When Demba Ba suffered a horrific leg break while playing for Shanghai Shenhua in 2016, the outpouring of love and support from across the football world proved his status as a much-loved star. Well-wishers from Newcastle, Istanbul, London, Hoffenheim, Belgium and Paris marked a footballing journey that has earned him global acclaim.
The former Senegalese international’s career may not have been laced with silverware or awards, nor was he blessed with great technical ability, but his desire to score goals made him an extremely popular figure wherever he went.
Ba’s nomadic nature was evident from the very beginning as he searched for an opportunity to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer. After featuring for three youth teams in France, he was shunned away by Lyon and Auxerre after trials. Not one for giving up, the youngster travelled to England in an attempt to catch the attention of those who may consider his physical build an asset rather than an inconvenience. His aspirations of a permanent deal at Watford were shot by the departure of Ray Lewington, who had given him a chance at the Hertfordshire side, before unsuccessful trials at the likes of Barnsley and Swansea.
French lower league club Rouen took a chance on the frustrated 20-year-old and their gamble paid off as Ba managed a scoring ratio of almost one per game in the French fourth tier. Rouen’s precarious financial situation forced them into the sale of Ba to Belgian club Mouscron, where injuries blighted his two years at the club.
After an impressive start to his career in the Belgium, Ba fractured both his tibia and fibula and was out of action for the best part of a year. Having found the net often upon his return to fitness, Hoffenheim came calling and, for the second time in his career, Ba was used as a source of income for a struggling club.
Hoffenheim, playing football in Germany’s second tier for the first time in their history, were a club on the up. Ba managed double figures in the league in his debut season as he helped his side to a second successive promotion. During his four seasons at the German club, Ba formed a prolific strike partnership with Vedad Ibišević and the unlikely Senegalese-Bosnian pairing produced 32 goals between them.
This firepower propelled Hoffenheim to top of the league by Christmas, only for the newcomers to fall to a respectable seventh-place finish. The highlight of Ba’s first season in the Bundesliga came at the Mercedes-Benz Arena where his three goals against Stuttgart earned him the match ball in a 3-3 draw.
Read | Serhiy Rebrov: the Dynamo Kyiv legend overtaken by darkness, now charging into the light
At the end of that season, Stuttgart, impressed by the forward’s performances against them, came close to completing a move for Ba. The Hoffenheim striker had agreed personal terms with the Bundesliga outfit before failing a medical; an occurrence that arose far too often over the course of his career.
Two more seasons in Germany’s top flight passed as Ba’s reputation began to grow across the continent, but another failed medical would almost scupper a move to the Premier League in January 2011. After hearing of a bid from West Ham, Ba refused to take part in Hoffenheim’s mid-season winter training camp and fell out of favour with many of the fans as a result.
West Ham’s faithful will have fond memories of Demba Ba’s short time at the club, but he almost lined up against them that season. If it wasn’t for a failed medical at Stoke, his 13 appearances for the East London club would never have happened. Nevertheless, the Hammers got their man just before the January window shut and Ba hit the ground running in England.
It was a fitting full circle; from the boy who was rejected by a handful of English clubs to one of the most sought-after target men in Europe. Ba made his first start in the Premier League at the Hawthorns against West Brom but the first half was one to forget as the Baggies went 3-0 up. Having already hit the post with an effort from a corner in the first half, Ba was causing problems for the likes of Jonas Olsson and Paul Scharner in the Baggies’ defence and he got his name on the scoresheet just after half-time when he brought down Mark Noble’s lofted pass and finished past Ben Foster.
Carlton Cole’s equaliser was greeted by euphoric celebrations from the away supporters behind the goal but Ba’s second of the game, in the 83rd minute, sent the Hammers fans into delirium. Noble, once again involved, saw his cross headed into the air by a defender in a crowded penalty area before Ba, off balance, volleyed it into the roof of the net with power and skill. As West Ham’s newest signing wheeled away in celebration towards the travelling contingent, those who had murmured about his injury problems and his inconsistency in front of goal were silent.
Somewhere in Staffordshire, Tony Pulis was questioning whether that failed medical was going to come back to haunt him. However, despite a return of seven goals in the second half of that season, Ba’s efforts were not enough to stop West Ham’s relegation, allowing him to leave on a free.
Having seen his physicality and goalscoring qualities, Newcastle snapped up the Senegalese striker as Alan Pardew looked to build on a 12th-place finish the previous season. Much like his career in East London, Ba hit the ground running and hat-tricks against Blackburn and Stoke helped fire Newcastle into the Champions League places. Meanwhile, goals against the likes of Tottenham and Manchester United proved that Ba was much more than a flat-track bully and could compete against the Nemanja Vidić’s and the Rio Ferdinand’s of this world.
Read | David Silva: the modest magician at odds with a grandiose world
Despite Newcastle’s tricky December – the Magpies managed just one win in six – Ba was named Premier League Player of the Month after netting five times. Another goal, this one a rasping scissor-kick past David De Gea at St James’ Park, sent Newcastle on their way to a famous win over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United before Ba headed off to the African Cup of Nations.
He returned to Tyneside with his Senegal teammate Papiss Cissé after a deal was agreed between Newcastle and Freiburg for the striker during the January transfer window. Much like Ba, Cissé had spent a few productive seasons in the Bundesliga before hitting the big time in England, so if he was to be mentored by anyone, Demba Ba would be the ideal person.
It turned out that Cissé quickly became the master rather than the apprentice and stunned Premier League defences with his quick movement and powerful right foot. He managed over double figures in goals before the season was out and he was a considerate factor in Newcastle achieving a first top-five finish in eight years. However, his goals dried up at the start of the following season with Ba taking centre stage once more.
Tottenham were the visitors to St James’ Park on the first day of the new campaign as Ba opened his account for the season with a curling half-volley that soared across Brad Friedel and into the far corner. A brace at Goodison Park was followed by the winner against Norwich before Ba bagged another double away at struggling Reading.
You’d expect a forward of his size and stature to be almost exclusively scoring headers or tap-ins but that wasn’t Ba’s style. While he did net his fair share of headers, he became known for his ability to score acrobatic efforts and long-range piledrivers. This variety in his game and his newfound consistency in front of goal earned Ba a move to Champions League holders Chelsea, who were struggling in the striker department after the departure of Didier Drogba.
When Ba arrived at Stamford Bridge in January, a misfiring Fernando Torres was the only recognised front-man in the entire squad, with Daniel Sturridge having just secured his move to Liverpool earlier that month. Two opportunistic finishes against Southampton came on his debut for the Blues as the Chelsea fans got their first glimpse of the supposed panic buy that they’d brought in.
For the first time in his career, Ba was playing with genuine world-class talent and the fact that his two goals came via assists from Juan Mata and Eden Hazard promised much. During his brief time at Chelsea, Ba formed a friendship with Hazard on and off the pitch while Mata often provided him with a chance to score. An inch-perfect pass by the Spaniard against Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-final later that season saw Ba stretch to strike past De Gea to secure a safe passage to the semi-finals, where he netted again. Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City denied the Blues that day on Ba’s first appearance at Wembley.
Read | The back-to-back trebles at Barcelona and Inter that made Samuel Eto’o a modern legend
Despite the calls for Ba to leave that summer, the Senegal star opted to stay and play under new boss José Mourinho. A decade earlier, Ba could only have dreamed of playing with fellow African Samuel Eto’o, but here he was at a top club training alongside one of his heroes. However, the arrival of Eto’o meant that Ba’s playing time was limited for the first half of the season. By the time Christmas came around, Ba had managed just one Premier League goal and found himself sitting third in the pecking order for Mourinho’s sole striker slot.
With Chelsea’s Premier League hopes fading after defeats at Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, an unlikely Champions League campaign became the centre of attention at the club. A 3-1 defeat in Ba’s hometown against Paris Saint-Germain looked to have ended the Blues’ run but the English club staged a thrilling comeback at Stamford Bridge in the second leg. André Schürrle swept home in the first half to bring the Blues back into the game before, as time seemed to be running out, Ba scrambled a shot into the back of the net to make him the hero of this Champions League tie.
That important goal earned him starts at Swansea and Liverpool, finding the net on both occasions. Steven Gerrard’s slip wouldn’t have been remembered if Ba had not slotted past Simon Mignolet seconds after. His composure in front of the Kop was unmatched by many strikers with that little game time under their belts.
A resurgent Atlético Madrid stopped Chelsea in their European tracks in the semi-finals and Manchester City nipped in front of Liverpool to claim the league title as Ba left Chelsea without a medal in his collection. The arrival of Diego Costa forced Ba to look elsewhere in order to play football, which is when Beşiktaş came in for his services.
Fans of the Super Eagles often credit Ba’s performances in his only full season in Turkey as instrumental in forming the foundations of a team that went on to win the league title in the two following campaigns. Ba’s 18 league goals propelled Beşiktaş to third and his impressive Europa League tally saw the Turkish side progress out of a group that contained Tottenham and then past Liverpool in the first knockout round. Club Brugge were victors over the Istanbul-based club in the next round as Ba’s career continued to have that trophy-shaped hole in it.
A prolific spell in China ended abruptly with a horrific broken leg that many said would end Ba’s career. However, all the work the Senegal striker had put in during those first few years as a footballer, those trials in France, the rejections in England, meant that he was used to being written off.
He returned to Europe and Beşiktaş under a year later as the Super Eagles successfully defended their Süper Lig title. Finally, after a career that had spanned over a decade and taken him from Hoffenheim to Istanbul via Newcastle, London and Shanghai, Demba Ba had a medal around his neck and, as always, a smile on his face.
By Billy Munday @BMunday08