Demba Ba interview: 'Chelsea is the start of my career'
The striker was famously rejected by a number of lower-league clubs but tells Sam Wallace he never lost faith that one day his ‘gift’ would finally be recognised
At the very end of our interview Demba Ba jokes that rather than follow him into football, his oldest son might just become the president of Senegal instead. Has he checked the constitution, I ask, might he have to have been born in the country? “No, he's the son of Demba,” Ba replies. “I will bring him in”.
Certainly, determination is not in short supply in the Ba household, not when you consider what the 27-year-old has been through in his career to establish himself as a striker worthy of a move to Chelsea. This is the man famously rejected in the past by the likes of Watford, Gillingham and Barnsley, who now looks every inch a Chelsea striker since his £7.5m move from Newcastle United in January.
"When they said, 'You are going to Chelsea' I was like, 'Yeah, it's like the start of my career'" Ba says. "I had always worked to get to a club like Chelsea and start winning some trophies and doing what I have got to do. It [his past] was serious as well. No disrespect to other clubs, it was serious. But this is another level. Something different."
As for the pressure of joining Chelsea, he is not a man, he says, who feels it. "I enjoy what I do. It's like a gift. Someone gives you a gift you are happy. If I give you a gift now, you are not going to have pressure, it's like a gift that has been given to you. I am from the bottom, so if I go back to the bottom I haven't lost anything. This is all bonus. I started at the bottom, now I am at the top. Not the roof but just the top."
Ba is not your typical football interviewee. When I suggest he has had an "interesting" career he is immediately curious. "Why am I interesting?," he asks.
Well, for starters, he is the latest in a long line of high-profile strikers at Chelsea, some successful, some less so. One only needs to reel off the list – Hernan Crespo, Didier Drogba, Andrei Shevchenko, Fernando Torres – to remind him of the pressure that comes with the job. "And Demba Ba!" he adds. "That's not a bad list!"
Tomorrow, Chelsea face Liverpool, having moved back into third place in the Premier League following their win over Fulham on Wednesday in which Ba was a late substitute. According to the Rafa Benitez rotation policy that means Ba, who scored in last Sunday's FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City, is likely to start at Anfield, although nothing can ever be taken for granted.
The tension between Benitez and the Chelsea supporters who never wanted the interim coach has been relatively becalmed of late, but it is likely to spark again when the old animosities emerge tomorrow between his former club and the one of which he is now in charge. What has it been like to walk into a club with all this strife around it?
"I don't feel it," Ba says. "All I want to do is win for the club, the players, the manager. It doesn't matter if people don't like him or not. He is here, he is in charge so we win together and if we lose, we lose together. For everybody we win – fans, manager, players, staff. If we win everyone will be happy." Do the players feel sorry for Benitez? "I don't know." Do you feel sorry for Benitez? "What does 'feel sorry' mean? What does 'feel sorry' really mean? The situation is as it is.
"We take it from here. That's the reality and we do the maximum to win. At the end of the day, even the manager doesn't care about people talking. All he wants to do is win. That's what we want to do."
Feeling sorry is not really on the agenda when you have scrapped every inch of the way to become a professional footballer. Ba was born in Paris to Senegalese immigrants and grew up near Rouen in Normandy where his father worked on the Renault production line and his mother had her hands full with seven boys, of which Demba was No 4. "My mum had the hardest work in the world, making sure her kids are following the right way, and she had a lot of kids," he says. "Can you imagine?"
Eventually, Ba's career took off at Rouen and, via Mouscron in Belgium and Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, he found himself in the Premier League with West Ham, in January 2011. From there his rise has been fairly steep. The only cloud on the horizon has been the constant doubt about his long-term fitness, which annoys him and which he rejects completely.
The stories about him travelling around English clubs in his early 20s, playing in trial games, staying in cheap hotels and being rejected by all and sundry are well-known. It sounds like a plot for a film and Ba jokes that he should write a book about it one day.
"People say, I must have been tough when I was told all the time, 'We aren't taking you'. But I never came back home saying 'Oh God, I have missed something'. Maybe it was the belief. I remember one day I looked at the Premier League table. Then I saw all Championship and League One and League Two. How many clubs are here? Maybe 100! There is maybe one that's going to sign me! But, no, not in the beginning, that is why I went to Belgium."
Ba is a Muslim who celebrates his goals by performing a Sajda prostration, forehead to the ground. He was brought up in a religious home and his attitude towards his faith does not strike him as particularly demonstrative. "It's part of life," he says. "You eat three times a day, I pray five times a day. That's it
"Being a Muslim is more important than me being a footballer. A good Muslim is a good person, so I try to be a good person. I just live the way I want to live. I am happy because England is an open-minded country. More than France, I have to say. I am happy because I can do what I need to do without people looking at me weird and saying, 'Look at this guy'. If I compare it to where I grew up [near Rouen], it's different. I talk about France in general. I think England is more open, so I am happy to be here. I was in Newcastle, very tolerant people as well."
And France? "Less so. They look at you like you are something weird, something different. I am just a human being. Like I told you, a good Muslim is a good person. As long as I am good, it's good. If you see someone acting bad, it is not because they are a Muslim it is because they are a bad person, that's it."
It is Ba himself who brings up the subject of the hangers-on around him. His wider family, he says, do not depends on him. They have their own jobs and their own lives. But it was telling that shortly before his move away from Newcastle, the club's manager, Alan Pardew, criticised what he regarded as the "sharks" around Ba. "People [claim to] represent him who are not actually representing him," Pardew said.
The original question is about what Ba enjoys most about his career. "It's not the glory because I am not after glory. I am happy because, I started something and I said I was going to do it – and I did. After everything comes, the glory, the money, fake people as well. Fake agents. Fake everything. It's part of football, unfortunately."
Was that a reference to Pardew? "That's not what he meant because I have spoken to him about it. He said, 'A lot of people speaking on his behalf and they are not allowed to.' You cannot stop people from talking, they have a mouth and a tongue and they do what they want to do. I know who my agent is and I know who has always been my agent." That agent is Alex Gontran, although Ba jokes that he does not need him now that he is at Chelsea.
He grew up supporting Paris Saint-Germain, themselves now transformed into a kind of proto-Chelsea. "Paris, it's my town," Ba says. "People say, 'Maybe you go to Paris'." At this point he affects an expression of disbelief. "I say, 'What? I'm at Chelsea, man'."
Demba Ba unveils the new adidas Chelsea FC home kit for the 2013-14 season – 'it's blue. what else matters?'.
Visit www.chelseafc.com/allin to purchase yours and join the conversation @adidasUK – paint not included with kit purchase.
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