Salif Keita: Saint-Étienne legend, trailblazing goalscorer and one of African football’s greatest

Salif Keita: Saint-Étienne legend, trailblazing goalscorer and one of African football’s greatest

It’s Sunday, 17 November 1972. Two bitter rivals face off at the Stade Vélodrome. The atmosphere is always electric when Saint-Étienne come to town, but today it has a brutal edge. Salif Keita, Marseille’s new Malian striker, has just completed a months-long ban. A legend for Les Verts, his move to the South Coast has proven viciously controversial.

Marseille, after all, had already poached Saint-Étienne goalkeeper Georges Carnus and defender Bernard Bosquier the year before. When president Roger Rocher found out his best striker was leaving too, he was incensed. A marker needed to be laid down. At the time, buyout clauses were unlawful in France. Keita, however, had signed a deal containing a release clause of 10,000 francs. Rocher reported his club’s own contract to the authorities, knowing that they would attract a small fine.

For Keita, however, the consequences were disastrous. The first winner of France Football’s African Ballon d’Or, one of the greatest players in Saint-Étienne’s history was been slapped with a six-month ban. Now, with his sentence served, he was lining up for his Marseille debut against the same club that had banished him to the sidelines.

It took just 20 minutes for Keita to score, but when he added a second six minutes from the end, he couldnt help himself. A triumphant bras d’honneur was flexed towards Rocher in the directors box. Nobody messes with the ‘Black Panther’.

Keita had spent much of his life fighting against circumstance. Both his parents died young, leaving eight brothers and two sisters to fend for themselves in the Ouolofobougou district of Bamako. “I had an African childhood,” he told SoFoot in 2016. “I was educated by my parents of course, but also by my brothers, my friends, the neighbourhood, the environment, the school.”

Life was hard, but the Keita children looked out for each other. For Salif, football offered a sanctuary from the grim reality of his situation. “I lived in a neighbourhood where there was a 35 metre by 25 metre plot,” he remembered in the same interview. “There were at least 20 trees. Whenever you dribbled a player, you had to dribble a tree.”

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Neither branch nor boot could stop him. He was an insufferable dribbler, taunting the district’s older boys with his mesmerising skill and finishing. Domingo – as he had been christened by friends whilst walking past a movie poster with the same name – could make the ball sing like Placido at his finest. Aged 12, he was drafted into his local team, the Ouolofobougou Pioneers, the youngest and brightest player in a squad of men.

Four years later, he had his first international cap. Oumar Sy knew genius when he saw it, whisking Keita away with the national team for the GANEFO Games in Indonesia in 1963. From Conakry and Yaoundé to Abidjan and Dakar, news of a prodigy began to spread.

Real Bamako pounced for Keita’s signature in 1964, but after just one season, he upped sticks for Stade Malien. There, he joined a team that was readying for an assault on the African Cup of Champions. Only Oryx Douala could stop them in the final, the Cameroonians edging a tense game 2-1 in front of 30,000 fans in Accra.

After returning to Real, Keita’s rich vein of form continued. His 14 goals propelled Les Scorpions to the showpiece event, but an injury meant he would miss the second leg of the final against Stade Abidjan. On a humid evening at the Stade Municipal, he watched his teammates squander a 3-1 lead as the Ivorians romped to a 5-4 win on aggregate.

The fans were apopleptic. To their mind, Keita had abandoned the team when it needed him the most. “People were a little angry after me,” he admitted to Libération in 2002. “They criticised me, insulted me, said I was finished … I was 18 years old.” Faced with an unforgiving public, he realised it was time to move on. His saviour would come from a most unlikely source.

Charles Dagher was a Lebanese diplomat living in Bamako, but he was also a massive fan of Saint-Étienne. Having seen Keita’s majesty first-hand, he’d written a swathe of letters to the club imploring that they take a closer look. Moved by Daghers’ descriptions, Les Verts president Roger Rocher sent Keita a plane ticket and an invitation to come for a trial.

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For all the abuse he’d suffered, Keita knew the Malian authorities would be loathe to let their country’s biggest star depart. With Dagher’s help, therefore, he decided to flee the country, cutting through the Ivory Coast and into Liberia where a plane awaited to take him to France.

Things didn’t get off to the best start: he was robbed in Monrovia, with the assailants taking everything but his plane ticket. Distraught, he touched down at Paris’ Orly airport hoping that his luck was about to change.

It wasn’t. Keita expected a delegation from Saint-Étienne to meet him on arrival but nobody was forthcoming. He’d arrived two days early. With no money or papers, he convinced a taxi driver to ferry him the 500km to the Loire Valley, producing an embossed letter from the club as proof of his mission. The driver, a Stade de Reims fan, was swayed only when a desperate Keita informed him that the club would pay the bill.

After the befuddled Saint-Étienne secretary had settled the fare, Keita was dispatched to the youth team for his trial; a game against city rivals Olympique de Saint-Étienne. He ravaged six goals in an 8-1 victory. Albert Batteux, the Saint-Étienne manager, signed him up immediately. When Keita scored just seven minutes into his full debut, a star had been born.

Nevertheless, adapting to life in France proved difficult. The presence of fellow Africans Rachid Mekhloufi and Frédéric N’Doumbé – Algerian and Cameroonian respectively – was a comfort, but Bamako was still thousands of miles away. So too were Keita’s family, his friends, and the way of life he had felt no choice but to leave behind.

On the pitch, though, he was impressing. With every goal and trick, he grew in stature and importance to the team. Even Batteux was mesmerised: “He could do absolutely anything,” the coach marvelled to reporters. “Just like the top Brazilians can. I’ve seen him try things that are supernatural.”

Backed by Keita’s goals and assists, Les Verts claimed the league and cup double in his first full season. With Mekhloufi departing that summer, he became the club’s undisputed star, forming an indomitable partnership with Hervé Revelli. Another title followed in 1969, before a double in 1970. Only Josip Skoblar scored more than the Malian in Europe that year, with his 44 edging Keita’s 42 by the smallest of margins.

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The same season, France Football launched the Ballon d’Or Africain. Keita was the obvious choice, the reward bestowing just recognition on his achievements. The only problem was, he was too good. The magazine’s directors withdrew his name from consideration for future awards. Including him, they agreed, wouldn’t be fair on the other candidates.

For all the praise and recognition, Keita still wasn’t earning a wage comparable with his teammates. The club had signed him on an amateur contract, and his wages reflected that status. He grew tired of imploring the club to improve his terms. After his first season, he’d even fled to Bamako, where he agreed provisional terms on a move to Anderlecht. On that occasion, only the intervention of Batteux and Rocher had talked him down.

The Black Panther, as Keita had been christened by the fans and media, had become an emblem of Saint-Étienne’s fighting spirit. So much so, in fact, that the club had put the animal on their badge as a homage. Despite all this, Rocher still couldn’t muster a decent wage for the Malian. After 125 goals in 149 games, Keita finally opted for a move. Marseille offered improved terms, submitting the 10,000 franc fee in 1972. The deal was concluded swiftly.

As Keita brandished that derisory salute to Rocher on his Marseille debut, it had felt like the end of a nightmare. Unfortunately, life on the Canebière would be no panacea. With restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed in the team, the Marseille hierarchy had asked him to switch his nationality to French. Keita, feeling immense responsibility as one of the first African players to play in the European leagues, refused their advances.

“It was the first time an African had a chance to have a career like that,” Keita would later admit to the BBC. “Before then, Africans used to support Muhammad Ali, Pelé or Eusébio, as they didn’t have an African idol. So when my sun started to shine in Europe, all Africans were happy.”

His justifications fell on deaf ears. His decision was leaked to the press, causing a wave of abuse and recrimination. After just one season at the Vélodrome, Valencia offered 27 million pesetas for his services. He jumped at their offer.

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Two goals on his Los Che debut hinted at a revival. Valencia, however, had high expectations and a thinning squad. Keita, through a combination of injury and being played out of position, failed to sparkle like he had in France. Even his teammates were unimpressed, with Quino complaining to AS that “other teams have strengthened and we have a black guy that can’t play ball”.

“It hurt, and it bothered me a lot,” Keita told journalist José Mario Olmo about the racist abuse he received on the peninsula. When manager Alfredo Di Stéfano left the club after his first season, it was the final straw. Twelve months later, Sporting CP came in with an offer. He accepted, winning the Portuguese Cup with Los Leões before retiring with the New England Tea Men in 1980.

Most footballers embark on a life of luxury upon hanging up their boots. Not Keita, who’d completed his Bachelor of Law Degree whilst still at Saint-Étienne. Upon returning to his homeland in the 1980s, he became the manager and owner of Bamako’s Hotel Mandé. It was here, according to the Independent, where Michael Palin had “the best breakfast during his 100-day trip across the Sahara”.

Introverted and publicity-shy, Keita surprised many when he was appointed as chairman of the Malian Football Association in 2005. They were less surprised when he departed the position just a year later, devoting his efforts to the Centre Sportif Keita (CSK), which he established to guide future generations of Malian talent. What started as a youth academy in 1993 has since blossomed into a fully-fledged member of the Malian League, boasting alumni such as his nephew Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra.

Keita is 71 now, retired and living quietly in Bamako. He is evasive with interview requests, as elusive now as he was to defences all those years ago. He is a man who seems content with his lot, even if success on the international stage remains a stranger. He had been part of a strong Mali side at the 1972 Cup of Nations, losing in the final to Congo-Brazzaville despite boasting players like Bako Touré – the father of future France star José – and Fantamady Keita.

Everywhere he went, success seemed to fall just outside his reach. Everywhere except Saint-Étienne, where the crowds at the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard still sing his name to this day; where they still remember his shimmering, breathless skills; where they recall the goals, the trophies, the thrills and the memories that make him such an icon at one of the greatest clubs in France.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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