Trust helps Traoré to follow in the footsteps of Pelé

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The Independent Football

For two agonising seconds in January, Djimi Traoré fought a battle against himself to control the ball on the rain-slicked pitch and murky winter gloom of Burnley and, when he finally lost, back-heeling the ball into his own net under no pressure, it felt as if Liverpool's season had collapsed. His elaborate own goal saw his club's second string tumble out the FA Cup and placed the new Rafael Benitez regime under severe pressure, and it was the left-back's mistake that seemed to stand for all that was wrong at Anfield.

For two agonising seconds in January, Djimi Traoré fought a battle against himself to control the ball on the rain-slicked pitch and murky winter gloom of Burnley and, when he finally lost, back-heeling the ball into his own net under no pressure, it felt as if Liverpool's season had collapsed. His elaborate own goal saw his club's second string tumble out the FA Cup and placed the new Rafael Benitez regime under severe pressure, and it was the left-back's mistake that seemed to stand for all that was wrong at Anfield.

Even by the standards of Traoré's unpredictable six years in England the 25-year-old admitted that he thought his part in the defeat by Burnley might finally see for a Liverpool career that began when Gérard Houllier signed him in 1999 from the French Second Division side Laval. He had been saved once by Benitez when he came within hours of signing for Everton in the summer - a medical had been arranged - but that the Liverpool manager was prepared to forgive him twice will make Traoré's appearance in the European Cup final against Milan all the sweeter.

Tomorrow night will be a chance, Traoré says, to do "what few African footballers have done before". He is a Mali international who was raised in Paris and can remember the night Ivory Coast-born Basile Boli, playing alongside the former African player of the year Abedi Pelé, scored the winner against Milan for Marseilles in 1993, and he also knows that his opposite number has a record beyond compare. Milan's Paolo Maldini, Traoré points out, is playing in his seventh European Cup final.

"I think Liverpool like being the underdog," he says. "Everyone said we would lose against Juventus, we would lose to Chelsea and we showed we could do it. We feel we can do it. We have confidence. Everyone wants to do something good. If we make it we will be in the history of Liverpool."

As a player billed by Houllier as the "next Marcel Desailly" there has been no shortage of expectation on Traoré who was so out of favour by the summer of 2001 that he was sent for a season's loan to Lens. Even when Benitez told him that he wanted him to stay when he took over the club last summer Traoré still needed convincing. "Honestly, during the first few months in my head I was still thinking I wanted to go," he says. "He convinced me to stay. He said that I was one of the players he wanted to keep. I said to him, 'Yes, but I have heard that in the past and I haven't played'."

Benitez was as good as his word although Traoré could be forgiven for wishing that he had been one of those first-team players who were excused duty against Burnley. "After that game I thought it would be hard to play for Liverpool again," Traoré says. "The manager spoke to me and told me to forget it and concentrate on the rest of the season. That's what I did. I took a lot of criticism and stick. That is normal. I understand that. I am not above that. I was disappointed. It was an FA Cup game.That was the lowest moment for me."

Traoré is not the type to linger on unhappy memories, especially when he reflects on how far he has come. He is the fourth in line in a football team of siblings - six brothers, five sisters - and his childhood was spent in the impoverished Paris suburb of Dugny.

He had offers from Lazio, Parma and even Milan but chose Liverpool over Paris St-Germain because he felt that staying in his native city could offer too many distractions. "My family still lives where I grew up and I suppose I am a bit of a hero in that area," Traoré says. "I am a good example. That is why I try to do my best every game. In that area of Paris not everyone has a good life. It is very difficult to find a job, to do something worthwhile with your life.

"Against Chelsea at Anfield I invited my friend Milo to the game. He had never left Paris before. The atmosphere that night surprised him."

After playing 41 games this season he is truly settled and lives with his Danish girlfriend Malene, but Traoré admits that arriving in Liverpool at the age of 19 - without playing a top-flight game in France - was a daunting experience. After the final he has an agreement with the club to discuss a new contract, his current one has just a year to run, and his desire to stay has been built upon the attitude of his new manager.

"I am 25 now; maybe that is part of the reason why I am showing what I can do. But football is funny, it can just be about confidence," he says. "Benitez always speaks to me, which makes me happy. He wants to know what you do away from football, your family situation, things like that. It is nice he shows an interest. If someone has faith in you, you want to give him something back. That is what I will try to do for Benitez."

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