Cheikhou Kouyaté has achieved his dream – or ‘obsession’ as he calls it – of playing in the Premier League. The West Ham midfielder is now helping the next generation of Senegal’s dreamers to aim for the sky.
Kouyaté grew up in Dakar and from a young age knew that he wanted to leave Senegal to play in England. His biggest inspiration was local hero Patrick Vieira, who was also born in Dakar but found fame and fortune in Europe, winning the World Cup with France and playing for Arsenal in the Premier League.
Kouyaté has decided to set up and fund an academy in Senegal.
And like Vieira, who begins a new chapter in his career as manager of New York City FC in the new year, Kouyaté has decided to set up and fund an academy in Senegal to inspire the next group of young footballers dreaming of a career in the big European Leagues.
‘Vieira was a role model for us Senegalese,’ he says. ‘He made us dream, and aspire to achieve similar things.’
But achieving that goal and making it in the biggest league in the world is by no means easy. Kouyaté knows more than most. The word sacrifice is used a lot in professional sport but for the midfielder, this was most definitely the case.
He very nearly gave up the game he loved to head back home.
At the age of 17, he left Senegal and his family for Europe in the hope that he could forge a career for himself. Away from the ones he loved, in one foreign country after another, he says he very nearly gave up the game he loved to head back home.
But instead the boy from Dakar stayed strong and persevered, showing the sort of grit and determination that he brings on to the pitch for West Ham today.
‘To play in England was a dream ever since I was a kid. It became an obsession – I knew I had to come, no matter what,’ says Kouyaté.
‘My main dream was to play in the Premier League, which I used to follow (on TV) every week. I left Senegal at the age of 17, first to go to Greece, then to France and then to Belgium. It was so difficult that I wanted to go back to Senegal. But people told me to stay put – my grandmother on the telephone, the president of my club, my mum. After three months I really wanted to go back to Senegal and stop playing football.
‘Because it was the first time I had left my country without my family, I had nothing and was completely on my own.
After Vieira, the likes of Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré have inspired even more youngsters.
‘It was really cold. It was the first time I had seen snow. It was tough. I asked for advice from my agent, my family, all the people who loved me. After that, I told myself: ‘Ok, I am going to stay put. I was on my own a lot of the time, but I got used to it. It was then my mental strength began to increase, I became tougher. My mentality became very strong. Now I feel I can go anywhere.’
Since the turn of the millennium, England’s top-flight has seen a dramatic growth in African players plying their trade. After Vieira, the likes of Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré have inspired even more youngsters and many of those players have formed foundations to give the kids a chance.
Although he represented France, Vieira still holds his birthplace Dakar close to his heart. The work of his Diambars FC has helped turn talented prospects into professional footballers. Pape Souaré, now at Crystal Palace, is just one example of several players who have made their first footballing steps through Vieira’s academy before making the move to Europe.
Now Kouyaté is following his hero’s footsteps once again, funding his own team, Afrik-Foot in Dakar. Like Vieira, he hopes that his work will help African players develop a career in European football and perhaps the Premier League.
‘Charity work by the likes of Patrick Vieira and others are very good examples,’ says Kouyaté.
And it’s inspirational.
‘The idea does motivate young people in Senegal that you might be able to look ahead to the future and support, not just your own families, but anyone from the country who needs that sort of help.’
‘Senegal is a football country; everyone loves the game there. There are two to three million youngsters trying to get into the professional game so if we can do anything to help them that’s fantastic.
‘‘Afrik-Foot’. This is a new academy. It is in Senegal near where I grew up.
It is clear to see just how passionate Kouyaté is about Afrik-Foot.
‘There is a new team there, a new training ground, which I arranged with my agent. There are players there that want to succeed in Europe.’
From the way he speaks it is clear to see just how passionate Kouyaté is about Afrik-Foot and his work back home. For a man so fierce and strong on the pitch, he is incredibly softly spoken but there is a marked change in his voice when he speaks about his plans for the future. He keeps in regular contact with his Afrik-Foot side and paid a visit to the youngsters there last summer to monitor their progress.
Kouyaté is still dreaming of the Premier League. But, this time it’s so those who he visited last summer can emulate him one day.
‘Yes, of course, it would be a dream for me to see any players do well or come here if possible,’ he says.
‘The last time I was there was on holiday in June and I saw the desire that all the players had. They really want to make it in Europe, anywhere that they can.
‘That is their dream. It will be my dream as well for some of them to succeed. Doing it in England is not very easy but who knows in a few years what might happen. Why not?’