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When Nike gatecrashed Paris: How one man's vision sparked football furore in suburb Nanterre

15:00 IST 30/09/2019
Nike Mercurial launch in Paris
After a career-ending injury in his youth, Assane Thiam turned to organising community events and a recent Nike one has inspired neighbourhood kids

It’s not easy to set up an event that brings Nike, Jadon Sancho and the eyes of the world to your neighbourhood. But, speaking to Assane Thiam, you wouldn’t think that.

When 2,000 people arrived in Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, for the launch of Nike’s new Mercurial boots this summer, Thiam was the one that the children of the area were thanking.

The community sporting events organiser successfully pitched to Nike to come to the Parisian suburb he grew up in, but reaching that point had been a rollercoaster journey for someone who had harboured much different ambitions 10 years earlier.

“’The world is ours’. That’s the name of my organisation. It is my spirit. It is my ambition. When I wake up in the morning, I have this in my mind,” Thiam tells Goal, his drive and motivation – which he credits his mother for – all the more admirable once you hear his story.

An exciting prospect at Paris Saint-Germain in his youth, playing alongside Real Madrid’s Ferland Mendy in the French capital, a serious injury aged 15 meant Thiam’s playing career was over before it even started.

A year later, he was pursuing a different dream, working with agents to organise transfers for young players in France and had already been involved in his first deal.

At the age of 19, that dream had him working for Stellar Group, an agency with the likes of Gareth Bale on its books. It was then that he arranged his first big transfer: Yassin Fortune’s £3m move from Lens to Arsenal.

But after not receiving the payments he was due for his role, Thiam decided it was time for a new dream.

“I said: ‘I have learned a lot and I need to give back to my community’. So, I started to make tournaments,” he explains.

Five years later and he had brought one of football’s most exciting young players, Sancho, to Nanterre, hoping to inspire young people growing up in the same difficult circumstances he did.

“Everybody is very proud,” Thiam says. “Every game on the TV, kids send me photos of the [Nike] boots. ‘The boots are on the foot of Eden Hazard!’

“Nanterre is a big place in France for events now, because the pitches are very big and everybody in France, maybe in the world, knows it and knows the Nike launch.”

One of the many to sit up and take notice of what Thiam created was Paris-based Ahsan Naeem, co-producer of Soccer in the City, a documentary focused on the sport in the U.S. which premieres on October 17.

Naeem quickly did all he could to track down Thiam, whose experiences of football growing up may be very similar to most in France but set him apart from those growing up in the U.S., where it is seen as a pay-to-play sport.

The idea of paying for a kickabout is foreign to Thiam.

“[Growing up], we played football every day because you need nothing. You just need friends and a ball. You can even play alone,” he says.

“The most learning to play football is in the street. This is where I learn.”

It was the same for France’s 2018 World Cup-winning team too, Thiam adds: “If you look at the national team of France, every player comes from the suburbs.

“The passion is here and has been for a long time.”

Nanterre is a shining example of that, with that passion at the heart of an area turning its reputation around.

“Every kid, the parents, are very proud because the neighbourhood has a good image now,” he explains.

“When you make tournaments with your connections, for you it’s nothing, but for the kids, they never meet professional players, so it’s big.

“I try to give a good spirit. If you are a kid and you grow up in a poor neighbourhood, you see all the bad things.

“For me, the best thing for a kid to have is an example. If you have a good example, you can grow up good and you can have ambition.

“Before, the image [of Nanterre] was of a very difficult and very poor neighbourhood with stories of drugs and murder. Now, it’s about good things.”

Despite the evolution of that image, at the centre is something that will never change: a burning passion for football.

It’s that which has created some notable alumni: Abdoulay Diaby, Mali's captain; Mickael Malsa, an ex-Ligue 1 midfielder with Sochaux; and defender Moise Adilehou, who went to the Africa Cup of Nations this year with Benin.

But Thiam has now arguably surpassed all of them to become Nanterre’s proudest son.

“You don’t have to leave your neighbourhood,” he says. “You can bring the world to your neighbourhood.”