Football is full of inspiring stories, and Mamadou Niang's is certainly one of those. After spending two seasons struggling at Le Havre's youth academy, the 18-year-old from Matam in Senegal decided to put his dreams of a professional career on hold and joined Saint-Andre-les-Vergers, a 'division d'honneur' (sixth division) club purely to play for fun.
"Football wasn't a priority and I never imagined making a living out of it," he recalls. Ten years on and fate has dictated otherwise - Niang is currently in the running to be Ligue 1's top scorer and is very much the figurehead for one of France's biggest clubs.
After a disastrous start to the season, Marseille are now back in the running for a UEFA Champions League berth and this turnaround is due in no small part to the goal-scoring feats of the African striker. His brace against Lyon last Sunday keeps his club in fourth place and put him up to 15 goals for the season, only two behind Karim Benzema, who has topped the charts since the beginning of the season.
Niang has a reputation for being the archetypal team player and refuses to think about personal achievements while his club still has everything to play for. He did however find the time to praise the man ahead of him in the goal-scoring charts. " "
A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but then again Marseille is a city that is known for its big talk. At the age of 28, the Senegalese international is at the top of his game and has become a considerably more accomplished finisher. Indeed, prior to this campaign, 12 goals was his best haul for a season. "I've come on a lot in terms of converting the chances I get. I'm a lot more clear and focussed," he says.
'Football got him off the streets'
A dozen goals is a reasonable tally but hardly a fair reflection of Niang's talents, which were discovered by current Lyon coach Alain Perrin while in charge of Troyes back when the striker had given up on the idea of turning pro.
Perrin was tipped off by Le Havre coach Carlos Lopez and persuaded Niang to join the club in the north-east of France. "He's certainly come on since then," says Lopez, remembering Niang's stint up on the Normandy coast. "He had strength and a lot of potential, but he was inconsistent and seemed to be battling himself more than anything. He was brought up in a tough area and didn't have an easy time of it. Football got him off the streets."
Niang's first few years in a Troyes shirt merely served to convince him he was right all along to want to give the game up. His first season of professional football saw him stuck in the reserves, while the following year he managed just ten substitute appearances and two goals with the first team. He then played 17 times in 2001/02, only netting three times, but compensated for his lack of composure in front of goal with his technique, speed and ability to hold the ball up.
This was enough to convince Metz, in the second division at the time, to snap him up during the winter of 2003. The next six months saw him strike up a rapport with none other than current Arsenal star Emmanuel Adebayor, and the African attackers helped the club back up into Ligue 1.
Even so, Niang packed his bags once again and moved to Strasbourg. 'Mamad', as he is known, managed 25 goals in 63 matches over three seasons and won his first ever piece of silverware with the Alsace club, namely the League Cup in 2005. His partnerships alongside Daniel Ljuboja and then Mickael Pagis proved he was the kind of player who could score double figures each season and, more importantly, improve his team-mates' overall play. This was enough to convince Marseille to splash out 7 million euros on him in the summer of 2005 to replace fan favourite Didier Drogba alongside Peggy Luyindula up front.
While Luyindula never quite managed to shine with the Mediterranean club, Niang quietly went about his business and soon became a vital cog in the OM machine. And while his first season saw him score just 10 goals, in 2006-07 he stepped up to the next level, finishing the season as the team's top scorer (12 goals) and goal-creator (seven assists). Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Djibril Cisse were busy bagging all the headlines, however, as Marseille finished runners-up in Ligue 1.
This season, Niang has been the one the media have been talking about. Ribery left to join Bayern Munich while Cisse and Nasri have been either injured or out of form. Senegal's 2007 player of the year meanwhile has thrown off his Clark Kent persona and transformed himself into the Marseille's Superman, with his goals propelling the club from 19th in the table to fourth.
Whether playing on the left, the right or straight through the middle, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. "I try to adapt to the tactical formation that the coach sets out," he says. " "
This particular Superman is only human, however, as his injury last March illustrated. In the two weeks that Marseille were without his services, they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup and the French Cup and missed out on making it into the top three of the league when they lost 1-0 at home to rivals Sochaux. OM absolutely had to win away at Lorient in the next match if they wanted to keep their Champions League dream alive. Fortunately for them, Niang marked his comeback by scoring the winner in a 2-1 triumph.
His two goals the following week against a Lyon side which has won the last six league titles showed the rest of the country what Marseille has known for a while now - that Niang is indispensable to their cause. He had already scored twice when OM beat their rivals 2-1 at Stade Gerland earlier in the season, although he has been consistent insisting, as he did then, that he is "not the saviour of Marseille".
Then again, Clark Kent never told anyone that he was Superman.