top of Ligue 1 and have largely matched the expectations brought about by their ambitious transfer dealings, which included the signings of Javier Pastore and Jeremy Menez. The Paris outfit have, however, been knocked out of both the UEFA Europa League and the French League Cup, with coach Antoine Kombouare ultimately paying the price when he was replaced by the Italian Carlo Ancelotti during the winter break. “He [Ancelotti] will bring a great deal of organisation and discipline. These are the things that make the difference in Italy,” said Sissoko, who has first-hand experience of life in Serie A and the pressure of playing at the highest level.
“I’ve experienced pressure at each of the clubs I’ve played for,” the Malian midfielder explained. “It’s different here. With every day that passes, you get more of a sense of how great the pressure is. But it’s a positive thing, because it allows us to stay focused on our objectives. Personally, I can handle it well. If you want to become a big club, it’s normal for there to be pressure. You have to get used to it.”
My parents fought so that we could become successful, so that [playing together for Mali] is the least we could do to repay them.
Sissoko clearly knows a thing or two about handling pressure. During his spells with Valencia, Liverpool and Juventus, the midfielder won a Spanish league title, a UEFA Cup, an FA Cup and two European Super Cups, and rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in the modern game. “Players like Steven Gerrard, Pablo Aimar and Alessandro Del Piero have all made a huge impressions on me,” he said. “I learned a lot from them; they’re humble, likeable guys, despite the huge things they’ve achieved. They’re models in terms of hard work and commitment.”
The aforementioned trio are known for their ability to both shine in their own right and drive their team-mates forward – a strength Sissoko suggests is lacking in a Mali side who have struggled for form despite their undoubted individual talents. “Unfortunately, despite having lots of players from top leagues, we haven’t managed to go all the way in competitions,” said the PSG midfielder. “It’s a shame, but I really do think that the next generation is there. Things didn’t work out because we weren’t a solid, tight-knit group.”
Eagles aiming for new heights
Many gifted players have represented Mali since the era that produced 1970 African Player of the Year Salif Keita, including Frederic Kanoute, Mahamadou Diarra and Seydou Keita. The Eagles finished runners-up to Congo at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 1972, but since then they have never managed to soar to the same heights.
Mali’s new generation, which includes the likes of Modibo Maiga and Cheick Diabate, will be hoping to end that barren spell at the 2012 edition of the competition. They will be without Sissoko, however, as he looks to overcome his injury problems for good. “I’ve drawn a line under my international career for the time being,” he said. “I’ve been injured a lot over the past two years. Now, thankfully, everything is fine as far as injuries are concerned. I’m working with good doctors and physical trainers who have helped me to get myself back on track and anticipate possible injuries.”
If and when Sissoko resumes his international career, he may well find himself lining up for Mali alongside two of his younger siblings. Indeed, brothers Ibrahim and Abdoulwahid, who play for Wolfsburg and Udinese respectively, are both tipped for big things in the future.
“My parents fought so that we could become successful, so that [playing together for Mali] is the least we could do to repay them,” Sissoko added. “The strongest [brother], without question, is the youngest one, who plays for Udinese. You’ll soon be hearing more about him...”