The 'Afcon Rise of' Series is a collaborative initiative between Goal and 3 Kilo featuring up-and-coming writers. 3 Kilo is a development agency that creates opportunities and skills development projects for the youth of South Africa.
Nicolas Pepe has been a name on the rise with his performances for French Ligue side Lille. His rapid pace along the right side flank has attracted attention from a number of Europe’s top clubs. He will, however, first turn his attention to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations for Cote d’Ivoire when they take on the best of the continent in Egypt.
Nicolas Pepe's early life
Pepe was born in Mantes-la-Jolie, France in 1995. His parents were immigrants from Cote d’Ivoire, who settled in the European country after his dad got a job there. Pepe grew up without toys and games but with a football, which he kicked around the streets of his neighbourhood.
At the age of six, he was asked what he wanted to become when he grew older and responded that he wanted to be a footballer. This response was rather encouraging for his teacher, as he knew that the lad looked like someone who would work towards his goals.
Nicolas Pepe's club career
Pepe was not a product of any academy through early development before the age of nine. His first youth side was Stade Poitevin, where his footballing abilities were quickly noticed. Other academies started being impressed by his performances but were also deterred by his physique and attitude.
However, Pepe was fully focused and started improving as the season progressed. Standout performances from Pepe were instrumental in saving Stade Poitevin from relegation that season. He eventually caught the eye of Agners FC and they made him an offer.
Things improved quickly for Pepe, who was spotted by a former sporting director of Real Madrid. Luis Campos was there to watch another player but fell in love with Pepe’s movement and pace on the ball. He went to the new owner of Lille and told him to sign the player. It did not take long for the owners to see what Pepe had in him and in 2017, after a loan spell with Orleans, he joined Lille.
A few months in to this partnership, he became an integral part of Lille’s blistering attack, which tormented defences. He soon made fans forget Eden Hazard, who left the club for Chelsea in 2012. Pepe has gone on to make 74 appearances, scoring 35 goals for Lille, including 17 assists delivered. He plays as a right winger and occasionally as a striker, although he prefers a role on the flank.
His consistent performances have not gone unnoticed, and Pepe has being linked to top European clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool. Lille has reportedly put a price tag of £70m on the Ivorian.
Nicolas Pepe's international career
With Afcon 2019 around the corner Pepe, will look to replicate more of his club performances for his country. He chose to play for Ivory Coast as they were the first to give him a call-up and it was a show of appreciation to him for his work on the field. He has gone on to represent the Elephants 11 times, scoring four goals.
On June 24, Pepe and Ivory Coast will start their Afcon campaign against South Africa.