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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ed Aarons

‘I had to wait’: Chelsea’s Koulibaly on realising his Premier League dream

Kalidou Koulibaly
Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly says he never stopped believing he would play in the Premier League. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

Throughout his career Kalidou Koulibaly has had to learn to be patient. Rejected by Metz at 15 for being “too introverted”, in the words of the club’s academy head Denis Schaeffer, the towering defender who grew up in northeastern France to Senegalese parents spent two years playing amateur football for Saint-Dié before finally being invited back to Metz.

More than a decade on and having arrived at Chelsea last month for £33.8m after eight years with Napoli where he established himself as one of the world’s best defenders, Koulibaly certainly couldn’t be accused of being an introvert these days.

Fluent in four languages after picking up English during his spell at Genk in Belgium, the 31-year-old insists he “never stopped believing” he could fulfil his childhood dream of playing in the Premier League and makes no secret of the fact his move to Stamford Bridge has been several years in the making after Antonio Conte first tried to sign him in 2015.

“I spoke with Conte in Rome – he wanted me after my first good year in Napoli,” Koulibaly recalls. “I asked respectfully to the owner that I wanted to leave for Chelsea but he told me that it wouldn’t be possible. So I waited a bit and continued my conversation with them but they really didn’t want me to leave the club so I decided to renew my contract to stay in Napoli. For me it was a bit hard to say no because it was my dream to play in the Premier League since I was a child. But I knew that one day it would happen and I’m happy that it has. I had to wait and I had a lot of patience.”

New Chelsea signing Kalidou Koulibaly has vowed he will never let anyone stop him representing Senegal.

The Senegal captain called for more respect of African nations after the president of his former club, Napoli, threatened only to sign African players willing to give up international ambitions.

Aurelio De Laurentiis pledged that Napoli will only now sign African players if they are willing to miss the Africa Cup of Nations, given the tournament clashes with European league competition.

"We are the idiots who pay salaries only to send them all over the world playing for others," De Laurentiis said.

Koulibaly has joined Chelsea in a £34m deal from Napoli, becoming part of new owner Todd Boehly's new Stamford Bridge era. The 31-year-old insisted he would respect De Laurentiis' pledge on African players, but urged European teams to do likewise to the Africa Cup of Nations.

"It's up to him, if he wanted to say this," responded Koulibaly, who captained Senegal to Afcon glory at the 2022 tournament."But for me the most important thing is to respect everybody.

"When I played there I was playing also for Senegal. I won Afcon when I was playing for Senegal for Napoli. It's true it's difficult for them, but I think you have to respect the national team also. You have to have respect like you have of European national teams.

"As captain of Senegal it's not a good way to speak about African nationality, but I respect what he thinks. If he thinks that, it's up to him, but I think not everybody has the same idea as him in the club. The supporters don't think like this. It's up to him, it's not an idea of the society or the city, the city is respectful of everything. This world, it's what he thinks, not what the team thinks or what the city thinks." PA Media and Reuters

Liverpool and Manchester City were among the other clubs linked with the man who led Senegal to their first Africa Cup of Nations triumph this year in what became a staple rumour on the transfer merry-go-round. But a four-year contract at Chelsea and the opportunity to play a leading role in Todd Boehly’s new era persuaded him it was now or never.

“It is true I was close and it could have happened before but I am happy to sign for Chelsea and to continue to play with blue. I am happy and the decoration for my house is better. For me [the four‑year contract] is proof they have confidence with me. They know I am a professional player, I like to take care of my body, of everything. I’m thankful to god that I didn’t have a lot of big injuries so for this they have confidence in me and I know I can give them a few years. Four years or even more but this will depend on them. I will give them this four years with a lot of energy.”

Kalidou Koulibaly
Kalidou Koulibaly trains with Chelsea before the start of the Premier League season. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

Whether Chelsea can challenge for the title after a spring and summer of upheaval remains to be seen, although Koulibaly – who won a solitary Coppa Italia at Napoli in 2020 despite regularly challenging for the Serie A title – has his sights on trophies.

“With my personal experience, I know you don’t have to give a limit to your dream and my dream is to win everything with Chelsea,” he says. “I know it will be difficult. I don’t come with arrogant behaviour. I come with respect, a lot of respect for everybody, but I know Chelsea is a big team and a team that has to win, that’s used to winning. I see in the gym there are all the trophies on the wall that they win, and I want to be part of those trophies. I have not won a lot in my career and so I come here to win some trophies, some titles and I hope that it begins this year.”

Koulibaly is set to become the fourth Senegal international to play for Chelsea and was congratulated by the first – Demba Ba – when he signed. He was also contacted by Didier Drogba and, to the delight of his brother Abdoulaye, a life-long Chelsea fan, by Gianfranco Zola. It was thanks to the diminutive Italian, voted Chelsea’s greatest player in 2003, that Koulibaly got in touch with John Terry to find out whether he could take the No 26 shirt – his number at Napoli – that had not been in use since the former England captain left in 2017.

“I asked him for the number for John because I wanted to ask him about the jersey,” he says. “He gave me directly the number and I called him. In the beginning, he didn’t believe it was me. He thought it was a joke so he put down the phone and called the team manager to ask if it was really me.”

Terry was eventually convinced he was speaking to Chelsea’s new signing and footage of Koulibaly talking to him on the phone went viral when posted on Twitter this week.

“It was very important for me to ask him and he gave me his answer. I was happy and I wanted to tell everybody that I asked him before because I don’t want to be disrespectful to a legend of the club.”

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