“After what I went through, everything that’s happening to me now feels particularly special,” Bakaye Traore told FIFA.com after signing a three-year deal with AC Milan, following three seasons with French outfit Nancy.
“Milan were watching me very closely, and it’s a huge honour to be followed by one of the best clubs in the world,” continued the 27-year-old Mali international, who only three years ago was playing for Amiens in the second tier of French football. “They had been following me for quite some time without my knowing, as they’re not the kind of club that declares an interest suddenly.”
Milan’s officials will no doubt be hoping for a good return on their investment, having followed their new recruit’s remarkably turbulent season discreetly from afar. The first twist in Traore’s story came in September, when the powerful midfielder was struck down by a serious bout of malaria that nearly left him in a coma. “My season started in January 2012,” he explained. “I was so ill. When footballers suffer from malaria, it usually takes them a month to recover. But it took me two and a half months.”
Eagles coach shows faith
Despite what was clearly a painful and uncertain period for Traore, his national team coach’s faith remained unshaken. “Between Alain Giresse and me, it’s more than just a player-coach relationship,” he said. “He’s known me since I was a kid, as I used to play with his son at Amiens. He knows my strengths and has always believed in me. With everything that’s happening now, he’s happy for me. But he’s not at all surprised, as he’d already predicted it several times in the past. When I was at my worst, he kept telling me that one day it would make me smile, and that it would taste even sweeter when that day came. I can never thank him enough for all the confidence he has shown in me.”
Giresse proved just how much faith he had in Traore by recalling him to the national side two weeks after his return to action. The recently recovered midfielder went on to play in all of Mali’s matches at the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, and by the end of the campaign was a man transformed. Mali went into the tournament without several of their star players, and their hopes of success appeared slim. But the Eagles defied expectations and enjoyed their strongest Cup of Nations showing in 40 years since losing to Congo in the 1972 final. “To finish third and play great football in the process was a real joy, made even better by the fact that nobody believed in us,” said Traore, who was born in Bondy on the outskirts of Paris.
Alongside Traore throughout Mali’s memorable Cup of Nations campaign was Barcelona’s Seydou Keita, a “big brother” figure whose midfield expertise proved invaluable. “All his advice about the small details helps to build your confidence, and makes you feel sure of yourself at the top level,” said Traore. “It feels good to play alongside him and it makes you think that, one day, like him, you could also play for a big club.”
Back with a bang
Traore returned to Ligue 1 action revitalised, and the Malian’s comeback coincided with an upturn in fortunes for Nancy, who had been floundering in the relegation zone before his first start back in the side. A nine-match unbeaten run ensued for Jean Fernandez’s resurgent side, including brilliant victories over Lyon, Montpellier and Paris Saint Germain. The rejuvenated Traore was a central figure and even enjoyed a prolific streak in front of goal, scoring five times in four matches.
Nancy’s top-flight status is now secure for another season, but Traore has no intention of taking his foot off the pedal. He still has Saint Etienne and Lille to face in the league, before joining up with his international team-mates to tackle the second round of African Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
“We’ve [Mali] got good momentum and we’re full of confidence,” said Traore, who harbours dreams of playing in the UEFA Champions League and helping Mali to a first-ever FIFA World Cup finals berth. “We know each other well and our playing style is now firmly in place. And if we add all the players who missed the Cup of Nations, who should return in June, then we have the ability to do a lot of damage in these qualifiers.”
Traore’s Champions League dream should soon come true when he joins the Rossoneri. And, given his remarkable journey this year, he should have every reason to feel confident of realising his FIFA World Cup ambition too.