"We know that a man is not made alone."
It was March 2015, and Kalidou Koulibaly was speaking after being made a "citizen of honour" of Saint-Die-des-Vosges, the town of 20,000 people in northeastern France where he grew up and which he still thinks of as home.
Wearing a denim shirt, ripped jeans and a black hoodie, he spoke thoughtfully about the journey that had taken him from the concrete tower blocks of the Kellermann estate in Saint-Die-des-Vosges to the iconic stadiums of Serie A. His parents and brothers looked on approvingly, along with his girlfriend, friends, former team-mates and local dignitaries who had gathered inside Saint-Die's town hall for the ceremony.
"It's also thanks to the people, the education that I had thanks to my parents, all my big brothers from the neighbourhood and all the people who helped me to be more mature and to become the person I am today," Koulibaly continued. "It takes time and experience to make a person. No matter where you come from, everything comes through work. If you work, you always get your reward in the end."
Back then, Koulibaly was 23 years old and only eight months into his Napoli career, having arrived at Stadio San Paolo from Belgian side Genk the previous July. He was still uncapped and would not make his international debut for Senegal for another six months. (In his own speech, Saint-Die's mayor, David Valence, expressed a vain hope that Koulibaly might one day turn out for France, the country he represented at under-20 level.)
Four years on, Koulibaly is recognised as one of the outstanding defenders in world football, a 6'5" man mountain who eats opposition centre-forwards for breakfast and who has been named in Serie A's team of the year for the last three seasons running.
But when he hit the headlines at the end of December, it had nothing to do with his talent as a footballer and everything to do with the colour of his skin. After being subjected to monkey chants by opposition supporters throughout Napoli's Serie A game at Inter Milan, Koulibaly lost his cool and was sent off after sarcastically applauding the referee's decision to book him for tugging back Matteo Politano.
Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti said the match should have been suspended and vowed that the next time one of his players was the target of racist abuse, he would take his team off the pitch. Koulibaly received messages of support from several high-profile figures in world football—among them Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Napoli legend Diego Maradona. Napoli fans also held up pictures of his face during the team's next game against Bologna, just as they had done after a previous incident of racism against him in February 2016.
At an appeal hearing against his suspension, Koulibaly spoke of the shame he felt when he told his parents what had happened. His appeal was dismissed by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), which Napoli described as "a wasted opportunity" and a "sad defeat" for football. Inter were ordered to play two games behind closed doors as a punishment.
Without having ever asked for it, Koulibaly has become a figurehead for modern football's fight against racism. Through it all, he has carried himself with a quiet dignity that those from his hometown of Saint-Die recognise well.
Koulibaly's parents moved to Saint-Die from the Fouta region of Senegal and he grew up amid a jumble of different nationalities in the town’s multicultural Kellermann district, where his family still lives. He started playing football for local team SRD Saint-Die and was nicknamed "Desailly" by his team-mates for his imposing on-pitch demeanour. He says he returns "as often as possible," making the most of the freedom to stroll around that he no longer enjoys in Naples.
"I'm free here," he told local newspaper Vosges Matin in 2015. "I go out, I walk around, I meet people, quite normally. In Naples, each time I go out people want to take my photo or ask for autographs. It's more difficult to have a private life."
Shortly after joining Napoli, Koulibaly decided to invest in another club from his hometown, ASC Kellermann, helping to provide kit, balls and training equipment for its various age-group teams. Two years ago, the club set up an after-school education programme for its under-11s.
"The parents are very grateful," Mohamadou N'Diaye, ASC Kellermann president and a childhood friend of Koulibaly, tells Bleacher Report.
"It's a football club, but there's also a social aspect. We're in a slightly 'difficult' neighbourhood. There's lots of unemployment and it's difficult for some of the parents. So to have someone looking after their kids, fetching them from school, bringing them to the club and feeding them, the parents are very grateful to the club, to the educators and indirectly to Kalidou for that."
N'Diaye, who played alongside Koulibaly at SRD Saint-Die, says the Napoli man was "really shy" when he was younger, but is "less serious with his mates these days."
"He's a really likeable guy, and modest too," N'Diaye says. "People don't even realise he's a professional footballer. He's very simple as a person."
Koulibaly has unsurprisingly become a hero to local children, but while they have taken delight in seeing him score goals for Napoli or star for Senegal at the FIFA World Cup, recent news headlines have brought only dismay.
"For us, in 2019, trying to explain to the kids from the club why Kalidou is on all the TV channels..." N'Diaye says, his voice trailing off. "You just say that it's people who are trying to unsettle him. How can you explain it to kids?"
Koulibaly began his professional career at Metz, a club from northeastern France with strong ties to Senegal, and it was while playing for Metz in Ligue 2 that he was spotted by scouts from Genk. Following Metz's relegation to France's third tier at the end of the 2011-12 season, Koulibaly joined Genk. Gunter Jacob, who was the Belgian club's sporting director at the time, still struggles to believe his luck.
"The biggest surprise for me at that point was that we, as a Belgian team, were able to get that player to come from France to Belgium," he says. "That to me is still one of the mysteries in the game."
Jacob says Koulibaly was a consistently excellent performer in his two seasons at Genk, where he won the Belgian Cup in 2013, describing him as "always a nine out of 10." He also has fond memories of Koulibaly as a person.
"He's one of the most correct and nicest guys I know in football," Jacob says. "I don't remember him having any kind of problem or quarrel with any player in games. From what I hear, it's the same at Napoli. He's a perfect son-in-law."
For N'Diaye, the sight of Koulibaly uncharacteristically goading the referee during the Inter game was a sign that he had had enough. "He has a tough shell, but Inter Milan was the straw that broke the camel's back," he says.
Piara Powar, the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), holds a similar view.
"Like a lot of people in his situation, he carries himself in a very dignified way," Powar tells Bleacher Report. "He generally doesn't react in a way that is aggressive or show his displeasure on the pitch. I think the game against Inter was in some way a breaking point for him. He just decided that he didn't want any more."
Powar believes there are multiple reasons why Koulibaly has been targeted by racists. One significant factor, he says, is the current political climate in Italy, where politicians have fanned the flames of anti-immigration sentiment and attacks on immigrants have been on the rise.
"You can't see the situation in Italy without removing it from its current political situation, with right-wing populists running the government," Powar explains. "Every week, if not every day, you have a statement about immigration coming from the government which is always negative and always poses immigrants as problematic."
In a video interview published on Napoli’s Facebook page this week, Koulibaly said that although he had never intended to become a leader in the fight against racism, it is a role he is happy to take on.
"In a way, it’s a shame to be an icon in this issue, but it’s also a good thing," he said. "It's something I believe in and I can now show that to everyone."
He will return to the scene of what happened against Inter on Saturday when Napoli face AC Milan at the San Siro, having sat out his side's last two league games while he served his suspension. Milan's coach, Gennaro Gattuso, has spoken out in support of the 27-year-old, while Milanese mayor Beppe Sala has apologised to him on behalf of the city.
Koulibaly will only have his 10 team-mates for company when he climbs the steps to the pitch and walks out into the glare of the floodlights. But his supporters are too numerous to be counted.