It was a boiling hot August day in 2016 when a hitherto unheralded 17-year-old leapt unmarked to head a Jean-Michael Seri free kick into the net. His textbook downward header was to be the only goal of the game as Lucien Favre’s reign at Nice got off to a winning start against Rennes.
It was fitting, too, that it was an academy graduate who got the goal - all the more so given that he was born and brought up in Nice.
“It was a really emotional moment,” hometown hero Malang Sarr said after the game.
He might not have been a recognised name as he lined up that day for the club he joined when he was just six, but he certainly is now, having established himself as a regular in the defence, capable of playing both in the centre and on the left of the back four.
His debut, which took place on August 14, was an emotional affair, yet for a young man who lost his father when he was just 14 and grew up in the difficult Les Moulins neighbourhood of the city.
On the field, too, not everything has been straightforward. The style of Lucien Favre demands that his defenders pass the ball out of the rearguard, which necessarily leads to the occasional error. Although Sarr’s passing percentage is high, one slip can be catastrophic and lead to a loss of confidence.
Certainly, the 19-year-old experienced that towards the end of last term and dropped out of the team for a period. Sarr, though, is a young man who draws strength from such situations.
“I remember a book by Guy de Maupassant: a poor young man who climbs the ladder with self-sacrifice because he feels like it,” Sarr told Liberation in September, doubtless comparing the protagonist that he loved so much from his school days to himself.
And he has returned stronger than ever, often keeping Barcelona loanee Marlon from starting alongside the experienced Dante in the heart of the back four.
Sarr’s strength is perhaps his understanding and reading of the game. It allows him to play the passing football that Favre demands of him – he make more than 20 passes per game than the average defender with nearly 10% greater accuracy – and also means he makes significantly more interceptions than the average player in his role.
Meanwhile, the other areas of his game are continually being refined, allowing him to progress at a considerable rate.
Barcelona and Chelsea are among those sides monitoring his progress, and given his track record, he will do everything in his power to finally leave his hometown club to reach those heights.