“I never thought he would be a manager.” That’s what Demba Ba told his Istanbul Basaksehir teammate Gael Clichy about his former colleague Frank Lampard. Before, that was, realising that he’d perhaps missed something in his observations.
“Gael said about their time together at Manchester City: ‘I knew this guy would be a good manager!’ Then, all of a sudden I was thinking ‘yeah, you know what, maybe I missed that side of him’. Thinking of the way he was with the group, with the players and with the youngsters, it’s true that he gives people so much confidence around the team and these qualities are so important for a manager. I’m so happy with what he’s doing.”
Despite Lampard’s mixed results as Chelsea boss so far, Ba prefers to put his managerial career into context. “It’s only his second year of coaching. Look at what he did at Derby; they were struggling, he took them to the play-off final and as soon as he left they started struggling again. We can say he’s doing well especially in the circumstances, as he joined at a difficult time and he is doing great things.
“I’m not surprised that he’s using the young players and that he helps them to perform because when he’s around you, he lifts your level and gives you the confidence to be the best you can be. This is the No 1 quality I always saw when I played with him.”
The challenging circumstances referred to include Chelsea’s transfer ban, which has been lifted this January. Although they can buy now, Ba doesn’t see a need to splash the cash. “I would love to see them continue doing what they’re doing,” he said.
“Those youngsters are proving themselves every week. They’re not as experienced as some players who are 27 or 28 so maybe Chelsea could sign some experienced players to help them win the important games, the biggest games. It doesn’t mean they have to spend hundreds of millions – I believe small additions can help them. I saw a picture that shows how much Liverpool sold Coutinho for, and the players they bought with this money. The team that they built, it’s unbelievable!
“This year, Chelsea won’t be far off and I believe if the management let Frank do what he’s doing, next year they will surely fight for big titles. I have faith in Lamps.”
Aside from his former haunts, Ba also looks to his compatriot Sadio Mane, recently named African player of the year. An impressive accolade no doubt, yet there lays a lingering feeling that he perhaps deserved more.
“These days we speak so much about statistics - I believe that he had the individual and collective stats to have won the Ballon d’Or. I always said if you swap Mane’s stats in 2019 with Messi’s, Messi still would have won it, even with fewer goals. The fact that Mane won the Champions League, the Super Cup, he played an unbelievable season and finished joint top goal-scorer in the Premier League, it’s crazy! Not only that, he was decisive in all of the games. I believe he could’ve won it.”
Ba, who represented his country alongside the Liverpool forward, is keen to reiterate his stance. “I’ve had this talk with a lot of players. They say ‘yeah, but Messi is a better player’. Of course, everyone knows that! Even if Sadio comes and tells me that he’s better than Messi, I’d slap him in his face and tell him ‘shut up boy, sit down!’ But in 2019, in my perspective, he had a better season.”
Some, including Crystal Palace midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate, have suggested that Mane didn’t win football’s highest individual honour due to being African, to which Ba adds some perspective.
“I believe that from the moment someone is African – he’s going to have less value. He will sell less shirts in his country, there are less endorsement opportunities in the country he’s from, he might have less followers on social media because their countries are less developed than Europe. In that sense I’d say it’s a disadvantage. Also, the culture of racism in football is not to be debated because we all know it’s there. It’s very difficult. I don’t want to victimise African people yet at the same time, I know that we are underrated.”
Looking beyond football, Ba has never been afraid to speak out on pressing issues. He recently backed Mesut Ozil for his support of Uyghur Muslims in China, while criticising Arsenal for the stance they adopted. He wants to reaffirm his take on the situation, also commenting on Yaya Toure’s claim that footballers should stay out of political debates.
“We all have different causes that touch us emotionally and I believe anybody should fight for a cause they believe in. I’m a Muslim, I’m African, so certain causes will affect me more than they do other people. If this (Uyghur rights) is something that affects Ozil, then he has the right to speak.
“It’s the same as when Didier Drogba was kneeling in the dressing room, begging for the war in Ivory Coast to stop – and then the war stopped. Is it because of Drogba? I don’t know, but him spreading his message probably helped. At that time, we did not hear Toure saying ‘Drogba shouldn’t be involved in these politics’, so maybe it’s the interest Toure has with China that makes him speak that way.”
Similarly to the Ivorian, Ba plied his trade in China over two spells at Shanghai Shenhua. “Some people say ‘Demba, you speak out now but when you played in China you didn’t say anything’ and I would say to these people that they’re completely wrong. I was under contract in China in 2017 and I tweeted about mosques being destroyed there and the burning of Qur’ans and stuff like this. I didn’t care if they were paying me or not – I thought it was the right thing to do and I fought for this justice. I was under contract in China but I have my values, you know?”
What, then, does he think of Arsenal distancing themselves from Ozil’s comments? “I heard about Bellerin tweeting something,” he recalls.
“I’ve not checked, but if Bellerin tweeted something about Boris Johnson, this is politics, right? So why didn’t Arsenal say anything? Because their interest with China’s money is more important than the image they’ve given out. This is sad because at the end of the day, they are the ones who lose. When you do stuff like this, you’re going to pay one way or another.
“They’re scared to lose deals they have with China – they might not lose those deals, but in the future they might lose games, cups, finals and at the end of the day you stay with no titles. You might lose the respect of your fans, and they’re more important than anything. They come every week to support you. I think Arsenal have lost something. Standing behind your players is a sign of respect.”
A devoutly religious man, Ba also offers some advice to fellow Muslims. “Today, Muslims are being persecuted. Am I going to blame people who are persecuting them? I would first say: Muslims, go back to basics. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims throughout the world, starting from Mecca in the desert from one person. What made them successful? It’s because they had guidelines that they followed. Today’s Muslims don’t. They do what they think is good but don’t go by the book. They do whatever makes them feel good. I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot say ‘I accept certain things but I reject others’. That’s not the right behaviour.”
Applying his religious viewpoint with the sport he loves, he adds: “I always compare it to football – there’s the offside rule, there’s the handball in the box, there’s the tackle from behind – if I say to the ref ‘I’m going to play but the tackle from behind rule I don’t agree with, so you can’t give me a red card’ -whether I like it or not, he’s going to send me off! Like in football, even if there are rules you don’t accept, in order to be a professional player you have to respect those rules.”
Another issue Ba touches upon is the level of racism rearing its ugly head in English football again. As someone who says he never experienced racial prejudice whilst playing in Britain, Ba has been shocked by its recent upsurge.
“It’s crazy,” he exclaims. “I was surprised hearing about it one week and then again a week later another, and then again. I was like, ‘that’s contagious!’ It’s that effect when someone sees one guy doing something and then they find it easier to come out and do it themselves.”
How, then, can this issue be solved? “It’s a really difficult topic. It has to start from highest position in countries. They have to take responsibility to change things. If they continue to let this happen then where is it going to stop? We’re tired of talking about it all the time. Why do people not stand up for what black people suffer?”
Answering what has unfortunately become an all too familiar dilemma in football, Ba believes that players should refuse to play if racially abused.
“Players should walk off the pitch because fans pay to see a show. If they don’t see that show, they’ll go to the club and ask for refunds. Eventually the club loses money and the moment that happens, they won’t accept it anymore.
“I think players have that responsibility, but clubs also have the responsibility to look for who did it. Fans also, when somebody does this (racist abuse) they need to be the ones reporting it to the stewards or police. Parents have a responsibility to educate their kids. The government have responsibility because you see crazy things from politicians talking on the TV. The way the world is going is crazy.”
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