Football fans have many different ways of showing their support for players, but it was still unusual when, in one of the most poignant displays of solidarity, thousands of Napoli supporters held photographs of Kalidou Koulibaly in front of their faces before a Serie A game earlier this year. FIFA.com talks to the Senegal international about 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, his time in Italy and standing up to racism in football.
Solidarity and success
The protest action by Partenopei supporters came during Napoli's match against Carpi and it was a show of solidarity with the towering 25-year old central defender, who a few days earlier had racist abuse chanted at him by Lazio supporters. The referee had halted that match and only restarted it a few minutes later, after discussing the matter with both teams and coaches. The player, who has been strongly linked with a move to Chelsea in the last few days, said he tried to ignore the chants. "At first I did not pay too much attention, but when the referee had the courage to abandon the match, I understood," Koulibaly said. "I was supported by my team-mates, players from Lazio came to talk to me, and after the game, I received many expressions of support.”
Ahead of their next league game a few days later, a group of Napoli fans issued a statement asking fans to print the photos of the defender to wear over their faces. Thousands of fans followed the call and when Koulibaly entered the stadium, he saw the display of solidarity. “When I saw our supporters with the picture in front of their faces, it really touched me.”
Thankfully, that was the only serious blemish on Koulibaly's season, which otherwise was outstanding on the pitch. The young defender played in all but three of Napoli's league matches in a season in which they finished second to Juventus and qualified for the UEFA Champions League.
On the up
Koulibaly was born in France to Senegalese parents and started his professional football career with Ligue 2 side Metz, before joining Belgian club Racing Genk on a four-year contract in 2012. His stay with the club was short-lived as two years into his contract Napoli made Genk an offer they could not turn down. He soon became a regular in the Neapolitan side and has not looked back since. Earlier this year, no less of a footballing legend than Diego Maradona, said that Koulibaly was the best defender in Serie A. “He can play at any level,” said the legendary Argentina playmaker.
Although Koulibaly played youth football for France, the defender last year decided to throw in his lot with Senegal and earned his first cap in a 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Namibia in September. Les Lions de la Teranga are the only team in the preliminary competition that have a 100 per cent record ahead of their final group game and are assured of a place at the finals in Gabon.
Koulibaly says he is thrilled with the successful run and dismisses talk of a straightforward group that was made up of Burundi, Namibia and Niger. “Whenever teams play against Senegal, they want to do really well, and each challenge is always different. Although I have only been with the team since September, I am already dreaming of playing at the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations.”
Eyeing World Cup return
Now that qualification for Gabon has been achieved, Senegal will turn their attention toward qualifying for Russia 2018. The west Africans have been drawn into a group with South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde Islands, with the first two matchdays occurring in October and November. “They are quality opponents, but our team is strong all over and we have the talent.”
The only time the Lions participated at the showpiece event of world football was in 2002, when they sensationally beat world champions France and reached the quarter-finals. “Our coach, Aliou Cisse, the team manager, Lamine Diatta, and the goalkeeper coach, Tony Sylva, all played in those finals. They have told us about their experiences and we want to relive them.”
The defender is full of praise for the former captain Cisse. “Since being appointed last year, he has rebuilt the side. In just over a year, he has already achieved results. I know that in Senegal, the fans and the media are demanding, and that is normal. But we must have time.
“The coach is very professional. He is demanding and sometimes hard, but for the players, it's going well. His ambition is to make Senegal one of the best teams in Africa, and he will succeed. Senegal has the means to achieve that and to win titles. We may be about to begin writing a beautiful story."