Sadio Mane sat sheepishly, almost embarrassed. He was watching himself score the fastest ever Premier League hat-trick. “I got lucky again,” he muttered." I don’t even know how long it took. It was just a goal for the team.” It was so much more than that. It was history. It was a record that still stands to this day. But his humility refused to accept the well-deserved fanfare. Instead he sat quietly, sporting a nervous smile. Proud, yes, but typically modest.
And that unassuming nature has no doubt played a major part in Mane’s continued success at the top of the game. When Senegal qualified for the 2018 World Cup and were judged to be Africa’s greatest hope in the competition, every preview focused on their talisman and greatest talent. Having helped take Liverpool to the Champions League final and secured their place in the competition for 2018-19, the pressure on Mane was ramped up further still. From a city counting on you, to an entire country.
The key lies in understanding your responsibility without letting it drag you down. It is an incredibly difficult balance to pull off, but there are few better than Mane at doing exactly that. He is a smiling footballer, with an appreciation of how fortunate he is to be such an important cog for club, city and nation. He embraces the pressure.
It is hard to imagine a humbler footballer. If Mane is a superstar in talent, there are none of the airs and graces that can so often accompany the most able. He shuns parties and nights out in favour of a quiet, reserved, family life. If he made headlines in April 2018 for donating £200,000 to build a school in his village of Bambali, he’d prefer such kindness to fly under the radar. He sees such donations - and there are many more - not as wild acts of generosity, but as his duty. His aim is to inspire the next generation of Sadio Manes.
In fact, there is a sense that Mane does not quite realise how good he is, but his managers certainly do. "He is an outstanding player, I never had any other opinion," said Jurgen Klopp last month."He needed more confidence when he came in, the start was really good but I think he was a bit surprised by himself. He needed to get used to the fact that he is a world-class player.”
Aliou Cisse, his national team coach over the last three years, agrees. “I don't want to say he could become one of the best players in the world,” Cisse said before the World Cup. “Because he is already one of the best - you have to stress this.”
Mane’s humility comes from experience. His career could so easily have failed to get off the ground. Playing on the roads of Bambali as a child it was clear that he had a special talent, but his family preferred him to become a teacher. No child from Bambali had ever progressed to top-flight professional football. The lack of precedent made Mane’s ambition seem like fairytale.
The story is extraordinary. Having failed to receive the support of his family, he packed a bag and ran away from home, heading to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, to attend a trial. Mane played in torn boots and was viewed as an outsider by coaches. But his talent shone through and forced them to re-evaluate their opinions. Talent overcoming all roadblocks would become a theme of his career.
Having been taken on by Generation Foot in Dakar, Mane knew that he would have to leave his country of birth to stand any chance of reaching the top. When French Ligue 2 side Metz expressed an interest, he was in no doubt where his future would lie. Again, he made the decision without telling his family.
That takes enormous courage, but it also highlights the drive to succeed that has made Mane unstoppable. How else could a small boy from a Senegalese village, almost 300 miles from the country’s capital, and a million miles from the Premier league’s glitz and glamour, make than with a determination that sets him apart from the rest? To be a successful trailblazer, you must break down walls. To break down walls, you must steel yourself for the impact.
“I knew I was going to be a football player, I just didn't know how,” Mane told Sky Sports in August. “It was the only thing I was doing, the only thing that I knew. Always training, training, training, training.”
Therein lies the mantra of Mane’s career. If the natural talent was always obvious - tremendous speed, fine dribbling and excellent finishing – it has been underpinned by a will to improve and an openness to learn from his coaches. It is the desire to be the best he can be - and continue to improve at the age of 26 - that most impresses Klopp.
There were several twists of fate in Mane’s journey to Anfield. He could easily have joined Spartak Moscow from Red Bull Salzburg rather than Southampton, with a lucrative offer on the table. But interest from Klopp and Borussia Dortmund excited Mane and persuaded him that focusing purely on the move that made sense for his career progression was the right strategy. Given the contrast in the club’s styles, there is a certain irony to the fact that Mane came close to a Manchester United move in 2015 when Louis van Gaal was in charge. Southampton’s asking price was deemed too high. But when Klopp came back for his man, Mane knew it was the only move for him.
It is easy to sell fate as good luck, but that can quickly be dismissed. Even if Mane considers himself to be incredibly fortunate, his rise is not down to chance. That would do a disservice to his extraordinary will to maximise his own ability.
Having arrived at Anfield and settled under Klopp’s wing, Mane’s success has been striking. In his first campaign at Liverpool he was named the club’s Player of the Season and selected in the PFA Team of the Year. The following year, he was an integral part of a front three that scored 91 goals in all competitions and scored nine times in the UEFA Champions League. When you outscore Lionel Messi in Europe’s premier competition, you can afford to bask in your achievement.
But then that’s not really Mane’s style. His journey from Bambali to the pinnacle of the Premier League is remarkable, but he’s not about to sit back and admire his own handiwork. In every training session, every match and every season, Mane will strive for bigger and better. That’s exactly what has brought him this far.
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