Why Cisse chose a City break after his World Cup odyssey

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The Independent Online

Talk to most foreign imports in the Premiership and they will tell you how they always dreamed of playing in England. They will extol the virtues of this green and pleasant land, often even going so far as to declare their love for the food and culture. Not so Aliou Cissé.

Talk to most foreign imports in the Premiership and they will tell you how they always dreamed of playing in England. They will extol the virtues of this green and pleasant land, often even going so far as to declare their love for the food and culture. Not so Aliou Cissé.

It is not that Birmingham City's new recruit is unhappy about being here, but there is a frankness to his views that is refreshing. "I'm not going to lie and say that this is a dream come true for me," he says at his hotel in Birming-ham. "I think it has more to do with destiny. As a footballer, you have to be prepared to move anywhere, and that's what I've done. Don't get me wrong, I'm pleased to be here, but I don't want to make out that I am fulfilling my destiny."

Cissé has been in England for two weeks now, and says that he has liked what he has seen so far. Mostly, that has been his hotel room, which he hopes to swap for a house, and the training ground where Birmingham City have been plotting their survival plan for the coming season. "England is an interesting place," he says, "and the physical football should suit my style of play. I know we are a new club in the Premier League, but I'm prepared to roll up my sleeves and fight. I'm ready for the challenge, and I'm sure we can do it."

The Senegal captain was approached by two other Premiership clubs, but was soon seduced by the Birmingham City option. "This was the club that really grabbed me," the 26-year-old midfielder says. "They seemed hungry and that attracted me instantly. Also, the manager made it clear that he wanted me to sign. That's important. I like feeling wanted and I knew Steve Bruce wanted me as soon as we met. He's an excellent young manager, with a lot of ambition, and I know he'll take us far."

Judging by Cissé's no-nonsense approach to football, perhaps his comments should not be so surprising. He is an honest player, someone who Bruce describes as "a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy". And what the world saw in Japan and South Korea earlier this summer was a player leading his young and fearless Senegalese team to the quarter-finals of the biggest competition of all.

"The World Cup was an incredible experience for me and Senegal," Cissé explains. "It is not something I will ever forget. For a professional footballer, going to a World Cup is like a Muslim travelling to Mecca. This was my holy pilgrimage."

So far as Senegal and its people were concerned, the tournament was a chance to announce themselves on the world stage. After Cameroon at Italia 90 and USA 94, and Nigeria at France 98, this World Cup belonged to a new African nation. Reaching the last eight was an incredible achievement for such a small country, and the entire population celebrated in style on the players' return. Nothing, though, could beat the feeling of defeating France in the opening game and creating one of the biggest shocks in international football.

"Because we were a colony of France, this was more than just a match," Cissé says. "People kept saying that we were France B, but we didn't agree. We felt like Senegal A, and we wanted to prove it. That 1-0 win was our way of saying to France that Senegal exists as a separate entity. It was a liberation of sorts."

Pascal Cygan was not in the French defence that day, but the tall centre-back will be at the heart of the Arsenal back four when Birmingham visit Highbury on the opening weekend of the season, next Sunday. Apart from being the sternest of baptisms for Bruce's team, it will also be a chance for Cissé and Cygan to catch up. Both were Lille players at one stage in their respective careers, and their friendship goes back almost 10 years.

"It will be great to see Pascal again," Cissé says. "I'm sure we will pinch ourselves at being in one of the best stadiums in the world, playing in front of millions. What a road we have travelled. It's not always been easy, but these are the sorts of games that make all the work worthwhile. I can't wait to face Patrick Vieira, who is a Senegalese boy by birth, who I respect and admire. These matches are the reason why I'm here."

Much is expected of Cissé in what promises to be a difficult first season back in the top flight, but the player is not afraid. "I'm confident," he says, "but not cocky. I don't feel I'm a messiah or anything. The club existed before me and will continue after my passage – all I hope is that I can leave a good mark on Birmingham City."

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