Patson Daka has an inspiring story. From heartbreak to doubt, the Zambian has overcome a lot in his journey from Kafue to Salzburg.
As always Lee Kawanu was watching his beloved Kafue Celtics from the sidelines. He had an attentive eye on the team in green and white stripes. They were partly his creation after all and there were feelings of tremendous pride every time he watched them play.
In the decade which has unfolded since there have been countless games but Lee will always remember this game in 2010. Not for the result or the performance, but for a moment on the sidelines.
Beside him, a retired footballer, Nathtali, who would always visit the team’s games along with his young son, Patson, turned to him and said:
That was Lee’s first memory of Patson Daka and it’s the first thing the Kafue Celtics’ club director tells First Time Finish about the Red Bull Salzburg star.
‘Four years later, I went to watch one of the reserves team’s games and I saw this really skinny active boy on the pitch. He was shooting with his left and right, from outside the box and inside the box. So I asked the reserves coach, who’s this little kid? And he told me: This is Nathtali’s son.’
Lee liked what he saw. Nathtali was not an overzealous parent after all.
‘Patson really caught my eye. So immediately I told the reserve coach to move him to the first team even though he was really small,’ Lee explains.
Patson’s call up to the first team would have been a moment of immense pride for Nathtali. Sadly, he was no longer there to witness the moment.
Nathtali passed away before he could see his prophecies fulfilled.
‘He was really close with his dad. Nathtali has always been really into football and his dad was a really nice guy and very talented too,’ Lee recalls.
Nathtali was a footballer himself. In his heyday, he played for Nitrogen Stars when Patson was still a young boy. However, he was hampered by injuries and was forced to retire early.
‘Nathtali was really fast and skilful, and probably that’s where Patson got it from.’
Patson’s father instilled his son’s love for football. He inspired the young kid from a young age. Patson took on his father’s beloved team, Liverpool, to support as a child. They would accompany each other to games. Nathtali would help coach his son. They were inseparable. Losing such an inspirational figure would have been incredibly tough, especially at such a young age.
But it helped Patson Daka to grow and mature quicker than his peers.
‘It must have inspired him in some way. Not having the dad around who was the bread-winner at the time must have given him the drive to work harder and eventually look after his mum which he has done really well,’ Lee tells First Time Finish with a tinge of sadness.
Patson made a profound first impression on Lee. Following his first glimpse of Daka, the Kafue Celtics director kept a close eye on the young boy.
‘You could just see an aurora around Patson. It takes a lot for me to be convinced by a player. I’ve been around the scouting game for a long time. I scout all the players who come to my team because there is a certain character that I look for and Patson just had this thing about him.’
Lee was certain he had found a special player and it wasn’t long before others took notice too.
At the time Airtel had just launched a new initiative in Zambia called Rising Stars. The academy project aimed to find the best young talent from nations in the Middle East and Africa. Patson Daka would be selected to represent the Zambian team.
‘The coaches happened to see him at a tournament, and all the coaches just kept on coming to me and telling me; “there’s this kid who is just something special.” By the time it was the final game he was one of the top-goalscorers in the tournament and that’s how the coaches picked him for the national team.’
Playing for the national team gave Patson a new platform to show his talent. The coaches were so impressed with his attitude they made him the U17 captain. His selection in the Zambia squad would prove to be pivotal for his future.
The guidance of an African icon
In 2015, former African Player of the Year, Frederic Kanoute founded 12Management, a sport agency. His intention was to find the best talent the African continent had to offer.
It was with that intention that Kanoute first approached Lee Kawanu.
‘I was in Senegal for an U20 tournament, and Fred came to me to ask about another player. But I told him, his character wasn’t right. Instead I said; please have a look at Patson Daka, because I really feel he has the right character, mentality and skill to be in Europe. I just feel like he’s got something special if we put him in the right hands.’
Frederic agreed. Fortuitously, Lee had clips of Patson thanks to his call-up to the national team and Frederic agreed to take a look.
A few weeks later, Kanoute came back to Lee and said:
‘You know what, I watched the footage and he (Patson Daka) has something. I think we could do something. ‘
Red Bull Salzburg
In 2016, the Zambian U20 national team travelled to compete at the COSAFA tournament in South Africa . Kanoute was now just as enthused by Patson’s talent as Lee. He had been in conversation with several clubs and told their scouts to take a look at Daka in the tournament..
Zambia won the tournament and Patson impressed.
‘He was really good there and he scored a lot of goals,’ Lee recalls. ‘After that tournament, they (Red Bull Salzburg) called him for a trial.’
‘Once he went to the trial, they (Salzburg) said; okay we are not fully convinced but we would like to keep him for six months.’
The environment wasn’t initially ideal for Patson. He had come to Salzburg at the height of winter. For a kid growing up in Zambia the cold was unusual and a completely new environment.
‘He found it very tough to adapt to the weather and of course the training is very intense at Red Bull. The constant pressing and high intensity. Nothing could have prepared him for it,’ Lee, who kept in constant contact with Patson during his loan-spell recalls.
Other players might have buckled under such circumstances but Patson thrived in that environment.
‘He is a strong kid, he never complained. Patson just said: “I’ll make it.” And he kept on pushing. He was always positive and believed that he would sign.’
Mid-way through his loan spell with Salzburg, Patson travelled back to his home country to represent Zambia at the U20 African Cup of Nations.
There was a lot of pressure. Not only from the fans who were eager to win the tournament on home soil, but from the Red Bull Salzburg scouts who watched him intently. At that point his future was still uncertain with the Austrian club.
Patson knew he had to perform.
He didn’t disappoint.
Daka finished the tournament as the Player of the Competition, the top scorer and he helped Zambia to lift the trophy beating Senegal in the final.
‘Patson had a crazy tournament,’ Lee recalls. ‘It was a special moment here in Zambia. So after that tournament, I think Salzburg made the decision they were going to take him (permanently).’
Pressure back home
Despite how it might seem, things weren’t always smooth sailing for Patson Daka.
He broke through the ranks at a young age in football crazed Zambia. His wonderkid status meant, the fans heaped huge expectations on extremely young shoulders. At 16 he was already expected to lead his nation. That led to unrealistic expectations. The fans wanted too much from Patson too soon.
At one point, Lee tells the First Time Finish, Patson Daka was the ‘most hated player in Zambia.’
‘Patson was booed by the fans of the national team and by his own fans during his loan spell at Power Dynamos.’
It was a difficult period for Patson. He was just 16 and 17 years of age. Yet some fans had already written him off.
Behind the scenes there were internal pressures too. There was a year, Lee recalls, in which Patson represented every single age group at international level, including the senior team.
‘All the coaches were fighting for him. There were times when we would have two tournaments at the same time and two sets of coaches wanted to take him.’
And at senior level, they had lofty expectations too.
‘The coaches insisted on playing him as a loan striker and holding up the ball for the midfielders. Technically he did just what the coaches told him to do, but the fans wanted goals and he didn’t score and the whole country would blame Patson.’
‘Any player would have broken.’
But not Patson. Lee remembers one particular moment in which the young man really proved his mental fortitude.
‘We were playing an U23 qualifier. It was a decisive qualifier. The game had gone into penalties to decide who qualified for the Senegal U23 African Cup of Nations. The fans booed Patson when he came on as a substitute. In the shoot-out, he went up to take the first penalty. I’ve never been so nervous in my entire life watching a game. But he put the ball on the spot, didn’t waste time and he put it into the corner so easily. That’s when I knew this boy was strong.’
Some players never recover from such intense pressure. But Patson Daka managed to persevere. He didn’t let it bother him.
Now he’s revered in Zambia.
‘He’s loved, everyone just loves him. It’s been a nice 360 turnaround. From the most hated to the most loved.’
‘With him I’ve always been a bit cautious, I’ve always tried to preserve him a bit, but he’s surprised me every step of the way. Just when I think he’s maybe at his limit he gets better.
‘Deep inside, quietly I’ve always believed in him. I told him four years ago that he would be the next Samuel Eto’o, the next big thing in Africa. The reason why I think he can get better is because he is always willing to learn and he is always improving.’
Lee is right. Patson Daka didn’t see the instantaneous cataclysmic rise Erling Haaland experienced in Salzburg. However the 21 year old has grown steadily and has gradually improved year after year.
From leading the club’s charge to UEFA Youth Cup glory in 2016/17 scoring goals in the semi-final and final to being promoted to Liefering and the first team. Daka has taken every step in his stride and he continues to grow.
He proved to be the perfect replacement for Erling Haaland earlier this year, scoring goals for fun in the aftermath of the Norwegian’s departure. His 24 league goals last season was mightily impressive and it doesn’t look like he is about to stop.
In pre-season this summer, Patson Daka showed hints he might be ready to take the next step. He tormented Virgil Van Dijk in an outing against his childhood club, Liverpool. The two goals he netted against Jurgen Klopp’s men were both outstanding finishes.
Four goals in his opening game for Salzburg this season is another indication Daka is set for new heights.
Destined for Liverpool?
There have been links with top European clubs including Liverpool and it would be a dream move for the young Zambian. Lee Kawanu remembers how Daka grew up wanting to emulate Luis Suarez and watching Liverpool play week and week out.
Lee, a Liverpool supporter himself, watched Daka’s recent brace against his beloved club with pride.
‘I talked to him after the game and I told him I wanted a hat-trick,’ he chuckles. ‘He told me it was like a “dream” to him. That’s the team his dad supported and he supports deep inside and you score two, not just normal goals, but really good goals against the best defender in the world in Virgil van Dijk, it’s a really nice story.’
A move to Anfield would conclude the perfect fairy-tale and it is within the realms of possibility when you look at the amount of stars who represented Salzburg and ended up moving to Anfield.
One thing is for sure, Patson Daka is destined for great things and a very bright future.