Serey Die: Unsung hero of Ivory Coast's post-Golden Generation
CAIRO, Egypt -- It was June 19, 2014, when Geoffroy Serey Die truly introduced himself to a broader footballing audience, although he didn't make his mark due to his on-field qualities.
The event was Ivory Coast's second World Cup Group C match against Colombia, and Serey Die claimed the headlines when the Elephants lined up to sing their national anthem L'Abidjanaise -- a canticle to fraternity -- in Brasilia.
Serey Die was completely overcome with emotion -- sobbing, then weeping -- as he and his teammates sang of pride, of liberty, of setting an example to those back home, and of dignity.
At times, he was barely able to get the words out as he fought back the tears, but it was clear that he felt, he lived, every single syllable.
The midfielder later explained that his response to the anthem was a result of the testing path he'd taken to reach this stage with the national side, and the hardships he'd overcome.
"My life has always been difficult," he said, frankly, honestly, after the match. "I thought about my father, who died in 2004, and my tough life.
"I didn't think that one day I would be here, playing. This emotion overwhelmed me and I am a very emotional person.
"I fought [the tears] but I couldn't."
Kolo Toure also attempted to explain his teammate's visceral response to the patriotic national hymn, and also alluded to a quality that makes Serey Die -- still, five years later -- such a compelling character within African football.
"He really loves his country," Toure said.
"We don't see that in football."
To casual observers of the continent's game, that was Serey Die's contribution: He was the guy who wore his heart on his sleeve on the grandest stage of all, and made international news as a result.
However, his was a story that endured beyond the tears -- and the Elephants' eventual first-round exit in Brazil -- as he subsequently blossomed into one of the elder statesman of this Ivorian side.
Serey Die was something of a peripheral figure during the heyday of the national side's "Golden Generation" -- the moniker applied to the remarkable squad of players headlined by Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and others who took the West Africans to three consecutive World Cups and transformed them into a true continental giant,
He made his debut only in 2013, aged 28, and had just seven caps to his name before the 2014 World Cup.
His career to that point had been mottled by controversy, with 'emotion' -- that ephemeral quality that would later make the player such a cult hero -- cited as a key factor for his troubles.
He was banned for eight games after slapping a 13-year-old ballboy in the face while playing for Swiss club FC Sion, and for four months after walking out on ES Setif in Algeria; he was also accused of match-fixing in Switzerland, but the Swiss prosecutor informed a fortnight later that it would not press charges due to a lack of evidence.
However, from such ominous origins -- he once received five red cards during a 14-month spell -- has blossomed the emotional centrepiece of this current Ivorian side, among the primary contenders for the Africa Cup of Nations title in Egypt.
As he was once one of the less heralded, less glamorous, less celebrated elements of the Golden Generation, so too, today, he stands in the shadow of the squad's superstars.
Bony was once Africa's most expensive player, Jean Michael Seri was once on the brink of moving to Barcelona, both Wilfried Zaha and Jean-Philippe Gbamin are reportedly being eyed by Arsenal, and Serge Aurier was a UEFA Champions League finalist with Tottenham Hotspur.
Yet Serey Die, who continues to command a starting berth alongside AC Milan's Franck Kessie in midfield, is coming off the back of a season on loan with Neuchatel Xamax, after being deemed surplus to requirements by parent club FC Basel.
The 34-year-old capped that loan spell by scoring the winning penalty in the Swiss Super League relegation playoff as Xamax beat the drop, having come back from 4-0 down against Aarau in the first leg to draw 4-0 away -- Die scored the opener -- to take the double-header to a shootout.
Even when no one is looking, this man was made for heroics!
Yet despite not being feted at club level, he remains a lynchpin of the national side -- one of the seven veterans of the Afcon-winning campaign of 2015 -- and will be a key figure if Ibrahim Kamara's side are to win a third continental crown.
Against Namibia, in Ivory Coast's final group game, Serey Die delivered one of his finest performances in an Elephants shirt. His thunderous 58th-minute goal from 40 yards stole much of the attention, much as this was an indefatigable display that demonstrated why his legacy must extend beyond the peripheral antics that have threatened to define him.
With 62 touches and 44 completed passes, no one saw more of the ball than Die; he was an effective destructive presence in the middle of the park, too, weighing in with four tackles and two interceptions. No Ivorian completed more than his three dribbles, and Die's effective long balls also were a key weapon for the Elephants all game.
He ought to have had an assist as well when he looked up and picked out Zaha down the left channel with a delicious weighted pass, which once again highlighted an in-game intelligence that can be neglected by detractors, .but the Crystal Palace man spurned the opportunity.
Critically, particularly as the Ivorians progress to the challenges to come, Die is a player who can prompt more from, and generate an improvement in, his stuttering teammates.
"When he plays, he gives 100%," Zaha told ESPN.
"And when you've got someone giving 100% like that, it forces you to give the same as that as well.
"He adds a lot to the team, you can trust in him, you want to work hard for him, so I'm happy I'm by his side on the pitch."
Bony also outlined the midfielder's value after the 4-1 triumph over Namibia.
"Geoffroy was enormous," Bony told ESPN. "I tip my hat to him. It was a massive work of generosity in the midfield from him. He has the lungs of a dog, as you could say, but that's his work."
Die, ever humble, ever modest, ever considering the collective above the individual, played down his own role despite being handed the captain's armband in the absence of the injured Aurier.
"I didn't play like that because I wore the armband," Die told ESPN.
"Even when Aurier is playing, I do what I can.
"Serge is the captain, but I'm the team's big brother, who gives advice from time to time. It's not because of a piece of fabric that anything changes."
When the Ivorians take to the field for their quarterfinal clash against Algeria, and sing again of the 'true brotherhood' that unites them, perhaps finally, the 'big brother' among them will get the recognition his sporting qualities, and character, deserve.