“If you make the effort and work really, really hard, anything is possible,” RB Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita said during a spectacular debut season in the Bundesliga for both the Guinea international and the division's second-place finishers. It's a season that caught the eye of football fans around the world, and at the end of 2017/18 he will join Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool in the English Premier League, but he is sure to light up the Bundesliga once again with Leipzig before his departure.
The footballing is world finally coming to terms with the phenomenal achievements of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s 2016/17 top-flight trailblazers, the global appreciation of the talent that earned the team a place among European football’s elite continues to flow. The praise has been plentiful, and not least for Keita, whose journey from the streets of his home capital of Conakry to becoming one of the Bundesliga’s ambassadors for technical brilliance reads like a dream.
Watch: Behind the scenes with Naby Keita
A barometer of Keita’s excellence lay in two TagHeuer Bundesliga Rookie of the Month nominations last season. His determined running from midfield, often emerging from tight spaces before shuffling his quick feet into dizzying dribbles, brought Leipzig fans out of their seats in anticipation. His opponents struggling to stop him, the 22-year-old often provided the killer pass – as he did when making eight assists in 2016/17 – or took aim at the opponents’ target. And when Keita scored, his eight goals in 29 Bundesliga starts were mostly a delight to behold.
The confidence to produce a wonder strike, such as his Bundesliga Goal of the Season contender against Freiburg on Matchday 12, or his ultra-neat finish for the first of his two goals against Werder Bremen in October, emanated from the street games Keita played as a boy in Guinea.
“There, the road is the best football school,” he explained. “I would say that all the guys in Africa, or at least in Guinea, play on the street. [There are cars coming and going] but you just play between them.” When it came time to leave the street game and go shopping with his mother, Keita found it difficult to switch his attention to the task at hand, instead looking for things to kick at the supermarket. “My mother always said that going shopping with me was very expensive [because] many things got broken. Still, I always looked forward to those trips.”
Leipzig’s record signing following his move from FC Salzburg – where he was a double league winner and Austrian Bundesliga Player of the Year – last year, Keita soon set about breaking records in Germany. He scored an 89th minute winner in the team’s first ever top-flight victory, a 1-0 win at home to Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 2. “I think that goal was my personal highlight,” he told bundesliga.com. "The stadium was packed and the fans were going crazy; I was happy with that one.”
Keita would put Leipzig 1-0 up on four occasions during the debutants’ race to second place. A pass completion rate of 82 per cent added to his average of 16 sprints per game and a top speed of 32.7km/h combined to provide coach Hasenhüttl with a phenomenal asset within his young, counter-attacking side. “Leaving a man like Keita out is not easy as a coach,” the tactician explained of his versatile star, who operated in central midfield, defensive midfield and on the wing last term.
“He is an extraordinary player [so] there must be a place there [in the side for him]. If he is fully fit and if he can sprint and run, then his class is just insane; he makes all the right calls,” the coach added.
Watch: Werner, Forsberg and Keita: Leipzig's Holy Trinity
Admitting that he had to, “learn to look after myself in life,” Keita said that he fought hard to battle his way out of the poverty of his early existence. “After training, I used to have to ask people for food. I couldn’t go on like that,” he said. “But now I am in a position where I can help others the way others once helped me. I always think of my roots, of where I came from. [One day] I want to be Africa’s footballer of the year,” the Guinea and RB Leipzig sensation concluded. At this rate, he won't have to wait too long.