Made in Ivory Coast: Eric Bailly Walks with Kings but Keeps the Common Touch

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 20, 2018

HOUSTON, TX - JULY 20: Eric Bailly of Manchester United during the International Champions Cup 2017 match between Manchester United and Manchester City at NRG Stadium on July 20, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
B/R

Koumassi-Sicogi, the southern district of Abidjan where Manchester United star Eric Bailly grew up, is known locally as "The Venice of Abidjan." The nickname is not a compliment.

Situated on the island of Petit Bassam and separated from the centre of Abidjan by a strait of the Ebrie Lagoon, Koumassi-Sicogi is a bustling, working-class neighbourhood. It is home to the families of men and women drawn to the area by the promise of work in the plastic factories and fisheries of the adjacent industrial zone. It is also an area where urbanisation has not kept pace with the rapid speed at which the local population has mushroomed.

When it rains in Koumassi-Sicogi, the primitive sewer network quickly becomes inundated and the streets flood. Getting around is suddenly a major challenge, and diseases proliferate in the stagnant waters. There are no gondolas or elegant canals in the Venice of Abidjan.

As a young footballer, Bailly cut his teeth on a large, sprawling dirt pitch known as the Terrain Inchallah in the centre of Koumassi. Located one block north of the local cemetery, it doubles as a public space that hosts cultural ceremonies and political rallies, but for the local football players, it is the ultimate proving ground.

"It's a bare pitch without a single blade of grass. It's the exact opposite of what FIFA's rules authorise. But it's always been like that," says Fernand Dedeh, a local football journalist.

"It's where all the great players who've come from Koumassi have played. If you haven't played at Inchallah, you haven't played football."

Though he is now a superstar in his native Ivory Coast following his transfer to Manchester United in 2016, Bailly still plays on the Terrain Inchallah when he comes home to visit. So too Kolo Toure, another Abidjan boy made good. "It's where they show that they haven't forgotten their roots," says Dedeh.

Ivory Coast's Eric Bailly controls the ball during the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualification football match between Ivory Coast and Gabon at The Stade la Paix in Bouaké on September 5, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO        (Photo credit should read ISSOUF
ISSOUF SANOGO/Getty Images

Bailly, who was known by the nickname "Erico," dropped out of school at the age of 14 so he could start making money to help his family and sustain his dream of becoming a professional footballer. At one point he became the manager of a telephone box.

"I've had luck with my father's help, but I also had to work," Bailly told James Ducker of the Daily Telegraph last year. "The phone boxes was something I did to earn some money and to resolve some of my issues. I cannot always rely on my parents. They've always tried to help me, but I had to do something to be able to get what I wanted."

There are two major football academies local to Abidjan—Mimosifcom, which is affiliated with Ivorian powerhouses ASEC Mimosa, and the Ivoire Academie—but Bailly, then a pacy, all-action midfield player, went undetected by both of them.

Instead he headed south, crossing a thin channel of the Ebrie Lagoon to Port-Bouet, where he joined the modest Abia Stars academy. It was there that he attracted the attention of David Comamala, who was scouting in the region on behalf of Spanish football agency Promoesport.

"We first saw Eric in 2009 in Abidjan," Comamala told Adam Crafton of the Daily Mail in 2016. "He was playing in this small club with barely any infrastructure.

"Physically, Eric was stick-thin, but from the first moment, he stood out for his height, his pace, his courage and his talent. He was doing rare things for a kid in Africa."

In November 2009, Promoesport organised a tournament for promising African footballers in neighbouring Burkina Faso, where emissaries from some of Europe's biggest clubs were in attendance. Bailly was spotted by a scout from Espanyol, Emilio Montagut, and two years later, at the age of 17, he joined the club's youth system in Barcelona.

Spanish naming conventions meant Bailly was initially known in Spain as Eric Bertrand, with his middle name used instead of his surname. That, though, was the least of his worries.

It would take a year for him to be granted a work permit, and further issues with red tape prevented him from playing a competitive match for another year. When he finally got a taste of first-team professional football, in October 2014, he hit the ground not so much running as sprinting flat-out.

Bailly faced Messi early in his European career
Bailly faced Messi early in his European careerAlex Caparros/Getty Images

He made his Espanyol debut as an 89th-minute substitute in a 2-0 home win over Real Sociedad. Two months later, on only his third start, he found himself facing Lionel Messi's Barcelona in the Catalan derby at Camp Nou.

Espanyol took a 13th-minute lead, and with Bailly helping to muzzle Barca's stellar forward line of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, the score was 1-1 at the break. Barcelona's class told in the end, a hat-trick from Messi firing them to victory, but the performance of the strapping 20-year-old in Espanyol's No. 30 shirt was a revelation in Ivory Coast. Until then, Bailly had been a complete unknown in his homeland.

Despite having never been capped at junior level, Bailly was immediately drafted into Herve Renard's squad for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea, making his international debut in a pre-tournament friendly against Nigeria in Abu Dhabi.

Renard ignored concerns expressed by the local press over blooding such a young defender at a major tournament and installed Bailly at centre-back alongside the experienced Toure. The gamble paid off handsomely. The wily Toure proved an ideal foil for the wilful Bailly, who impressed both with his imposing physicality and his ability to carry the ball into midfield.

Bailly started every match as Renard's men made it to the final, where they beat Ghana on penalties to end a 23-year wait for the African crown. Bailly scored the seventh penalty in a nerve-jangling 9-8 shootout win, sending Brimah Razak the wrong way after a confident two-step run-up.

He had signed for Villarreal 10 days before the final. For all his rawness (and occasional rashness), he would need just a season-and-a-half at El Madrigal to convince Jose Mourinho to make him the first signing of his Manchester United tenure.

TOPSHOT - Manchester United's Ivorian defender Eric Bailly (R) confronts Liverpool's English striker Dominic Solanke (L) during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west Eng
OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

There is a feeling in Ivory Coast that with the national team, Bailly has not yet found a performance level commensurate with his status as a first-choice centre-back at one of the world's biggest clubs. He performed erratically in qualifying for this summer's World Cup as "les Elephants" lost out to Morocco in their two-way scrap for a ticket to Russia.

In the popularity stakes, at least, his status is secure. Where United's fans have warmed to Bailly's zany personality, exemplified by his mischievous goading Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in his homeland it is his humility that sets him apart.

Bailly has maintained close ties with his home community in Koumassi-Sicogi and plans to open his own youth academy near Abidjan. He is seen as someone who has eschewed some of the less savoury trappings of fame. He met his wife, Vanessa Troupah, when he was managing his phone box. The couple tied the knot in a low-key ceremony at a town hall in Abidjan's eastern suburbs shortly after Bailly had signed for United.

"People here respect values," says Dedeh, who has closely covered Bailly's international career. "He came from nothing and chose to marry the woman who he'd been with during his struggles. For an African, that's worth everything.

"He's very respectful of his elders. He's not a bighead. He's not the sort of player who, as soon as he gets big in Europe, finds new friends and surrounds himself with women.

"Basically, he's stayed African."

                       

All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated. 

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