Africa: FT African Legends Series - Salif Keita, a Forgotten Hero?

African football has much to thank for the legacy of a certain Salif Keita who played in Europe between 1967 and 1980. There is another famous person who goes by the name Salif Keita but he is an Afro-pop singer-songwriter from Mali. Our FirstTouch Legend Keita, is the uncle to the Seydou Keita who played for Barcelona recently. Let's take you through the career of the goal scoring machine that earned our African Football Legendary status.


Also known as 'The Black Pearl of Bamako', Salif Keita was born in Mali in December 1946. He moved to France in 1967 to pursue his career in soccer at AS Saint-Etienne where he won three Ligue 1 titles. Keita scored an astonishing 71 league goals in his two seasons at the club. He moved on to fellow Ligue 1 side Olympique de Marseille in 1972 after scoring 42 goals in his last season for his former club and failing to win any silverware. His time at Marseille was cut short after the club tried to force him to assume French nationality so that he could represent them on the international scene. Keita was a proud African and he refused those advances which saw him leaving for the Spanish side, Valencia. Racism was still rife during those days which is evidenced by a headline which read, "Valencia goes out to buy Germans and comes back with a black man." However, he was loved by his new club who gave him the nickname, 'La Perla Negra de Mali' which translates to The Black Pearl of Mali. He later played for Sporting Clube de Portugal before moving to New England Tea Men in the MLS where he retired at the age of 34.

Contribution To The Game

Salif Keita was one of the first soccer players that shone in the Number 10 jersey and made it as famous as it is today. He dazzled fans in Europe with his amazing dribbling ability carrying that number at the back which inspired many players who followed. Soccer greats like Ronaldinho, Zinedine Zidane, and others have worn this shirt which is respected and usually reserved for the best players on the team. Without Keita carrying 10, the jersey might not have been as significant as it is present day football. The game has evolved over the years but much respect should be reserved for the Malian striker who left a mark in the sport which many now call their religion.

Soccer took its time to rise up in terms of popularity within the US. Many suggested that the culture in the country is a major reason why this is. They alluded that Americans are generally interested in sports in which there are a lot of scores. This affected their perception of soccer which sometimes has matches that end in goalless draws. During Salif Keita's time, however, this would not have been a concern. The striker was famous for scoring goals. As mentioned earlier he scored a total of 71 goals in two seasons during his stint at AS Saint-Etienne. He was a joy to watch. These numbers are difficult to match in the present day with only a handful of players reaching these numbers on a consistent basis.

Salif Keita left a legacy in the game. His nephew Seydou Keita carried the family torch after him as he played for Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. As football fans, nothing beats the feeling we get when we see a young player following in the footsteps of our former heroes. Think of Jay-Jay Okocha for example, and his nephew Iwobi. These youngsters are adored in the sport because they bring memories of players who shed their sweat, blood, and tears to entertain the millions of soccer fans who watch the games. Salif Keita was one of the players who inspired their family members to play soccer and supported them throughout their career. We have him to thank for that.

If you were wondering what type of a striker he was, think of Cristiano Ronaldo. Keita was ruthless in front of goal but also had the composure and trickery to create space for himself and beat opponents before rifling in a shot past the goalkeeper. He was also versatile and could play anywhere up front. If you recall how Edinson Cavani adjusted his game during his early years at PSG where he played out wide, that paints a picture of how Keita was when he was asked to play for Valencia. He had a football brain so it was easy for him to play in any position.

Today, many players are seen moving to the MLS in the later stages of their career. Football greats such as Kaka, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all plied their trade in the US in their 30s. This was started by Keita who moved to the MLS in 1979 and has become a trend for many star players who are looking for some competition before retirement. The Malian forward has clearly left a mark on the game of soccer.

Also, we look at his ranking among FirstTouch African Legends. It is only fair to compare him with fellow African players who played in the same position. There are probably just three players ahead of him i.e. Eto'o, Rodger Milla and Didier Drogba. This is only because these other players were more consistent than him and played on the biggest stage for a long time. They also managed to win multiple African Player of the Year awards as compared to Keita's sole accolade awarded in 1970.

Life After Football

In 1994, Keita created the first training center for professional football players in Mali

June 2005, he was elected president of the Mali Football Federation

A year later, the Confederation of African Football selected him as one of the best 200 African Soccer players of the past 50 years

Since 2007, he has been acting as a delegated minister of the Prime Minister of Mali

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