When a journalist dangles a microphone in front of your face, it is usually best to think before you speak. Every word you utter is likely to be noted down, recorded, kept on file and preserved for posterity. In 2014, when Naby Keita opened a direct line between his thoughts and speech in an interview for club side Red Bull Salzburg, he was probably not reflecting on the future consequences. "I dream of being the best African footballer and playing one day for Barcelona," he said. A little presumptuous perhaps for an unknown 19-year-old with scarcely any top-level experience
Less than two years later, the Guinean has become a regular starter in the Bundesliga with Leipzig and a fixture for his national team, and he stands fully by that ambitious declaration. "I still have the same goal and it hasn't changed," the midfielder told FIFA.com, though he did add one slight nuance. "When I was little, I really loved Barça. But today I just want to play for a big club – and Real Madrid or Bayern Munich are in that same category."
By switching from the Austrian top flight to the German elite, Keita has already taken one step towards fulfilling his dream. As for his hopes of being recognised as the finest player in Africa, he has made progress there too, being voted the best player in Austria in 2015/16 and Guinean player of the year in 2015. "Those titles have given me even more desire to work and improve – I'm on the right track," he said, albeit a little awkwardly, betraying a timidity that is by no means incompatible with his searing ambition. "The next step is to be the best in Germany. People aren't necessarily going to believe I can do it, but I'll try to work hard with my team to get there."
Always the best
More observers may start believing if he continues to back up his words with actions. Take his Leipzig debut, for instance, when Keita began on the bench against a Dortmund side irrepressible in the early part of the season. Brought on towards the end with the scoreline 0-0, the newcomer clinched victory for Die Roten Bullen in the 89th minute.
Despite being newly promoted this term, Leipzig seem to have ambitions of their own, and Keita is fully on board. "The objective of the club is to stay up, and we have to do that," he explained. "If the club say to us: 'We want to finish in a certain position or achieve a certain goal,' we'll give everything to make it happen. But there's the official objective and the one we have in our own heads. If there's a chance to do better, we'll seize it."
Keita developed his penchant for aiming high during his childhood in the streets of Matam, a working-class neighbourhood of Conakry. "When I was little and we held tournaments, I was always voted best player and always finished top scorer," he recalled, with pride rather than arrogance. "When you get used to being the best, you want to remain the best. Everything I do is to be the best. Even if I don't get there, I have to do everything I can to make it happen."
When I started playing regularly from the age of 12 or 13, people began to say I had a future. I've never forgotten that.
His motivation to excel is clearly fierce, and it has deeper roots than his love of the game. "It's never been easy for me. My father didn't work and nor did my mother. I was the only one who could help them. I don't want to go into too many details or I'll want to start crying."
In broad terms, the details are that Keita hails from an underprivileged family and endured a difficult day-to-day life, with his only education provided by a sister who passed on what she had learned at school to her siblings. Meanwhile, the budding young footballer helped out his father repairing motorbikes from time to time. "When I started playing regularly from the age of 12 or 13, people began to say I had a future. I've never forgotten that. I tried to avoid certain things and just focus on football, because I knew that I could one day help my parents."
For family and country
What Keita did not know at the time was that he would end up helping more than just his immediate family thanks to his sporting prowess. "It's difficult for us African players because an African family isn't easy to manage," he said, having first left home at 18 for French Ligue 2 side Istres, before switching to Salzburg in 2013. "You've got your mother, and then she's got her sister and her big brother, and each of them has their own family. And you're the one who has to look after everything for them. It's not easy for us. You work and you never get to rest."
Chances to kick back and relax are even rarer when you also feel responsible for the happiness of an entire nation. Keita found that out when he scored for Guinea at home and away against Namibia in the second round of African qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, sending the Syli National through to the group stage. "I'll try to do the same thing to take my country to the World Cup," he said, with Guinea due to face Tunisia on 9 October.
"That would be fantastic because we're a nation that loves football. Until now, we haven't been able to do what we've needed to make them happy. Even among ourselves, we've wondered what hasn't been working, because we have a talented team that plays well, but we've lost matches we had no right to lose. We have the team to do it this time, though. This generation can change something."
Those are confident words once again, but Keita has never been one to speak lightly. After all, he knows his every statement could be quoted back to him in the years to come.