Mohamed Sissoko: The Premiership Interview

Liverpool's combative midfielder credits his family's values and his manager's insight for his rapid progress as a footballer. The Mali international talks to Sam Wallace
Click to follow
The Independent Football

When Mohamed's brothers and sisters come to visit him in Liverpool he makes sure that they arrive in separate batches - it is not that they do not all get along but simply that his new apartment in the Sefton Park area of the city would not accommodate a group of siblings that numbers 15. Not so much a football team as a rugby side. His childhood in Troyes may not have been full of material comforts, but Liverpool's new £6.5m midfielder was never short of players for a kickabout after school.

Remembering his ranking in a Sissoko family hierarchy that ranges in age from 30 years old down to three is not easy for a 20-year-old who, like Ibrahim, 17, has spent much of his life away from home in France's football academy system. He considers the question for a moment, casts his mind back to a childhood in which he was brought up by his hard-working Malian immigrant parents and replies smiling at his own imprecision. "I'm near the middle," he says, "about number eight I think."

With two yellow cards already and a reputation as one of the new hard men of the Premiership, Sissoko has the ruthlessness in midfield of a man accustomed to fighting for his place in the world. His introduction with 20 minutes left against CSKA Moscow in the Super Cup final in Monaco was one of the factors that changed the game in Liverpool's favour. Against Manchester United a fortnight ago, he came off the bench at the same stage to engage the midfield pairing of Alan Smith and Roy Keane with the kind of fearlessness that lent weight to Rafael Benitez's observation that Sissoko is the Premiership's new Patrick Vieira.

The comparison with Arsenal's recently departed captain is obvious: long legs, broad shoulders and a taste for the tackle, but Sissoko is not overawed by the prospect. "I don't think we are comparable," he says. "He [Vieira] is well established and had proved to everyone over the years that he is a great player. He has been my idol. However, I am young as a player and one day I would like to think I'd be considered better than him."

On the evidence so far it would be difficult to dispute that confidence and against Chelsea this weekend, Sissoko is due a start in the centre of Liverpool's midfield. His development as a defensive midfielder is another one of Benitez's tactical triumphs because when the Spanish coach first encountered Sissoko at Valencia - where he was signed at the behest of the sporting director, Jesus Garcia Pitarch - the player was considered a striker or attacking midfielder. At the Mestalla, Benitez quickly spotted a different set of qualities in the player bought from Auxerre.

Sissoko credits his manager for his transformation into a player in the Vieira mould and it was Benitez's influence that caused him to turn down Everton this summer. "I think that Everton were following my progress and there were two or three other English clubs showing a close interest and then there was Liverpool as well," he says. "So for me it was a difficult decision to take. Liverpool was my first choice, given that Rafa Benitez was the coach and he had given me my opportunity to play in the Primera Liga. I had worked with him before and so in the end I didn't have to think twice and I went for Liverpool."

Sissoko says simply of Benitez that he is a manager who talks to his players constantly and involves them in the development of the team and, as a player who won the Spanish league title and the Uefa Cup in the one season he spent with the coach at Valencia, he has no reason to doubt him. Despite that, he still left the house at half-time during Liverpool's European Cup final victory in Istanbul in May and only when he arrived at a friend's place did he catch the end of what he describes as a "real miracle".

"He [Benitez] speaks to us a lot. He also shows a lot of confidence in his players and it is really because of that he is so successful," Sissoko says. "It's the manager's job to take key decisions which turn out well for him all the time. I think he is a manager with a lot of experience. He knows his players very well and, most of all, when we have a lot of games he knows how to rotate his players successfully so that everyone is 100 per cent when you have a big game coming up."

There is already one significant difference between Sissoko and Vieira and it has nothing to do with how they play but who they play for. The captain of France was eight when he left Dakar in Senegal with his family to pursue a new life in Paris and, 15 years later, take his place in that great World Cup-winning side of 1998 that celebrated the diversity of La Republique in a way that few had thought possible. Marcel Desailly was born in Ghana, Zinedine Zidane comes from Algerian parents and Youri Djorkaeff can trace his roots back to Armenia.

The next generation who won Euro 2000 also represented the immigrant communities of France - Thierry Henry's father was from Martinique, Sylvain Wiltord's roots are in the West Indies and David Trezeguet was born in Argentina - all of them assimilated under the football tradition of Les Bleus, all of them making a choice to represent the country of their future rather than the nation of their parents. Yet it was an allegiance that Sissoko chose not to make.

Instead, he plays his international football for Mali. As we spoke before training at Liverpool's Melwood headquarters the two items in his hands were his car keys and his French passport, but his football loyalties lie with a nation that gained independence from France 45 years ago and remains one of the poorest in the world. Sissoko says he is proud to play for his parents' country, even though he was born in the district of Mont Saint Agnain in Rouen, grew up in Troyes and only began visiting Mali when he started to play football for them.

Like around 90 per cent of Malians, Sissoko is a Muslim - "my religion provides a good balance for me and plays a role in all aspects of my life" - and he says that he owes all that he has to the efforts of his parents, Mohamed and Fatou, who gave everything for their family. His father worked in a factory, his mother was a cleaner and they came to France, Sissoko says, "to find work and make money, just like a lot of other people".

"Yes they are proud of me but I have a lot to thank them for. I thank God that I have had such good parents who have given me a great upbringing. When I was a boy we might have lacked one or two material possessions but what we did have was an excellent upbringing. They have helped me through my youth right up to the present day."

Many of Sissoko's family are still in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and although he played for France's Under-21s it was to his relatives that he listened when making a decision about his international future. There were some in France and Spain who believed that Sissoko was placed under pressure from within Mali to turn his back on the nation of his birth but the player himself is nothing but enthusiastic about his country.

"It was a very difficult decision for me, the fact that I chose Mali is something that I hold very close to my heart," Sissoko says. "It's true that France is not exactly like Mali - they have won the World Cup and the team and the players are known throughout the entire world - whereas Mali are a team who are just beginning to grow in stature. Choosing Mali was the decision that I took. It's an honour for me and I made my choice. It's something I don't think about a lot now.

"The football fans in Mali are very happy to have a young player who is developing and playing at a big club. I get lots of e-mails all the time with congratulations from people who are following my career closely."

The Malians were not so happy after a defeat in a World Cup qualifier against Togo this year when a pitch invasion after two late goals by their opponents forced Sissoko, Frédéric Kanouté and their team-mates to leave the stadium for their own safety. At the time he was quoted as saying that it had made him think again about his choice of international team, but now he talks brightly about the other young French players who have made use of a new Fifa rule that allows them to play for a different senior international side to the country they represented at youth and Under-21 level.

He cites Borussia Dortmund's Moroccan international defender Ahmed Madouni, who played for France at youth level, and Nantes' Emerse Fae, who was an Under-21 for France but now represents the Ivory Coast. "There are more and more players in France who are doing this now, who choose to play for their parents' country of birth," Sissoko says, "especially those from Morocco, Algeria and Ghana.

"I think African teams have some great, big-name players on the world stage but it's the organisation of football there which isn't so good. That's why many of the teams have chosen to bring in European managers and coaches - French and German in particular - and as a result these people will bring more professionalism to African football."

Sissoko has endured problems, not least at Valencia last September when he told the club that he had to stay in Mali after a 2-2 draw in a World Cup qualifier against Senegal in order to play in a friendly against Kenya. On his return, two missed training sessions later, Sissoko reported that he had played 48 minutes in a 1-0 victory over Kenya - unfortunately for him, the Spanish sports newspaper Marca discovered that there had in fact been no such game and the player was told to explain himself to the club's board. There is a nervous grin from Sissoko at the mention of Kenya and the phantom international and he explains the circumstances around a story that, he admits, "caused quite a commotion in Spain". The truth is that he was not, as many suspected, taking an extended holiday, he was in Paris visiting his father Mohamed, who was ill in hospital. When the then Valencia coach, Claudio Ranieri, found out the real reason he simply told Sissoko that he was guilty of little more than a touch of naïvety and that the club would have happily given him the time off anyway.

It has been a long journey to Liverpool even for a player so young. It was less than seven years ago that Guy Roux, the famous former Auxerre manager, went to Sissoko's parents' house in Troyes to sign him. In 2003, after watching him play for France's Under-19s, Valencia muscled in to take him away from Auxerre in an acrimonious deal on which Fifa, football's world governing body, was forced to mediate.

Now he finds himself, with Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Dietmar Hamann, battling for a place among arguably the Premiership's most talented group of central midfielders.

"It's true I left my parents and all my friends at the age of 13 but that was a sacrifice you have to make if you want to develop in your life and your career," Sissoko says. "When I signed here I knew there were some great players, particularly in my position, like Steven Gerrard. But I am still very young - I am only 20. It's a real opportunity to progress and learn from these players. I am confident in my own ability and I knew that I would be playing.

"Every time I play for Liverpool, I am impressed again by the supporters. I have played in some big stadiums like the Nou Camp, the Bernabeu, the San Siro, but I have to say that Anfield has the best atmosphere I have ever experienced."

Continental drift The 41 Africans who play in the Premiership

BORN IN AFRICA: PLAYS FOR AFRICAN NATIONAL TEAM

Lauren (Arsenal, Cameroon)

Alexandre Song (Arsenal, Cam)

Kolo Tourè (Arsenal, Ivory Cst)

Eric Djemba-Djemba (AV, Cam)

Olivier Tebily (Birm'm, Ivory Cst)

Aaron Mokoena (Blackburn, SA)

Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton, Nigeria)

Radhi Jaidi (Bolton, Tunisia)

El Hadji Diouf (Bolton, Senegal)

Abdoulaye Faye (Bolton, Sen)

Shaun Bartlett (Charlton, SA)

Talal El Karkouri (Cha'lton, Tunis)

Michael Essien (Chelsea, Ghana)

Didier Drogba (Chelsea, Iv Cst)

Joseph Yobo (Everton, Nigeria)

Pape Bouba Diop (Fulham, Senegal)

Quinton Fortune (Man Utd, SA)

Aiyegbeni Yakubu (Middlesbrough, Nigeria)

Amdy Faye (Newc, Sen)

Shola Ameobi (Newcastle, Nigeria)

Salif Diao (Por, Sen)

Aliou Cissé (Por, Sen)

Collins Mbesuma (Portsmouth, Zam)

Lomano LuaLua (Portsmouth, DR Congo)

Noureddine Naybet (Tott, Mor)

Mido (Tottenham, Egypt)

Nwankwo Kanu (WBA, Nigeria)

Henri Camara (Wig, Sen)

BORN IN AFRICA: PLAYS FOR OTHER NATIONAL TEAM

Claude Makelele (left) (Chelsea, born in DR Congo, plays for France)

Matteo Ferrari (Everton, Algeria, Italy)

Collins John (Fulham, Liberia, Netherlands)

Kiki Musampa (Man City, Congo, Neth)

Nedum Onouha (M City, Nigeria, Eng)

Abel Xavier (Middlesbrough, Mozambique, Portugal)

George Boateng (Middlesbrough, Ghana, Netherlands)

Jean-Alain Boumsong (Newcastle, Cameroon, France)

Frank Songo'o (Por, Cam, Fr)

BORN OUTSIDE AFRICA: PLAYS FOR AFRICAN NATIONAL TEAM

Mehdi Nafti (Birmingham, born in France, plays for Tunisia)

Ibrahim Sissoko (West Brom, France, Mali)

Mohamed Sissoko (Liverpool, France, Mali)

Diomansy Kamara (West Bromwich, France, Senegal)

Comments