Sidibe happy to be in shadow of Kanouté

African Nations' Cup: Mali gain from two proud strikers bonded by a common goal
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The Independent Football

Such has been the intensity of the argument between Frédéric Kanouté and Tottenham Hotspur that neither side has stopped to consider the important opinion of the third party in this long- running saga: the striker's future international team-mates. It seems a strange omission because they, more than anyone, will ultimately decide whether Kanouté is wise to abandon his club and country of birth to play for Mali in the upcoming African Nations' Cup.

There can be little doubt that Kanouté's presence in Tunisia will make the Mali team better, but will it make them stronger? "There is always a risk that someone coming in at the very last minute could disrupt team spirit," says Gillingham's in-form front-man Mamady Sidibe, who will be in direct competition with Kanouté for the second striker's berth, "but I don't think it will happen now. Many of us were a bit surprised that Freddie suddenly decided to switch from France to Mali, but everybody has had time to digest the news and he will be welcomed by our squad."

Sidibe, who has been following the story in the papers, will be more affected than most by Kanouté's decision to represent the land of his parents. "Our top goalscorer is Mamadou Bagayoko [the Ajaccio striker]," Sidibe explains, "so that leaves only one space free. I was probably only third in line anyway, but Freddie's arrival has undoubtedly pushed me even further down the pecking order." Does that anger him? "No, honestly," he says, "because I actually believe that Freddie's inclusion will make us more competitive. It also shows that Mali must be a pretty good team if a guy like him is tempted to join us."

Later today, Sidibe and Kanouté will be on the same plane from London to Tunisia. They are international team-mates, who were both brought up in France and now ply their trade on these shores, but they have never met. "I'm looking forward to spending some time with Freddie," Sidibe says. "It will be good to talk to him and hear his life story. He has a clear desire to play for Mali, so it will be great to find out more."

No doubt the caretaker Tottenham manager, David Pleat, would like Sidibe to ask his striker why he is leaving his struggling club behind. "It's a difficult one for everyone concerned," says Sidibe, who believes the African Nations' Cup should be played during the European summer, "and I don't think you can take sides. On the one hand, I understand why Spurs, who pay his weekly wages, want Freddie to help them in the Premier League, but I also feel that you cannot deny a player his chance to participate in a big event.

"No matter what people may think, representing your country is an honour and a duty. I believe that Freddie's intentions are honourable and, for that reason, I feel he should be encouraged to fulfil his international potential," he adds.

Sidibe may be backing his new countryman, but he acknowledges that last week's ruling by the world governing body, Fifa, is controversial. The change in the laws allows players who have represented one nation to switch to another, so long as they have not earned a full senior cap. Kanouté is such a case, having played for France Under-21s on three occasions but never graduating to the A side.

Another beneficiary is Leeds United's Lamine Sakho, who was raised in France but will play for Senegal in the Cup later this month. "I am sure that there will be more disputed cases in the future," Sidibe says, "but you cannot blame a player for using the rules to his advantage. International football is every player's dream."

Sidibe's own journey to recognition has been highly unorthodox. The 24-year-old was born in Mali but raised in France. Unlike Kanouté, who was groomed at the prestigious Lyon Academy, Sidibe has had to fight his way to a professional career. He learned his football trade at Red Star, a small football club on the outskirts of Paris, but was released at 18 because "they were not sure about my talent".

Sidibe then joined CA Paris, an amateur outfit who play in the equivalent of the French Seventh Division. He enjoyed himself, but this was hardly the place to stake his claim for international honours. "No, not really," Sidibe agrees. "I guess I was just lucky that someone spotted me one day in the summer of 2001 and offered to be my agent. I agreed and, before I knew it, we were on the plane to Britain to go and have some trials."

Swansea were the only club to give him a contract, and even then it was only for 12 months, but Sidibe jumped at the chance. "It was tough coming to a new country and having to adapt to a different culture," he says, "but I knew this was right for me." So it proved, as fresh offers began flooding in around Christmas 2001, although Sidibe decided to see out his contract with the Welsh club before joining Gillingham in the summer of 2002.

"It's been a fantastic experience for me in England," says the man who has started most matches since signing for the Kent club. "Three years ago, I was in the lower reaches of football, not knowing what I was capable of. I was going nowhere. But today, I'm about to represent my country in a major international tournament; it's an unbelievable story." Almost as unbelievable as Kanouté's.

African kings of the English League

Celestine Babayaro: The Chelsea defender has retired from international football on no fewer than three occasions, but was persuaded back by Nigeria for this tournament.

Géremi: Whether playing for his club or country, Chelsea's Cameroonian is a starter, yet forever shunted around the midfield.

Lamine Sakho: Leeds United's French-born midfielder has benefited, albeit more quietly than Frédéric Kanouté, from Fifa's new ruling. He will represent Senegal.

Youssef Safri: First Division clubs will suffer from absenteeism too. Coventry City will miss their creative midfielder from Morocco.

Salif Diao: Having failed to make an impact at Liverpool, the Senegalese defensive midfielder will probably not be much missed.

Jay-Jay Okocha: The leader of the Nigerian team, but also in many ways of the whole of his continent. "The African Pele" has become a symbol for modern African players.

George Koumantarakis: Having only just returned from injury, the striker is currently caught in the middle of a dispute between his club, Preston North End, and the South African FA.

Mamady Sidibe: Gillingham's hero from the FA Cup third-round victory over Charlton Athletic will now miss the fourth round, as he joins up with Mali.

Kanu: Arsenal's unorthodox front-man from Nigeria looked to be heading out of Highbury last summer, but is back in Arsène Wenger's plans.

Frédéric Kanouté: The Tottenham player (pictured) was born in France; his parents were born in Mali. At first, he wanted to play for France; now he wants to play for Mali.

Yakubu: Just when the Portsmouth striker was getting into his stride - having scored three goals in a week - he is off to play for Nigeria.