An hour at the home of a Chelsea footballer would not be most people's idea of a breath of fresh air, but for anyone tiring of Ashley and Cheryl, Terry and Toni – will they, won't they, did they or didn't they, do we care? – coffee chez Salomon Kalou is just that; and not only because the air in leafy Surrey is fresher than most.
We are 10 minutes from the Cobham training ground, where the previous day Chelsea's players were lectured, apparently on Roman Abramovich's orders, about keeping their noses cleaner. But this man is in danger of ruining the popular conception of the Premier League's finest. The house itself, while desirable, is by no means fit for an episode of Footballers' Wives; the TV in the living room, like the car outside, could be far larger; and the huge bottle of Footballer of the Month champagne remains unopened.
What Kalou likes to guzzle most is a Magnum lolly. He is teetotal, which meant that gleeful tabloid tales of his "£140,000 birthday bash" on the eve of the new season were excellent publicity for the nightclub concerned but led inevitably to an apology being published a month later; the cost of this supposedly Bacchanalian night out was £60 per head, less than a twentieth of what was reported. It is just as well for the stereotype that his girlfriend, Najah, is a model, half-Puerto Rican and half-Somalian, who spends a lot of time in New York; less so that one of his 10 brothers and sisters has just completed a business studies MA in Detroit.
What he likes about the money Chelsea pay him is being empowered to set up a charity in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, and also to lavish it on Helene, the mother who brought up those 11 children in Oume, where he played barefoot in the street. "I couldn't expect a Christmas gift or birthday gift but we had clothes to wear and food to eat and for me that was the most important," he says. "We had the happiness that we bought to each other. I didn't want more than that. We have a great relationship in the family and that gave me the strength to be who I am."
The footballing gene came from his father and was passed first to Bonaventure, eight years older than Salomon, who preceded him to the Rotterdam club Feyenoord and captained Ivory Coast. "My father played as an amateur who had to choose between being a footballer and being a schoolteacher. At that time in Ivory Coast football couldn't pay the bills, so he chose to be a teacher. I was in his class and he was harder on me than the other boys. When we came home he was nice, then when we got in the class it was different. He said I had to set an example."
Soon he followed his brother to Feyenoord, where comparisons were inevitable and not always favourable: "It put me under a lot of pressure, because people were always comparing us and it's really difficult when your brother did so good. He had an amazing career and people always expected me to be as good or even better. On the other side, it gave me the possibility to learn from him and get better."
Oddly, the brothers might have played against each other at the 2006 World Cup. Salomon, frustrated at being overlooked by Ivory Coast, was encouraged by Holland's coach, Marco van Basten, to apply for Dutch citizenship, only to be turned down by the minister for immigration. "I didn't see it as leaving my country for another, but an opportunity to play for the great Van Basten and the honour he was giving me. It was about the football side. I was disappointed not because I wasn't going to be Dutch but because I wasn't going to play in the World Cup, and would have to wait another four years." Holland duly played Ivory Coast without him. By the time his own country called him up, big brother Bonaventure was not in the team.
So Salomon's first World Cup is this summer, when The Elephants have again been granted few favours by the draw. "We are always in the 'Group of Death'! In the World Cup before, it was Holland, Argentina and Serbia, and now we have Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. I think you have to take at least a point against Brazil and Portugal and try to beat North Korea, then you have a chance to qualify." If they don't, the generation of Didier Drogba and the Touré brothers will go down as great underachievers, their familiar failure repeated at the African Cup of Nations last month when, after taking the lead against Algeria in the 89th minute of their quarter-final, they conceded an equaliser, then lost in extra time.
"Algeria is a good team but we gave the game away," Kalou said. "With the quality we have, if you score in the last minute you have to keep the ball, defend better, not let in a goal. I think we underestimated Algeria. If England underestimate them it will be a difficult game, but if England play their game I think they will win. But it's good that we had that run in the African Cup because we can work out what we didn't do good and that can make the players do a better job."
Before all that, there is the promise of Chelsea's exciting three months on three fronts, beginning with the visit to Jose Mourinho's Internazionale in Wednesday's Champions' League tie. It brings a broad smile to Kalou's face to contemplate the prospect of a reunion with the man who signed him from Feyenoord for some £9 million in 2006. "I played a lot of games for Jose and even when I wasn't starting I was sure to get on the pitch. It was a great time, he was a great manager and I enjoyed working with him. He was a man of his word. When he said something, you knew it would happen. I got better every game I played, because he is the kind of coach who will give you the opportunity to show what you can do if you worked hard in training. So you kept working hard. Training was like a competition, because everyone thought they had a chance."
But no liberties were taken. "Every player knew you did not cross the line with him. He is the kind of trainer that it doesn't matter who you are, he will make the person know he is wrong. The players were aware of that. It will be a great feeling to see him again."
Kalou's generosity of spirit means he won't say a bad word about Mourinho's successors. Of Luiz Felipe Scolari, he says: "I think it's never easy to come after Jose. Maybe that was the downfall, that people were always thinking about Jose, so the com-parison between them made him struggle. He's a great manager, we had a great run at the beginning of the season and I have good memories of him."
Those two managers probably picked Kalou more than those who came after them. Yet even under Mourinho he was something of a supersub, coming off the bench in the FA Cup and League Cup victories of 2007, then later, for Avram Grant in the fated Champions' League final in Moscow. "It was a hard feeling because we were so close but I think it wasn't meant to be. Manchester [United] deserved it as much because they had an amazing season with Ronaldo, Rooney and all those players. You are sad to lose the final of the Champions' League but when you lose to a great team like Manchester United you should be reasonable and say maybe it wasn't meant to be."
Now Carlo Ancelotti has an opportunity to beat United's Premier League and European double of that season, and emulate their 1999 treble. Is it possible? "It will be difficult, because of the World Cup, games are really close and every game is important so you have to manage the team and everyone has to be focused. You can't win all those with 11 players, you need a strong bench and players who will come on and turn the game round.
"If you want to be the best team in the world, you have to be the best in your country, and since I'm at Chelsea that's always been the ambition; to win the Premier League is still the first target, and then the Champions' League. We have the squad to do that."
It is time to go; he does like a short nap in the afternoon. But first a little of Salomon's wisdom on the image of footballers which, let us be honest, some of his colleagues do tend to drag through the gutter, gutter-press or not. "People sometimes focus on the negative, sometimes the negative is not the majority. You can't judge all footballers by people in the papers. There are footballers who after a game go home and spend time with their families, who work in the community and for charity. I like to focus on the positive stuff and there are a lot of footballers who have done a lot of charity work, like Rio Ferdinand and [Craig] Bellamy, who has an academy in Sierra Leone. People talk less about that.
"I was lucky to have a family around me to push me to follow my dream. I had a brother who was doing the same thing. If I can have the opportunity to push other kids to pursue their dream, that's a good feeling." Dream on, boys. But pick your role models with care.
This week's European games
CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE: WEDNESDAY
Internazionale v Chelsea
Two managers who know pretty much everything about the opposition, and each other, with no love lost after their confrontations in Milan last season. The pre-match build-up may even be more entertaining than the game itself; it's one of those that could fall flat.
EUROPA LEAGUE: THURSDAY
Shakhtar Donetsk (1) v Fulham (2)
For all their Brazilian influence, the Uefa Cup-holders lack glamour, which makes them easy to underestimate, just like Fulham's first-leg victory. As Roy Hodgson, a man of the world, said: "If you'd told me two years ago we'd be beating Shakhtar, I'd have thought you were taking the mickey."
Sporting Lisbon (1) v Everton (2)
The late penalty conceded by Sylvain Distin, who received a red card, gave Sporting an away goal, which puts a whole new complexion on the second leg. Fortunately, Everton have picked up some valuable experience this season and have only lost one of four away ties in Europe.
Unirea Urziceni (0) v Liverpool (1)
One-nil remains a better score from a home leg than 2-1, which is one reason why Liverpool, however late they left it, are stronger favourites than the other two English representatives to progress to the last 16. Lille or Fenerbahce await on 11 March if they make it.
Steve TongueReuse content