Salomon Kalou proving footballers can make positive social impact
BERLIN -- It was hardly a surprise that in the aftermath of Hertha Berlin's recent show of solidarity with the ongoing NFL protests, Salomon Kalou was the most prominent voice explaining why he and his teammates took a knee.
The Ivory Coast forward -- who came out of international retirement to aid his nation's 2018 World Cup qualification bid -- leads by example. He believes that a footballer has more duties than just to entertain for 90 minutes on the pitch. The 32-year-old is passing on hope to a new generation -- one that is in need of encouragement.
On an autumn Friday afternoon in October, a small boy, far from home, stands behind the barriers of Hertha Berlin's training pitch watching the players. The club have just returned from a bitter Europa League trip to Ukraine, a 2-1 defeat at Zorya Luhansk where their hopes of reaching the knockout stages were shattered.
The boy has been here before, back in May, and has dreamed of returning ever since.
On the pitch, the players complete lap after lap. The boy stands and follows them; some he knows, and some he has seen on TV. He does not have a lot of time for TV. He only sometimes watches football. His schedule is packed. He trains four, sometimes five times a week. He attends school. He learns a new language, a new culture.
When the players leave the training pitch, Kalou passes the boy and greets him. The boy smiles. His name is Balla Keita. And next to Lionel Messi, the Ivorian is his role-model as he is looking for his place in the Viktoria Berlin U19 side, playing in the regional second tier of the German youth system.
Keita is from the Ivory Coast, too. But he did not come to Europe the easy way, he arrived in the German capital as unaccompanied minor in mid-2016, and the beautiful game has been his anchor as he settled in a new land.
Keita first played for Reinickendorfer Fuchse, a local team from Berlin's north, and with the help of Jakob Kohlmeyer, one of many people in Germany embracing those arriving in Europe, and his "Champions Ohne Grenzen" ("Champions Without Borders") training program, he moved on to Viktoria, who were German champions a few times, over 100 years ago. Currently recovering from an injury, Keita tells ESPN FC he is fighting for his dream "of becoming a professional footballer one day."
The boy smiles, he has just met Kalou for the second time. In May, the Ivorian handed his compatriot his football boots, and today, after a handshake and chat, he receives the Hertha forward's match jersey from the previous night.
"This gives me a lot of motivation to pursue my dream. Especially, since it's a person I really love," Keita says.
Sitting in Hertha Berlin's club offices minutes earlier, Kalou speaks of the importance of passing on hope, of the social responsibilities he believes footballers have.
"For a kid from Africa, hope can make you achieve your dream," Kalou tells ESPN FC. "For me it is important to keep hope alive. To give hope to those kids and tell them about my experiences. You need to be positive and give a lot of your time to other people. Make the difference in other people's life.
"When you do good in life, it will come back to you. Every time I speak to any young player, I tell them to be positive and wait for the moment. We all get our moment, and then, when your moment arrives, you need to capitalise on it."
Kalou's moment came some 14 years ago, when he arrived in Europe, joining Feyenoord from Abidjan-based ASEC Mimosas. His situation was not like that of Keita, but with two brothers and eight sisters back home there was still a lot of responsibility rested on the shoulders of the young Kalou.
"I didn't have a plan B," Kalou says. "My plan A was a must. I knew that I had no other alternative than working hard and make my dream come true. Many African, many Ivorian players wish to have that opportunity to succeed. Once I got it, on my mind there was no plan B, just go forward and succeed."
"Every African player can tell you that as a young player you become someone that not only your family depends on, but your friends and the whole neighbourhood. It can be positive and it can be negative. You don't want to play with a lot of stress and enjoy the game. But for me, it wasn't just a game. It was something I had to do to take care of my family, I had to help my friends as well. That was a double challenge."
The forward succeeded. After three years in the Dutch league, he was receiving offers from Spain when suddenly Jose Mourinho entered the scene, and changed the Ivorian's life.
"I wasn't a huge fan of Chelsea," Kalou says. "I was in Holland. I was thinking about going to Spain, I had a couple of offers from there. I wasn't dreaming of playing in the Premier League or at Chelsea. But once I got to talk to Jose Mourinho, that changed all my thinking. He knew everything about me. I was very humbled by that. Such a big manager knowing everything about me."
Looking back puts a smile on Kalou's face, and he is back in 2006, talking to Mourinho.
"I still remember our first conversation like it was today," he says. "He said to me: 'I think the best way to last in the football world, if you want to have a career is to play very simple. And that's the only way you're going to have a long career. Because sometimes the tricks you do are not necessary.' And I think I learnt from this."
In six years, Kalou scored 60 goals for the Blues, won the Premier League, four FA Cups and the Champions League in what would be his last match for Chelsea.
"At the beginning of the season, I was always the super sub and every coach that I had, I was the one who came on for 30 minutes," he says. "Somehow, I always ended up a regular player on the team."
After Champions League glory was achieved in Munich in 2012, he felt his task at Stamford Bridge was completed.
"Super sub at Chelsea," he says. "That's why I say for me it was the right moment to go because I've won everything and I enjoy playing every game."
And so he left. First for Lille, and then two years later to Hertha Berlin, a Bundesliga side striving for recognition, for a touch of glamour. The Ivorian has now been in the German capital for over three years, and has two years left on his contract.
Kalou still scores goals, and remains a regular player; still dreams of winning trophies and wants to play in that one team that finally brings a trophy to the German capital again.
"People will only remember the team who wins. If I win, I will be in the history of the club," he says. "Throughout my journey through Europe, I grew up, I became more of a man. Living in different cultures, learning about them, living in different countries that helped me to become a better man today."
While football remains his top priority, Kalou has shown that life is bigger, even bigger than the beautiful game. Back home on the Ivory Coast, he has started the Kalou Foundation, passing on hope to people.
"We are building centres for kidney dialysis. Most of the people don't know about this on Ivory Coast. And we try to raise the awareness for it either to avoid it or treat it. There is lot of death every day. We can help a lot of people to be healthy and be disease free. It's a difficult fight, but if you don't try, you will never achieve anything.
"I have the duty to share hope with the people back home."
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.