Souleymane Coulibaly has an incredible story and it is far from over.
Souleymane Coulibaly looked around him in awe. To his left, to his right and directly in front of him there were players he had watched on the TV. Luka Modric. Jermaine Defoe. Gareth Bale. Players he had worshipped and studied as a kid. Players who were icons in the game.
But now they weren’t just players he had admired or watched on the TV. They were standing around him in the flesh. They were his teammates. They were his competitors and he was playing with them at Tottenham’s Enfield training ground complex.
It was the kind of dream we all have as kids. The stuff we fantasize about and lie awake at night imaging in every tiny little detail, but Souleymane had made it come true. He was no longer dreaming about it.
And his story is especially inspiring when you consider where he came from.
His life hadn’t always been easy. Five years before he arrived in London, Souleymane grew up in a completely different world. One of war and fear.
Souleymane was just 8 years old when the civil war broke out in the Ivory Coast. He grew up with warring factions, scuffles and bloodshed. When others worry about stuff like whether they can complete their Match Attax collection, a young Souleymane had far more pressing things occupying his mind. Like being careful on the streets. What to do if you hear a gunshot.
Thankfully, Souleymane had a way out.
‘My dad came to Ivory Coast to take me to Italy when I was 12 years old. He had been living in Italy for some time and the situation in Ivory Coast was getting terrible because of the war. It was good, I had the chance to leave my country for Italy and I started going to school there.’
Italy gave Souleymane a way to live freely. A way to be just a normal kid without the fear of gunfire. It also allowed him to concentrate on football.
It’s fair to say Souleymane was quite good at football.
Five years after his arrival in Italy, he was scoring goals left right and centre at the World Cup.
The U17 tournament in Mexcio was one of the most exciting youth World Cups to date. Some of the best players in world-football competed in the competition. Players like Raheem Sterling, Aymeric Laporte and Memphis Depay. Coulibaly’s performance trumped all the aforementioned names. He made his mark scoring nine goals in the tournament, including a hat-trick against Brazil.
He tormented PSG star Marquinhos in the Brazil game. He made him look silly, twisting him inside and out and thumping the ball into the back of the net over and over again.
‘Scoring a hat-trick against Brazil was amazing,’ Souleymane tells the First Time Finish. ‘I was feeling like I was in a dream because Brazil is a great football country so scoring like that was special for me.’
‘It was a proud moment to have been the top scorer of the World Cup in front of so many talented players. It isn’t easy to score 9 goals in only 4 games you have to keep staying focused game after game to realise such a high tally of goals.’
Finishing as top-goal scorer meant people started to take notice. Big clubs like Real Madrid were interested in the young Ivorian but Souleymane decided to go down a different path. He chose Tottenham.
‘They had an interesting project for me in that time before the manager of the club got sack,’ he explains his decision.
But moving to a new club and a new environment isn’t easy.
‘It was totally different. From the way people lived and the culture so many things were really new for me. Even the weather, but the football side was amazing and I really enjoyed my time there.’
It is no wonder Souleymane enjoyed his time at Tottenham. He was just a kid but he got to practise with some of the best players in world football. It was one of those pinch yourself moments.
‘I was training with the first team at 16 years old nearly every day. It was amazing and I learn a lot from such a great players like Luka Modric, Jermain Defoe, Gareth Bale and etc.
‘Defoe was the most helpful to me. I remember when we were doing some finishing in front of the goal after a training session and he always came over and gave me a lot of advice. My managers in the reserves team helped me a lot too like Tim Sherwood, Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey.’
During his early years at Tottenham, Souleymane was recognised as his country’s greatest young talent. It was a period when Ivory Coast’s golden generation were starting to dwindle from their pinnacle and people were looking towards the future. Because of his unique ability and special talent the ‘Next Drogba’ label was an easy fix. Some would be fazed by such lofty comparisons. However it didn’t bother Souleymane at all.
‘I was just a bit happy about it that’s all because Didier Drogba was a great player and an inspiration for me. What he did on and off the pitch for Ivory Coast touched me a lot.’
Sadly his time at Tottenham didn’t fulfil the high hopes many had envisaged for Souleymane Coulibaly. It was a turbulent period for Tottenham with the club constantly changing managers. In the three years Souleymane spent with the London based outfit the club had as many managers. In that environment it is hard for any young kid to breakthrough. Managers are unlikely to give you a chance and take a gamble when there is scrutiny on them to perform.
From Tottenham, Souleymane Coulibaly went to Italy, then back to England at Peteborough, Newport and then Kilmarnock in Scotland. His spell with Kilmarnock would be especially fruitful and it caught the attention of Egyptian giants, Al Ahly.
It was the perfect move on paper. Souleymane Coulibaly scored on a regular basis, six goals in nine games, however, off the pitch there were problems. Souleymane flew back to England because of reasons that have remained confidential.
It would herald the beginning of a fierce dispute which ended with FIFA sanctioning the player with a hefty fine. Souleymane Coulibaly was unable to play football.
The period was a testing time.
But Souleymane believes it made him stronger.
‘I grew a lot.’
He’s back in Africa, playing for Tunisian outfit, Etoile Sahel and he’s back to what he loves best; scoring overhead kicks for fun.
‘My plan is keep doing good here in Tunisia by helping my team to win a lot trophies, especially the African Champions League which the club won a long time ago and for my future, of course I want to play in Europe again, but let’s see, because in football you never know what will happen.’
While he may never fulfil the big ‘Next Drogba label’ Souleymane Coulibaly is far from finished. He is still just 25 years of age and he’s got plenty of time to make it back to the top. He’s got the talent too and the hunger.
‘To play for the the senior Ivory Coast side is a big dream for me. I played with all the youth national teams and I still hope to play with the first team. I have to keep performing well here in the league and I’m sure I will be there soon with the national team.’
With that attitude, nothing will stop him from achieving his dreams. Coulibaly’s story is a story of resilience, a player who has overcome many challenges and continues to prove his doubters wrong. It is also a story with many chapters still left to write.