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Senegal to the East End: The Journey That Forged West Ham's Cheikhou Kouyate

Emre Sarigul@@Turkish_FutbolSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 12, 2016

Credit: Bleacher Report

It’s fitting that rising West Ham have a player made of iron in midfield. What is more remarkable is how Cheikhou Kouyate got there. The towering man's journey from Dakar, Senegal, to London's East End was long and risky. West Ham are happy he made it.

The Senegal native picked up the Hammers’ Individual Performance of the Season award last year for his unforgettable display against Manchester United, and in his second season, he has been a consistently dominant presence. Kouyate faced a challenge when Slaven Bilic became West Ham's manager this year—replacing Sam Allardyce, who had brought the midfielder to the club—but he hasn't missed a beat.

"Bilic was determined to keep him on when he took charge," says Saffet Balkan—Kouyate's agent. "He told me he loves Kouyate's willingness to do anything for the team."

Kouyate's main contribution has been as a ball-winner at West Ham's hub. He’s made the most tackles—averaging 2.8 per game, according to WhoScored.com—and the most interceptions in midfield, with 2.3 per match.

Kouyate rose through the youth ranks of ASC Yego Dakar before trying to break into European football. In 2007, at the age of 17, he went for trials in France but failed to secure a contract because he didn’t have the paperwork to reside in the country.

Penniless and without an agent or club, Kouyate’s European adventure looked to have been a disaster. The teenager found himself at loose ends—halfway around the world from his home. But his efforts did not go unnoticed.

Kouyate with his agent Saffet Balkan
Kouyate with his agent Saffet BalkanEmre Sarigul

A scout introduced Belgium-based Turkish football agent Balkan to Kouyate, and the agent was immediately struck by how physically developed Kouyate was for his age.

“He had the physique of a player far older and great lungs,” Balkan said.

Taking on young players is always a risk. The annals of football history are full of players tipped to be the next Diego Maradona who do not quite meet expectations, but Balkan decided the young midfielder was worth taking a punt on.

But there was a problem. Kouyate lacked a work permit. So Balkan went a bit beyond the player-agent relationship. “I took him under my wing and adopted him until he was 18 so that he could stay in Belgium,” he said.

Balkan underlined that it was not just Kouyate’s talent that impressed him but also his attitude. The player’s soft voice belies a hunger to succeed and a steely determination. Moving from Senegal to Western Europe only to have his dreams of becoming the next Patrick Vieira—also born in Dakar—shattered must have been devastating, but he didn’t have the luxury of self-pity.

With no plan B, he had to find a way to break through or return home. While youth-academy products at top European clubs lived a playboy lifestyle during their teenage years, Kouyate was grafting for a living.

What he lacked in material wealth he made up for in mental strength. Being able to cope with such pressure at a young age probably helped him on the field, especially in a defensive midfield role that demands emotional stability. Despite not playing for a club at the time, the young midfielder made it clear he had his sights set on the Premier League.

“I always wanted to play in England,” he said. “It was a childhood dream.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 09:  Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham United celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium on August 9, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Jul
Julian Finney/Getty Images

It was second-tier Belgium outfit FC Brussels that gave him his first shot, but his time at the club was marred by a pay dispute that added more strains to his already-precarious financial position. Balkan worked with Kouyate to resolve his situation, but it was a world far away from the glitz and glamour often associated with football.

“For almost three years I covered his rent, provided food and other expenses," Balkan says. "Those days were tough, but it brought us all together. He was always humble, and he became like a brother to my son, who remains close friends to this day.”

Kouyate ploughed on, and it was not long before he got his big break: Anderlecht snapped him up on a free transfer in 2008. After gaining experience out on loan at KV Kortrijk, he returned to the Belgium giants as a first-team regular.

Four years later, Kouyate broke into the Senegal national team, and he finally set foot in England for the first time during the London Olympics in 2012. After an impressive display at the Games, he attracted interest from a number of Premier League sides but fell victim to his old nemesis—the work permit.

“There were a few enquiries from the Premier League after the Olympics, but they were put off due to his foreign-player status,” Balkan says. Not an EU citizen, Kouyate was unable to play in England.

Kouyate in action at the 2012 London Olympics
Kouyate in action at the 2012 London OlympicsJulian Finney/Getty Images

Once Kouyate had made a name for himself at Anderlecht and for his national team, the Purple and White considered cashing in. Dynamo Kiev offered a big-money move in 2013, which the club accepted but Kouyate rejected. The rugged midfielder was struggling financially at the time, and few could have blamed him for taking a lucrative contract in Ukraine. But he remained determined.

“Kiev wanted him,” Balkan says. “They offered a lot of money. But we knew an offer from England would come and decided to be patient.”

Belgium had established itself as a football factory. Some of European football's brightest talents were—and still are—being pumped out of the Jupiler League. Kouyate had Premier League scouts keeping tabs on him, and Balkan advised him that his best chance of making it to England was remaining in Belgium.

Kouyate was part of the youthful Anderlecht team that started making waves on the European footballing scene. But he wasn’t always a midfielder. Following Sacha Kljestan's appointment in 2010, Kouyate was deployed as a defender. His pace and acceleration allowed him to not only make up for mistakes but also burst forward. Standing 1.89 metres (6’2 ½”) made Kouyate pretty useful for dealing with aerial balls as well.

His final positional transformation came under the stewardship of assistant manager Besnik Hasi, who came to the club the same year Kouyate did.

It was Hasi who moved Kouyate back from defence to midfield. Kouyate's physically imposing stature gave him a dominating presence in the centre of the park, and the Kosovan manager helped him develop his passing game while he continued to improve defensively.

Kouyate had arguably his finest league campaign in 2013-14 as Anderlecht won their fourth league title in five years. He had a 90.7 per cent pass-completion rate, won 1.8 aerial balls and averaged 2.2 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per game in the Champions League that season, per WhoScored.com.

The real game-changer in his quest for Premier League football came when he was granted a Belgian passport in 2014. By then, he was highly sought after across Europe, and numerous offers came in. But it was Big Sam’s phone call that convinced Kouyate to part ways with Anderlecht.

Kouyate in action for Anderlecht in 2010
Kouyate in action for Anderlecht in 2010Getty

“I dreamed of playing in the Premier League,” Kouyate says. “I could not believe it when I got the call from Sam Allardyce.”

Kouyate’s Kiev gamble had paid off: West Ham put in a £7 million bid Anderlecht accepted. Kouyate slotted into Allardyce’s midfield and occasionally played at centre-back. The tenacious midfielder had a breakthrough year, highlighted by that award-winning performance against Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground in February.

When Bilic, the former Besiktas head coach, took over on the touchline, he brought in sweeping changes—new players, new tactics and new training methods.

Bilic advocated the same fluid-passing, high-pressing attacking game he had demanded previously in Turkey and before. Was there a place for a burly, physical player in the new-look Hammers midfield?

Kouyate needn’t have worried. Bilic has been fond of strong defensive midfielders for years. At Besiktas, he had Atiba Hutchinson and Veli Kavlak, who worked assiduously while being able to keep possession with a high pass accuracy. At West Ham, he has Kouyate.

Kouyate kept his place in midfield and performed well enough to earn himself a lucrative five-year contract extension after months of negotiations. There were rumours of another move being on the cards prior to his new deal, but Balkan dismissed the claims as baseless speculation.

“The club love him, and he loves the club,” he says. “There was interest from other clubs and a few enquiries, but we have not even thought about leaving. All that has been on his mind is focusing on getting to Champions League football.”

Kouyate has thrived under the Bilic's stewardship. His central midfield position requires fortitude, fearlessness and true grit. All traits he has demonstrated throughout his life both on and off the field. The mobile midfielder is able to use his pace to press as well as break from deep.

The 26-year-old is the team's sixth-highest goalscorer, but his passing has not exactly been up to the standard he was achieving at Anderlecht. Eighty per cent accuracy is not awful but not particularly impressive for a player in his position. He has, however, managed to cement a place in the team. Only Aaron Cresswell and Mark Noble have made more appearances than the Senegal international this season.

Bilic gives instructions to Kouyate.
Bilic gives instructions to Kouyate.Getty

There is no doubt Kouyate still has aspects of his game that need work, but he has demonstrated he can cut it at the Premier League's highest level. “He has really enjoyed playing under the management of Bilic and has learned so much,” Balkan says. “Bilic made it clear that he wants Kouyate to stay at the club.”

The Hammers may have previously been perceived as a stepping-stone club, and it may be slightly premature to claim things have changed over the course of just one campaign. But there is reason to be optimistic. The east London outfit are riding high in the Premier League and will be moving to the 54,000-seat Olympic Stadium next season.

The East End used to have a reputation as being a little rough around the edges, but nowadays, it’s home to some of the trendiest spots in the capital. In much the same way, West Ham was known for playing an archaic long-ball style. These days, the Hammers play attractive, attacking football full of flair.

Kouyate wants to be a part of the rise of the Irons from mid-table mediocrity to challengers of the traditional order. In fact, Balkan says, “He aims to be captain in the future.”

Kouyate is not the first midfielder born in Dakar to take the Premier League by storm. It was inevitable he would be compared to Vieira at some stage. There are similarities. Both are tall and tough tacklers, and the West Ham star did, of course, grow up watching Vieira do his thing for Arsenal.

“Vieira is a role model for us Senegalese,” Kouyate says. “He lived the dream, and I want to do the same and be worthy of his comparison.”

The stalwart midfielder has some way to go if he is to reach Vieira's dizzying heights, but he is no stranger to defying the odds. He has had to fight tooth and nail to get where he is today. Guvnor Bilic has brought in revolutionary changes at West Ham, but revolutions need warriors as much as they need leaders.

He has one in Kouyate.

“I am so proud of him and how far he has come.” Balkan says. “To actually see someone come from nothing to achieve what he has is something special.”


Emre Sarigul is a freelance writer who has written for the BBC and the Guardian and is the founder of Turkish-football.com. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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