By Neil Jones

The scene was one of sheer happiness, pure delight. As Liverpool’s fans celebrated in the stands, on the Wanda Metropolitano pitch their players were getting their own party started. Jurgen Klopp was bear-hugging each and every one of his Champions League winners, Trent Alexander-Arnold danced alone behind one of the goals, Jordan Henderson shared an emotional embrace with his father. Roberto Firmino, for reasons unknown, performed a forward roll. And there, in the midst of the chaos, stood Sadio Mane, medal round his neck, a smile as wide as the River Mersey.  

A winner. Of the biggest prize in club football.  

Liverpool’s success in Madrid back in June propelled Mane and his team-mates towards superstar status. No longer will we talk about ‘promise’ where the Senegal star is concerned. At 27, he belongs among the game’s elite. 

Mane’s story starts a long way from the Spanish capital, in the remote village of Bambali, near the Casamance River and the border with Guinea-Bissau. It was not the most privileged of upbringings, but football was a constant. “I always remember being with the ball,” Mane says. “That’s how I started, just on the roads.” 

His talent was clear, and at the age of 15 he was sent for a trial in Dakar, the Senegalese capital. His boots were old and torn and he had no proper football shorts, but he impressed.

He won over Abdou Diatta, the veteran scout for the Generation Foot academy, within 15 minutes. 

Generation Foot has nurtured a host of Senegalese stars, including Diafra Sakho and Papiss Cisse, and before long its established links with French football would see the young Mane on the move. He joined Metz, where he would make his professional debut as a 19-year-old in January 2012. 

That summer he would represent Senegal at the London Olympics, helping them to the quarter-finals, where they were beaten by Mexico. At the end of August, he would be transferred to Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg for around €4million.

It was here that his career took off. Mane scored 19 goals in his first season, then 23 in his second as Salzburg won the league and cup double. He missed the final against St Polten through injury, but scored a hat-trick as Horn were dispatched in the semis. 

His form in Austria attracted interest from around Europe – Klopp wanted to sign him for Borussia Dortmund, while Spartak Moscow made a lucrative offer. The choice, though, was Southampton. The fee was just under £12million. 

His debut came in a League Cup win at Arsenal and he quickly flourished under the guidance of Ronald Koeman, scoring 10 goals in 32 appearances. 

His tally included a record-breaking hat-trick against Aston Villa on the penultimate weekend of the campaign. Mane’s treble, remarkably, came in just two minutes and 56 seconds, breaking a record that had been held by Robbie Fowler, the Liverpool legend, since 1994. 

The following year Mane’s reputation was further enhanced with 15 goals from 43 appearances, including another eye-catching hat-trick against Manchester City. He also scored (and was sent off) against Liverpool in what was Klopp’s first home league game in charge of the Reds. Later in the season, he would score twice and miss a penalty in the return fixture. 

That summer, he would make the switch to Anfield, Liverpool paying £30m for his services. Like at Southampton, his debut came against Arsenal at the Emirates, only this time Mane illuminated it with a magnificent solo goal as the Reds won an epic game 4-3. 

His first season on Merseyside would be cut short by a knee injury sustained against Everton in April, but he would still finish it as Liverpool’s player of the year. Highlights included not only that Arsenal strike, but a stoppage-time derby winner at Goodison Park in December. He finished with 13 goals from 29 appearances. 

Mohamed Salah’s arrival in 2017 necessitated a change of position, with Mane switching from the right flank to the left as Klopp’s side looked to evolve.

His form, though, barely suffered. As Liverpool went all the way to the Champions League final, Mane scored in every single round.

That included three goals across the semi-final against Roma, a key goal in the quarter-final win over Manchester City and a hat-trick at Porto in the last 16. 

In the final against Real Madrid, Mane was on the scoresheet once more as Liverpool, robbed of Salah’s services through a first-half injury, went down 3-1 in Kiev’s NSC Olympiyskiy Stadium. It was a heartbreaking end to a memorable season, in which Mane had scored 20 goals in all competitions and formed a deadly forward line alongside Salah and Firmino. 

He would score for Senegal at the World Cup that summer, netting in a 2-2 draw with Japan. His country, though, would be controversially eliminated at the group stage courtesy of the Fair Play table, with the Japanese advancing to the last 16. 

The night, though, is darkest before dawn, and the 2018/19 season proved to be Mane’s best yet. He scored twice for Liverpool on the opening day and never looked back. His 22 Premier League goals gave him, along with fellow African stars Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a share of the Golden Boot, while his performances helped Liverpool to a record points total of 97. They missed out on the title to Manchester City only on the final weekend. 

Their consolation prize wasn’t bad, though. Yet again, Klopp’s team navigated its way to the Champions League final. Yet again, Mane provided some of the key moments. His goal against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in the last 16 was one of the finest seen in Europe all season, he scored away at Porto in the quarter-finals and was part of that epic, never-to-be-repeated fightback from 3-0 against Barcelona in the semis. 

In the final against Tottenham, it was his run and cross which led to Liverpool’s first goal, scored by Salah from the penalty spot after a handball by Moussa Sissoko. Divock Origi wrapped up the victory late on and Mane had his hands on that precious gold. 

Not bad for a kid from Bambali with torn boots, eh? 

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