Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
As Real Madrid welcome CSKA Moscow to the Bernabeu, international football expert Michael Yokhin explains why many in West London should be watching the visiting Ivorian striker...
When asked about his most important quality as a footballer, Seydou Doumbia doesn't hesitate: “The ability to love and respect my team-mates”.
The answer befits the smiling CSKA Moscow striker, who is taking Russia – and Europe – by storm on his way to superstardom. With five Champions League goals this season, and 45 goals in all competitions during an 18-month CSKA spell, the Ivorian has exceeded even the most optimistic dreams of his employers.
Doumbia's 25 league goals (and counting) this season have made it the most prolific campaign by a foreigner in Russian history. True, the current Russian Premier League season is elongated to bring the country into line with most of UEFA, but it's not for nothing that he was voted Footballer of the Year in 2011.
A Doumbia brace in the 2-1 Russian Cup Final win over Alania Vladikavkaz gave a debut trophy to coach Leonid Slutsky, who can’t hide his delight: “We knew Seydou would score plenty of goals, but didn’t imagine there would be so many of them.”
Doumbia does everything with a smile on his face. “I am an optimist, always waiting for good things to happen in life,” he says. His acclimatisation in Russia, after moving from Young Boys Berne in summer 2010, was extremely quick, especially for a young man who was then 22 (he turned 24 on New Year's Eve).
Doumbia in familiar pose with Young Boys Berne
“He's such a positive and cheerful person that the team accepted him immediately,” admits Vasily Berezutsky, one of CSKA's veteran players. "He was on the same wavelength with us from the very first minute. His smile brings us a lot of joy." Given Doumbia’s background, such an attitude is far from obvious.
Seydou grew up in Adjame, a troubled suburb of Ivory Coast capital Abidjan, and his family was wretchedly poor. He never got presents for holidays, and more often than not didn’t even have something decent to eat. Trying to help his mother to feed his three younger brothers, Doumbia used to sell rags on the street. That’s where his luck suddenly changed at the age of 12 when he met Olivier Koutoua, president of Centre Formation d'Inter football academy.
“I told the kid that he should be at school, but he asked me to buy some handkerchiefs,” remembers Koutoua. "I had to save him." At the academy Doumbia worked harder than other kids. He would train for hours kicking the ball with both feet, and setting himself original targets, like hitting the post hundreds of times every week from different angles. He played in the second division at age 15. At 17 he was the top scorer in the country's Premier Division with 15 goals, despite representing tiny Denguele that finished ninth.
Unsurprisingly, Doumbia’s excellent start didn’t escape the watchful eyes of European scouts, and several French teams offered him a trial. But when bureaucratic problems stopped Doumbia getting a French visa, his agent suggested he tried his luck in Japan. Kashiwa Reysol badly needed a striker, Doumbia scored twice in a trial and a deal was swiftly signed.
However, the rest of his Japanese career was far from perfect. The cultural change was too huge for a 18-year-old, and the coach mistook that ever-present smile to mean that the youngster wasn’t serious enough. A loan spell at second division Tokushima Vortis didn’t work out either, and at that stage Doumbia’s career was going in the wrong direction.
It’s only symbolic that the striker’s kind character helped him out once again. Thierry Doubai, a little-known midfielder who remained a close friend from their mutual years at the academy, was playing for Young Boys in Switzerland, and he persuaded his bosses to give Seydou a chance. The Berne club paid just €150,000 for Doumbia; it would prove to be a bargain.
To start with, coach Vladimir Petkovic didn’t really believe in Doumbia. Frequently used as a second-half impact sub, the Ivorian started just five times during 2008/09, his first season in Swiss Super League. That didn’t prevent him from finding the net 20 times, finishing as the league’s top scorer and winning the Player of the Year award.
A certain starter in his second season, he responded with 30 more goals, the highest amount in Switzerland since 1988. Add 17 assists over the two seasons, and you will understand why Young Boys supporters nicknamed him The Lord.
Doumbia kept thanking the fans after every game and made sure he developed a good relationship with them, becoming their most popular player by a distance. He easily retained the Player of the Year title, but by then the Berne crowd knew he was off to pastures new: the deal that took Doumbia to Moscow had been sealed in January 2010, with the player staying to finish the season in Switzerland. CSKA president Yevgeni Giner agreed to pay €10 million for the Ivorian, meaning his value had multiplied by 77 in little more than a year.
Young Boys' profit could have been even more astonishing: Rubin Kazan offered €25 million, trying to outbid their Russian rivals. The offer was so outrageous that Young Boys president Werner Muller considered it a joke and didn’t take Rubin seriously. A few months later the Tatars paid €20 million to Hoffenheim for Brazilian playmaker Carlos Eduardo, who has been injured ever since.
Young Boys used a fifth of their Doumbia profit to sign Emmanuel Mayuka, the Zambian who celebrated winning the African Nations Cup this January – beating Ivory Coast on penalties in the final of a tournament Doumbia mostly watched from the bench.
Chased by half of Madrid: will Chelsea also be on his heels?
Doumbia is used to that role: he also fulfilled it at the 2010 World Cup, acting as understudy to the ultimate Ivorian star: Didier Drogba. The younger man's day will most certainly come sooner rather than later, but in the meantime he is happy to learn from the striker who used to be his idol.
“I always wanted to be like Drogba,” admits Doumbia, a longtime Chelsea fan who readily admits he dreams of playing at Stamford Bridge. That aspiration could well come true as early as this summer. With Drogba on his way to China (if you believe potential team-mate Nicolas Anelka), and Fernando Torres’ career in total disarray, the Blues badly need a top scorer.
Roman Abramovich’s friendship with CSKA president Yevgeni Giner is well-known: in 2009 it helped bring Yuri Zhirkov to London. Some reports in Russia even suggest Chelsea recommended CSKA sign Doumbia from Young Boys in the first place, in order to check the striker on a bigger stage before making the ultimate purchase. He was so impressive, though, that Abramovich’s team is not the only option for the Ivorian now. Andoni Zubizarreta, Barcelona’s sporting director, is rumoured to be ready with a healthy offer for the new star.
The potential buyers will get an outstanding footballer. Lethal in front of goal, Doumbia shoots well with both feet, is a good header of the ball despite being just 5ft10in, and – unlike many a striker – is very generous towards his teammates. His unique dribbling goes back to the side streets of Adjame. “I invented tricks there, and just polished them later,” he says.
In fact, even Slutsky took his time to get used to Doumbia’s style. “He often starts moves that are downright illogical,” says the CSKA coach. “He would go into defenders, putting himself into situations you just can’t get out of – but he does get out. Doumbia is a real virtuoso, able to get past players who can’t understand his intentions. His way of playing is so unusual that marking him is a very tough job”.
And he's consistent. CSKA were used to the wayward brilliancy of Vagner Love, the outrageously talented Brazilian who could score against anyone and then disappear for months. Doumbia gives his utmost effort in every game, peaking on a big occasion. During his first season in Moscow the Ivorian netted seven times in the Europa League; in this season's Champions League group stage, he averaged a goal a game.
Seydou scored twice late in the first game, saving his team a point in a 2-2 draw at Lille. He then contributed a brace in a 3-0 win over Trabzonspor, but was sent off in the return fixture in Turkey, thus sitting out when CSKA lost at home to the French champions.
On the final matchday, the Russians needed to beat Inter at San Siro and hope for a draw in the other game – and that’s exactly how it worked out. Doumbia wasn’t afraid to promise he would score against the Nerazzurri, and true to his word he netted early in the second half, with his good friend Vasily Berezutsky claiming the late winner.
Slutsky said he couldn’t believe his ears when told that Lille failed to beat Trabzonspor, thus sending CSKA into the last 16. The Russians rode their luck, but the draw wasn’t that favourable to them, setting a clash with Real Madrid. Doumbia couldn’t be happier, though. A year ago he claimed that one of his cherished dreams is to score against Los Blancos. Now he’s got a chance to fulfill it.
The first leg at the frozen synthetic pitch at Luzhniki wasn’t Doumbia’s best game, even though CSKA managed to score in injury time to draw 1-1. At Santiago Bernabeu the Ivorian can stun the world, doing no harm to his already glorious reputation. Hard-working, strong-charactered, positive, ever-smiling, friendly and extremely talented, Doumbia has the world at his feet.
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