Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder Yves Bissouma has reflected on his journey from Cote d’Ivoire to the Premier League.
The 22-year-old, who will be expected to be on parade when his side face Manchester City in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final, left his country of birth Ivory Coast at 13 to join Jean-Marc Guillou’s academy in Mali.
The Mali international progressed rapidly and in 2016, four months after arriving at Lille from AS Real Bamako, he signed his first professional contract with the French side.
He went on to make 47 Ligue 1 appearances for the senior team, scoring three goals, including his audacious strike from 30 yards that helped his side avoid relegation last season before joining the Seagulls in July 2018 where he has continued to flourish.
And Looking back on his journey to stardom, the lanky midfielder explained the difficulty in having to leave his parents at a tender age to pursue a football career.
“It was hard to leave my parents because I’ve always been very devoted to them but I said to myself: ‘Maman and Papa have done their best for me, now I have to show I am a man and fight to achieve’”, Bissouma told the Guardian.
“We [Abidjan junior club Majestic SC] had played a tournament in Bamako and five of us were invited to join the academy. We all went. We became like brothers. They’re still the people I talk to most.”
Bissouma revealed some of the challenges he encountered at Lille, including his difficulty in adapting to the weather condition and his former coach Marcelo Bielsa who wanted to convert him to a right-back.
“There were times when I wanted to stop training because my hands and feet were so cold,” he continued.
“He [Bielsa] is a super coach and a nice person but on that point we had a lot of problems. I’m happy to play for the team wherever I’m needed but this was not just a question of filling in; he said he genuinely thought I should make my career as a right-back.
“I couldn’t understand it. It was never nasty but we couldn’t agree on this, especially as we kept losing, so things became difficult.”
On his comparison with Manchester United star and World Cup winner Paul Pogba, he said: “He has won titles, played in the Champions League final, lifted the World Cup, he has blazed his trail.
“I’m just starting out so there’s no comparison. Or maybe they think we have the same hairdo?”
However, the youngster is delighted to be compared with former Cote d’Ivoire international and ‘one of the greatest ever African players’ Didier Zokora.
“I admired him so much that my friends nicknamed me Zokora,” he added.
“I loved his style of play. His technique. The way he defended, his aggressiveness and the way he worked so hard. We got the same education because he was raised in a Jean-Marc Guillou academy, albeit in a different country.
“I couldn’t watch him when he was at Spurs because we didn’t have the necessary channel but I never missed his international matches. For me, he is one of the greatest ever African players.”
Only in his first season in the Premier League, the 22-year-old believes the English elite division is at a ‘far higher level’ compared to the Ligue 1.
“Ligue 1 is good but this is a far higher level,” he added.
“The mentalities are not the same. Here it is much more aggressive, much more physical. The slightest error and you’re dead. It’s exciting, especially as there are so many great teams. Every weekend is like playing in the Champions League.”
He also lauded Brighton manager Chris Hughton for helping him adapt to life in England and aiding his development.
“In my short career he is the best manager I’ve had,” he said. He’s a man who helps me understand things on a daily basis and never stops exploring ways for me to get better, not just in football but in life. He’s not just a coach, he’s like another father to me.
“When I first arrived there were some complications with my family getting visas and he went to fight for me. And when my wife and I had our first child, he sent a present and card to our house. And there are so many other things he’s done to help me. He’s very different to other managers I’ve had. They have all been good but he is great.”
His impressive performances as seen him become a toast of the club fans who sing his praises which the midfielder is delighted with.
“Sometimes when I’m in the car, another car will pull up alongside and the people will wave at me and start singing my song,” he said.
“I like it! When you leave Africa to pursue your dream and then, just three years later, you find yourself in England with people chanting your name, It’s lovely.”
Bissouma who has scored only once in 28 appearances this season, believes he still has to improve on his game to reach the peak of his career.
“I have to improve,” he admitted. “I have to work even harder defensively to win more balls and, offensively, I have to create more chances and score more goals. Bring combativeness and a technical calmness. I think if I really manage to give my all, this team will win many more matches.”