Barcelona's Ballou Tabla torn between choosing Canada, Ivory Coast
BARCELONA -- Ballou Tabla is providing inspiration for young Canadian footballers, but the Barcelona teenager told ESPN FC he has not yet decided which country to represent at the senior international level.
Ballou, who turns 19 this week and joined Barca's B team from the Montreal Impact in January, has played for Canada at the under-17 and U20 levels but is also eligible to play for Ivory Coast, the country of his birth.
He said he was in no rush to make a decision but may seek advice from former Chelsea and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, whom he described as a "big brother" after they struck up a friendship in Montreal.
"It's difficult because Didier's so big for my country," Ballou said when asked whether he would follow in Drogba's footsteps with Ivory Coast or opt to represent Canada, where he moved as an eight-year-old.
"All my family and all my friends support him. He's like the president of Ivory Coast, you know.
"It's a big decision for me. I am proud when I hear about him, when people talk about him, because when people talk about him they talk about Ivory Coast.
"But now I just want to have fun, play and, when the moment comes to take the decision, it will come. But Didier tells me to not stress about it, just to focus on playing.
"I don't think he was that young when he started playing with the national team -- he was maybe 24, 25 -- so you just have to focus on your club, enjoy the experience and the time with the national team will come. There's no rush."
Drogba has played a major part in Ballou's career, alerting Barca to his potential last year.
"I can't say for sure [what his role was], but he was inside the deal," the teenager said. "He was a big part of me coming to Barcelona. I am very thankful for that.
"Every week we talk, he calls me, I call him. I tell him how it's going here, he gives me some advice. He's a big brother for me. He's busy but he watches my games when he can, he checks in and he tells me what he saw and what I can do better.
"It's very big to have him by my side. He did a lot in his career -- he's a legend. If I want to be like him, I have to listen to what he says and take all the advice he gives me."
This week Ballou is playing the Drogba role, offering advice to more than 100 youngsters from Canada who are among the 1,900 participants in the FCBEscola tournament. The competition features teams from Barcelona's soccer schools across 22 different countries.
Ballou, who has played six times for Barcelona B since leaving Major League Soccer, spent time at the training ground on Monday, meeting the players from Barca's school in Montreal.
"I told them that if I can come here then they can come here too," he said. "You just have to work hard and believe. Don't think because you're in Montreal, you're not in Europe and you can't come to Europe. Just believe. Work hard every day. Every time you're on the field, work hard.
"For sure there is the talent in the U.S. and Canada. You just have to have the mentality of looking forward, think bigger. Don't think because you're in Montreal you can't go to the next level. In Canada, we have a lot of talent."
Xavi Perez, the director of Barca's soccer school in Montreal, said Ballou's move was big news in the Canadian city.
"It's a super big thing for Montreal," he told ESPN FC. "In the soccer community, it has been such a big move. If you don't go to [play for] the Impact, your future can be complicated.
"I would say 95 percent of players quit in Montreal. So to see that one guy, at 18, can arrive in Europe, it's a big thing.
"He's going to become a reference: 'If he did it, we can make it.' We met him with the players and it was very beautiful. For two weeks, everyone in Montreal was talking about him.
"It starts to change things. For the real fans, he has become a role model. I would say even more -- he's like the hope. Players in Canada think they're not ready, but this kid shows that they can be ready."
Ballou, meanwhile, is pinching himself as he gets the chance to meet and train with players he considered as role models.
"I was not nervous," he remembers of training with the Barca first team for the first time last month. "I was more curious: How do they look, how do they act, how do they play, how do they behave when they all go to the dressing room.
"Six months ago I was playing FIFA with them, and then I have them there in front of me. It was crazy.
"The only thing I really remember is that I saw [Lionel] Messi. And he looked great. He didn't train in the end, but when you look at him you know. You know that he did a lot for the club. I haven't even spoken to him yet, but I hope to soon."
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.