Naby Keita’s journey from selling water on the streets with his mum to dominating the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig is one of the most remarkable in football. bundesliga.com draws a picture of the future Liverpool midfielder, who — for all his qualities — still has much to learn about wildlife…
1) Undimmed passion
Keita was born in the Guinean capital Conakry on 10 February, 1995. As a youngster, he could be seen alongside his mother, Miriam, selling ice-cool water on the streets of Conakry, and was only allowed to play football after completing his chores. “She has told me that anything that would fall from the table, whether it was a bottle of water or an orange, I would dribble with it,” Keita says of his mother, who visits him in Germany every three months. “Whatever was on the floor that I could kick, I would entertain myself with it. No matter where she would take me, I would do this.” This included local shops where Keita’s habit could prove costly: “There were a lot of round things to play football with. Unfortunately, there were also things like lampshades, which got broken. My mum always says that shopping with me was very expensive!”
Watch: The making of Naby Keita
2) Early struggles
Keita joined hometown club Horoya AC aged nine, journeying to France to try to further his career at 16. Lodging with future international teammate Guy-Michel Landel, the young hopeful had unsuccessful trials at Lorient and Le Mans. “It was more difficult than you could have imagined because everything other than the language was different,” Keita explained. “I did wonder if I would ever make it. It was such a tough time. You have your dream within touching distance, then it falls through and you have to start from the beginning again.”
3) Bobo boomer
He did that at a talent-spotting tournament organised by compatriot and former Celtic defender Bobo Balde in Marseille. Istres, then in France’s second division, were won over. “He had come from Guinea a few months earlier,” explained former Istres team-mate Fouad Chafik. “We saw Naby arrive one morning for training, and we all understood very quickly that he had something extra.” Four goals and nine assists in 22 games backed up the Istres squad’s judgement.
5) Deco-rated player
Born Naby Laye Keita, his middle name has been replaced with ‘Deco’ on his social media channels. His father, Sekou, gave him the nickname as he thought his son’s game was similar to the two-time UEFA Champions League-winner midfielder. With Keita standing 5'8", his physique as well as his early passes and chipped through-balls are reminiscent of the former Porto and Barcelona man. Keita was such a fan that, when he was 11, he wanted his team to wear a Barcelona kit. Instead, however, they chose Liverpool…
6) Rangnick’s protege
Keita has gone down as one of Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick’s most brilliant and insightful moves. The former Schalke coach went to France to sign Keita for Salzburg, the start of a father-son-like relationship between the pair. “Rangnick told me I was like a koala that you want to hug. He often hugs me,” admitted Keita. “I don’t know exactly what a koala looks like. In fact, I often fear animals because in Guinea, a lot of them are dangerous.”
7) King of Conakry
Football keeps him in Europe for most of the year, but Keita does return to his home country where he is now one of the most recognisable faces in the country. “I always buy boots when I’m back for as many kids as I can because I know how much it can mean to have something so simple,” he explained. “I wanted to be Deco, Titi Camara or Pascal Feindouno when I was young, and now there are kids with my name on the back of their shirts! That is such a big motivation for me and I hope I continue to show them that with courage and determination, they can achieve anything.”
9) Mane’s mate
Keita’s arrival in Salzburg also marked the start of a friendship with Senegal forward Sadio Mane, who talked his new team-mate through the difficult early stages of his spell in Mozart’s home town before his own departure for Southampton. “He helped me with everything - the language, making friends, understanding the club and the city,” explained Keita, who is three years Mane’s junior. “Sadio was important for me, he still is! To me, he’s my big brother. He really likes to learn new things, to improve and to push himself and we are the same in this way. He’s a good example for me.”
That is bad news for English Premier League opponents, but music to the ears of Liverpool supporters, who will see Keita take possession of the number 8 shirt previously worn by club legend Steven Gerrard.
“You don’t just give the number 8 to anyone,” said Malick Kebe, the former president of Santoba FC, the club he convinced Keita to join after first spotting his potential in Conakry.
“They have given it to Naby, because he deserves it and have no fear: Naby is going to establish himself in England.”