Mané: From grapefruit dribbling to Ballon d’Or contender

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From dribbling with a grapefruit in the remote Senegalese village of Bambali, to lifting the Premier League title with Liverpool, no player has had a more extraordinary journey to the top than Sadio Mané.

Even before joining Liverpool in 2016, he had already etched his name into the Premier League’s record books. By scoring three times in the space of two minutes and 56 seconds in Southampton’s 6-1 win over Aston Villa, he remains the scorer of the fastest hat-trick in the competition’s history.

Yet it was his move to Anfield that cemented himself as a global superstar of the sport, and has made him a household name that every club would love to have in their squad.

His match-winner on his debut, in a thrilling 4-3 win at Arsenal, could not have done more to endear himself to Liverpool’s fans. Picking up the ball on the right-flank, Mané ran at the Gunners’ backline, terrorising both Calum Chambers and Nacho Monreal with his electrifying pace before using his left-foot to lash the ball past a hapless Petr Čech.

That moment marked the beginning of his rapid ascension to the top, and he has continued to improve with every passing year. He’s consistently netted over 20 strikes in his last three seasons on Merseyside, and has never shied away from the big games – as his match-winning brace against Bayern Munich showed from last season’s Champions League.

Few defenders can match Mané for pace when he’s in full stride with the ball, and the unpredictable nature of his game confuses them – whether if he’ll cut inside from the left flank, or beat them out on the touchline.

Always thinking on his feet, you’ll rarely see him make the wrong decision going forward, whether it’s making the unselfish final pass or catching goalkeepers off-guard with a superb finish.

But it’s not just his work in the final third that makes Mané indispensable to his club. His defensive work in forcing opponents into turnovers sets an example for the rest of his teammates to follow, while he’s a very comfortable player in possession. Just as important are his off-ball runs, that create space for others to flourish in.

It’s easy to forget that the man from Senegal was the first of Jürgen Klopp’s big signings, before the likes of Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson came along. The fact that the German saw him as an essential signing for his free-scoring, high-pressing team, speaks volumes about his importance to the team, and his addition has been key to transforming the club into the juggernaut it is today.

Of course, none of this would have happened if Mané’s father, an Imam at the village’s mosque, had successfully stopped his son from pursuing a career in football in the first place, preferring that his son took up farming instead.

Growing up in the poorer Sédhiou region, there were few opportunities for him to show off his skills. So determined was the winger to make his dream a reality, that he fled the village at 15 years old in secret to join Génération Foot – a football academy in Dakar – much to the dismay of his family.

Yet after eventually convincing his family that his future was in playing football and not working in agriculture, the youngster returned to the academy. Before long, he was off to French side FC Metz, ready to embark on a journey that many aspiring Senegalese footballers dream of experiencing.

Understandably, it took some time for him to adjust to life in northern France, and he even hid from the club a severe hernia injury, out of fear that his dream could end before it had become realised.

After making a handful of appearances in Ligue 2, he went on to star for Senegal in their 2012 Olympic Games run to the quarter-finals. It led to interest from across the continent – but it was Red Bull Salzburg who snared his services for €4m.

Sadio Mane when he arrived at Metz.

Interestingly, the Austrian club RB Salzburg were alerted by a recommendation from former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier, who felt the player had tremendous potential to become a superstar and the Frenchman was right, as the forward helped the club win the domestic double during the 2013/14 season, scoring 23 goals and had 18 assists in all competitions.

What I liked straight away was his speed and ability on the ball – Gérard Houllier.

With Borussia Dortmund – managed at the time by Jurgen Klopp – and Bayern Munich both passing up the opportunity to sign him, it was Southampton who swooped in to sign Mané for £12m.

Any doubts concerning his talents and ability were immediately dispelled by his performances for the Saints – and a £20m bid from Manchester United after his first season in the Premier League emphasised how quickly he had put himself on the radar of England’s elite clubs.

His frightening pace and finishing skills were on show as the south-coast side fought against the traditional ‘top-six’ clubs for European football, and as well as scoring against the bottom-half teams, a hat-trick against Manchester City reiterated how even the league’s best backlines struggled to nullify his impact.

Once he made the move to Liverpool in 2016, the pressure was on Mané’s shoulders to help usher in a new era of success at Anfield. A club whose fans were longing to compete for major titles once again, and hadn’t lifted a trophy since 2012’s League Cup triumph.

But ever since he stepped out at the Emirates Stadium, the Senegalese has overcome every challenge to become a star player for the Reds. Voted the club’s Player of the Season at the end of his first campaign, Mané has since been instrumental in their Champions League title run in 2019, before spearheading the Reds to their maiden Premier League title in 2020.

At 28, Mané’s at the very peak of his powers, and continues to show time and time again that he’s among the very best in the world. Explosive in his movement, and a deadly finisher with either foot, no playbook can really be drawn up to stop him – not when he’s on song at least.

RELATED STORY: Sadio Mané’s Best Moments at Liverpool

By 90min

Edited by Tiyani wa ka Mabasa

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