He had a great time in the Saint-Etienne Sports Association (ASSE) from 1967 to 1972, six years during which his long figure delighted French football with his polished technique and his keen eye for goal. He contributed to the legend of the Greens to the point of having inspired, in 1968, the club’s emblem: the black panther, a nickname which would never leave him even after his departure from Forez.
Malian Salif Keita died on Saturday September 2, at the age of 76, in a private hospital in Bamako. Everyone is mourning the man who was one of the first stars of African football. “The Black Panther is gone” regretted ASSE the same day, in a press release. “Mali loses one of its worthy sons who made Malian football shine on the national, African and international scene”the Malian military government reacted on Saturday.
Born on December 6, 1946 in Bamako into a modest family of eleven children, Salif Keita quickly developed a passion for football. On a vacant lot in Ouolofobougou, a working-class district of the Malian capital, he was spotted for his dribbling skills. Young Salif began his career at Real Bamako, and immediately, at just 16 years old, wore the Mali Eagles jersey, which would make him the youngest player selected for the national team. He won three consecutive championships in Mali but twice failed in the final of the African Champions Cup, first in 1965 with Stade Malien – a club where he had been loaned –, then with Real Bamako the following year .
Leaving Mali at age 20, hidden in the trunk of a car
His performances, however, caught the eye of Charles Dagher, a Lebanese diplomat posted in Bamako and fervent supporter of the Greens, who convinced the Saint-Etienne leader at the time, Roger Rocher, to test the nugget. Problem, the young Salif Keita is considered a “national treasure” in Mali, where the authorities oppose his transfer.
But the young man is determined to give an international dimension to his career. In 1967, aged 20, he left his country in a hurry, hiding in the trunk of a car, via Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, where he was robbed before boarding a plane. He arrives at Orly, alone, without a penny in his pocket. He then asks a Reims taxi driver who is a football fan to take him to Saint-Etienne where the club will pay for the fare – more than 1,000 francs at the time, the anecdote will contribute to the legend of Salif Keita.
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