There aren’t many footballers who are revered to the point that their club redesigns its emblem to include the player’s moniker, but in 1968, that’s exactly what happened to Mali’s Salif Keita when he played for the club that bears his name.
Just one year after joining Saint-Etienne, Keita – who passed away on Saturday at the age of 76 – was enjoying not only a French league and cup double but also seeing his moniker, the Black Panther, adorn the club’s new logo. Keita’s death came just one day after Saint-Etienne won the French league and cup double.
It was quite a reversal for a man who, as legend has it, had to take a cab from the Paris airport to Saint-Etienne despite the fact that he had no money because no one from the club was in the French capital to meet a 20-year-old arriving in Europe for the first time.
Keita rose to prominence from such humble beginnings, which matched his own childhood back home, and went on to become not just the first African Footballer of the Year in 1970, but also a pioneer for the continental talent that has since invaded Europe. Keita’s accomplishments are credited with influencing the talent that has since inundated Europe.
“When I talk about Salif, it’s very sad but I’m also very proud because he was an amazing guy,” Momo Sissoko, Keita’s nephew and a former midfielder for Liverpool and Juventus, said in an interview with BBC Sport Africa.
“It is a sad time for all of us, as we have lost one of the good guys – someone who accomplished a lot for Mali and for future generations throughout Africa. It is a tragedy for everyone, not just in Mali but throughout all of Africa, that he has passed away.
The passing of Africa’s first football hero has sparked a variety of tributes, with Didier Drogba referring to him as “one of the greatest legends of African football” Didier Drogba has been quoted as saying that the passing of Africa’s first football superstar has prompted a variety of tributes, despite the fact that he played in an era when television coverage was little in comparison to what it is today.
While this was going on, Saint-Etienne wrote in a respectful tone, “The Black Panther is gone, taking a piece of our club with him.”
It was a suitable homage for a forward who lit up French football with his superb skill and enormous brilliance. In light of his starring role for Les Verts, with whom he won eight trophies in five years, it was a fitting tribute for a forward who lit up French football.
Keita’s career began in his native city, where he shone so brightly for Real Bamako and Stade Malien that he grabbed the eye of a Saint-Etienne supporter in the country. This supporter said that Keita was “on a par with Best, Pele, and Maradona.”
Supporter of Les Verts Charles Dagher was working at the Lebanese embassy in Mali at the time, and from that position he frequently addressed letters to Saint-Etienne, pleading with them to not only give Keita a trial but also to keep any such scheme a secret.
Keita was effectively smuggled out of the country by being hidden in the trunk of a car. This is because Mali was unlikely to want to lose a man who had guided both of his clubs to the final of what is now known as the African Champions League.
He eventually arrived in Liberia, where he was robbed of all his belongings, with the exception of the extremely essential plane ticket that had been sent to him by Saint-Etienne.
When the young African finally arrived, the letter of introduction that had been given by the club convinced a local cab driver to believe him and carry him more than 500 kilometers to Saint-Etienne, where an official paid a charge that would amount to roughly $1,400 (£1,100) today.
It is arguable that this was the best money that has ever been spent by the club.
He played professionally for five years, during which time he won three league crowns, two French Cups, and his African award. During that time, he scored 140 goals in 185 games.
His fluid style of play, combined with the efficiency with which he scored goals, mesmerized an entire nation.
Philippe Auclair, a veteran journalist who has covered French football for many years, described him as the “greatest icon of his age in French football” during the late sixties and early seventies. Josip Skoblar and Roger Magnusson of Marseille were the other two players who shared this title at the time.
“He was the black man that every little white boy, including myself, aspired to be in the schoolyard. He was the incredible dribbler, the unbelievably exquisite winger who made and scored miracle goals. He was the guy that every little white boy wanted to be when they were younger.
“He was a player’s dream, and we shared that player’s dream with him.” Someone who was transported from another dimension where football could be poetry, in my opinion, he was on par with (George) Best, Pele, and (Diego) Maradona in terms of mystery. He was someone who was brought from another world.
“I am aware that this may seem exaggerated, but that is how it felt at the time, and it continues to feel that way now.”
Keita moved to Marseille in 1972 after getting into a dispute with the chairman of Saint-Etienne, Roger Rocher. His time in Marseille was short-lived, as the club tried to convince him to switch nationalities and play for France instead of Mali, the team with which he had competed in the previous year’s final of the Africa Cup of Nations. This resulted in a transfer to Valencia. Keita was a legend in the sport of football.
In response to his arrival, a local newspaper made the scandalous proclamation, “Valencia goes after Germans and comes back with a black man.” However, the first African player in the history of the Spanish club was able to put such sentiments to the side and become revered despite the club’s past.
“When I chatted with Valencia supporters, all of them said to me: ‘Your uncle was a fantastic player and an amazing person,'” said Sissoko, who played for the club early on in his career. “When I talked with Valencia fans, they all said to me: ‘Your uncle was an amazing player and an excellent person.
“He often talked about his time spent at Valencia, and he had a lot of memories from that period of his life.” “He had a very positive outlook on his time spent at Valencia.”
After another three-year stint with Sporting Lisbon, during which he won the Portuguese Cup, Keita finished down his career with Boston’s New England Tea Men before eventually retiring in 1980. Despite the accolades he received during his time there, Keita did not win any titles during his time there.
Pele, who had also finished his playing career in the North American Soccer League (NASL) two years previously, became a good buddy of his when he was living in the United States. During this time, he was in the United States.
“When two legends are together, they have a lot to talk about,” said Sissoko. “When two legends are together, they have a lot in common.” “He would talk to me about Pele, telling me that he was a decent guy and that the connection between them was easy due to the fact that they both hailed from poor households. They enjoyed a really harmonious connection with one another.”
Unforgettable figure in the history of Africa
Even though the exodus of African footballers to Europe didn’t really begin until the 1990s, which was a long time after he had retired, Keita is remembered as a trailblazing pioneer by many of the African footballers who followed him to Europe. He was a friend of superstars and an icon himself.
“When we talk about African football history, Keita’s name will stand out forever,” said Emmanuel Amuneke of Nigeria, who won the African championship for his country. Amuneke was speaking to BBC Sport Africa. “It’s very unfortunate that we’ve lost a legendary figure who served as an inspiration to the majority of us.”
Amuneke, like Keita, would play for Sporting Lisbon before moving on to Barcelona and scoring the goal that would earn them the Olympic gold in 1996. That same year, Fifa presented Keita with its highest honor, the Order of Merit. Amuneke would go on to score the goal that would win them the Olympic gold.
At that point, the Malian had already established a football academy, which was attended by his nephew, Seydou Keita, who would go on to play for Valencia before winning 14 trophies with Barcelona. Mahamadou Diarra, a former midfielder for Real Madrid, was also a product of this institution.
After a brief stint working for the government of Mali, Keita went on to lead his country’s football association for four years (2005-2009). However, he became most well-known on the world stage after the release of the film Le Ballon d’Or in 1994, which was only obliquely based on his life and in which he also appeared.
The movie depicts the narrative of a young child in West Africa whose footballing aspirations soar as a result of multiple fortunate meetings. One of these fortunate encounters is when his legs are sprinkled with magic, which of course might describe Keita’s legs. Other fortunate encounters include meeting a coach who inspires him to become a better player.
“For a guy from Mali who came from nothing to do what he did, and when he did it, in Europe was amazing,” continued Sissoko. “For a guy from Mali who came from nothing to do what he did, and when he did it.”
“His pioneering role makes me very proud because he was not only my relative but also a Mali who showed everyone that when you want something in life, you fight for this, and then you can be a superstar,” she said.