Already hailed as one of the Bundesliga’s brightest stars at just 22, RB Leipzig’s mesmerising midfielder Naby Keita once wondered if he would ever realise his dream of playing at the very top.
Following phenomenal success with Austrian outfit FC Salzburg - where he won two league and cup doubles and was named the nation’s Player of the Year - the Guinea international achieved worldwide recognition for his feats in Leipzig’s maiden 2016/17 Bundesliga campaign. The pass master weighed in with eight goals and eight assists in 31 German top-flight appearances for the Saxony-based side last season as Ralph Hasenhüttl’s young charges finished second behind champions Bayern Munich and earned a place in the UEFA Champions League group stages.
Watch: From Conakry to Leipzig - the Naby Keita journey
Yet it did come very close to not happening at all. "Your dream is within reach and then everything collapses and you start all over again," the Conakry native said in an interview with Goal.
Moving to Europe at just 16 left Keita’s parents feeling, "scared," while trials with FC Lorient and Le Mans failed to see a contract materialise for the central midfielder. "I was wondering if I would ever make it," Keita explained. However, along the way, a wily club official was excited by the prospects shown by the player, and a call was made to FC Istres, who took a chance on his raw talent.
The essential first-step had been achieved and the hours upon hours playing on the streets of Conakry - where Keita says, "Not even cars could stop me," - began to pay dividends on the pitches of Europe.
The Leipzig star’s parents were initially worried his reluctance to study would hold him back, but were somewhat assuaged by the fact that, "Everyone in the community told them that I was the best player in the city, [even though] I was actually too small and had to fight for everything."
And Keita is continuing to fight, scoring twice in 13 games across all competitions for a Leipzig side battling for titles on domestic and European fronts this term. His blistering efforts raised the interests of clubs across the continent, and with a move to English Premier League side Liverpool recently confirmed, Keita will be an English Premier League player starting from next season.
Indeed, the links with the five-time European champions are strong. Keita’s father has been a huge Liverpool fan, "since the time I could first think," and after the club captured the signature of the sought-after talent, Keita Sr. took to the task of schooling his son on of the the Reds’ most important accomplishments.
"He wanted to speak to me about everything right away, about Istanbul [and the 2005 Champions League win], about Steven Gerrard and every important match Liverpool played," the Guinean said.
The move will also see Keita reacquaint himself with former Salzburg club-mate and current Liverpool favourite, Sadio Mane. It was Mane who provided important guidance for a young Keita in Austria. "[In the beginning], I didn’t play and I did not like that, but Sadio said, 'Stay calm, my little brother, your chance will come'."
And so it did. From admiring the likes of former Liverpool and Bayern Munich great Xabi Alonso from afar - "I always watched him when I was in Guinea" - Keita later lined out opposite his Spanish hero in the Bundesliga.
And thanking his stars that he stuck with his ambition despite a tricky start to life in Europe, the man once hailed as the best player in Conakry insists, "This is just the beginning."