Dembele’s rocky road to senior stardom

Levski Sofia goal-getter Garra Dembele knows better than most how examining the path to success can be. A graduate of the France Football Association academy at Clairefontaine, the same nursery that reared the likes of Thierry Henry, William Gallas and Nicolas Anelka, he was tipped for success in his teenage years only to discover that footballing fame and fortune would not come easy.

Yet, as reveals, the promising but wayward youngster has come of age in Bulgaria, and is finally fulfilling the rich talent he was born with. Hailing from the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers, Dembele was an up-and-coming 14-year-old when he took up residence at Clairefontaine alongside the likes of Younes Kaboul, Abou Diaby and Hatem Ben Arfa.

A familiar face to French television viewers thanks to a documentary on the famous training centre, the striker seemed destined for greatness. Two years later his career trajectory took another upward turn when he signed for Guy Roux’s Auxerre, the venerable coach having described him as “a very gifted player”.

Those gifts did not become immediately apparent, however. Involved in a number of scrapes, among them a conviction for driving without a licence, the impetuous teenager had a habit of making the wrong kind of headlines. Nor did he compensate for his off-field indiscretions with his performances on it, scoring a mere three goals in 41 outings with Auxerre’s reserve team.

Looking for a fresh start outside France, he failed to impress in respective trials with Liverpool and Lazio, and had another serious brush with the law in Italy, although the charges against him were eventually dropped. “I had a few problems when I was young,” Dembele acknowledged. “It’s difficult to come back from that because people remember those things.”

I’ve had interest from West Ham United, Blackburn Rovers and a few others, which is exciting. I’ve always wanted to play in England.
Garra Dembele

In 2006 he tried to relaunch his faltering career again, joining French second-flight side Istres and then trying his luck at Aarhus in Denmark. It was not long, however, before he was back where he started, in the Auxerre reserves.

Three games later and he was on the move once more, this time to Pierikos and the Greek second flight, which proved to be an unlikely springboard for Dembele. Though he scored only six goals there, he finally managed to play some regular first-team football, making 32 appearances for the club in 18 months, time enough for him to impress visiting scouts from Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv.

“Lokomotiv Plovdiv made a definite offer and I wanted to play football,” Dembele explained, taking up the story. "So off I went.” It proved to be a wise decision. Scoring five goals in 14 games for the provincial side, he attracted the attention of former international striker Georgi Ivanov, who lured the France-born Malian to big-city outfit Levski Sofia.

Though out of the UEFA Europa League, the Blues currently lie second in the Bulgarian championship behind Litex Lovech, thanks in no small part to the scoring ability of Dembele, who has hit 26 goals in as many appearances, including 15 in the league. In acquiring one of the best goals-per-game ratios in Europe this season, the front man has deservedly earned himself the nickname of 'Goal Machine'.

Nimble on his feet and composed in front of goal, Dembele is at long last living up to the expectations placed in him in his formative years. No-one will be less surprised to see him triumph than his old mentor Roux, who once said of him: “I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes an exceptional player. He has a great burst of pace and gets into great positions. He’s good with both feet as well.”

With a few days still to run before the winter transfer window closes, it would be no surprise either to see him move to pastures new. “We’re talking about that and things are really starting to move,” said Dembele, who turns 25 next month. “There’s every chance I could be leaving the club, and I’ve had interest from West Ham United, Blackburn Rovers and a few others, which is exciting. I’ve always wanted to play in England and I can catch up with some old friends there.”

Given Dembele’s travails in a short but eventful career to date, a move to the bright lights of the English Premier League would provide perfect redemption.