EXCLUSIVE: All my life I have had to prove people wrong, says Toon hero Demba Ba
23:00 GMT, 2 November 2012
It reads like a Who isn’t Who of European football: Montgaillard, Le Havre, Frileuse, Mountrouge, Olympique Lyonnais, Auxerre, Foligno, Watford (twice), Barnsley, Amiens, Rouen, Mouscron. Even Stoke City.
All clubs who could have signed Demba Ba and cashed in on the full potential of one of the most explosive strikers to play in the Barclays Premier League.
Ba is hot property right now. He is Newcastle United’s top scorer again, following the 16 goals he scored last season with six more in this campaign. Saturday’s opponents Liverpool are among the clubs who may be tempted to spend 7.5million to trigger the clause in the contract Ba signed last summer when he left West Ham.
Trigger man: Demba Ba is one of the league's most explosive strikers
No wonder manager Alan Pardew and Newcastle are desperate to renegotiate his deal. Ba, 27, is an essential part of a team which could reach the knockout phase of the Europa League in Bruges next week.
It’s a very different European adventure for the Paris-born Senegalese who kicked a ball around with his pals every day until he joined a sports and studies school for his secondary education. He was a defensive midfielder when he started his desperate journey to win a contract somewhere, anywhere.
‘I was like Patrick Vieira,’ he says when asked for a comparison. ‘I was technically good, natural, big and strong, but I didn’t like a tackle. I have never really liked defending, chasing people. Tackling like Cheick (Tiote), for example. I couldn’t do that. I was 18 when I became a striker — it was late, not even 10 years ago when my agent and my best friend convinced me. I’ve learned fast.’
He trained with the pros at Watford and was on the brink of signing when manager Ray Lewington was sacked. It was such a blur that Ba gets Watford mixed up with Barnsley, where he also had a fruitless week.
‘We started training and then they sacked the manager the next day so then no training for two days and we just went back to the hotel and waited.
‘We met the manager one day, shook hands with him and the next day he was gone. Wow. Welcome to Barnsley. Welcome to professional football.
‘I just loved kicking a ball but I was determined to be a footballer and I wanted a professional contract, I would go to any professional club to get one. From 15, all I wanted was to be a footballer.
‘I had no clue who Barnsley or Watford were. All I knew was they were professional clubs and I said to myself, “If you make it you will have a professional contract”. It did not matter where it was, from there I could start proving what I can do. I just had to be patient.
Near the top: Ba, after being rejected by numerous teams, has proved them all wrong
On the ball: Ba got injured at Bologna
‘And I have done everything. I went to France, Italy, Belgium. I had a trial with a team in the fourth league near Bologna. They wanted to sign me and I did well there but I got an injury and I couldn’t train for weeks so I had to go home. Maybe it was a good thing. I had proved I could play.’
Life changed in Rouen. Although he was to break his shin, he did enough to alert scouts from Mouscron in Belgium, who signed him, and eventually sold him to Hoffenheim for 2.5m. And then he really took off.
Speaking at the Gateshead International Stadium, where he had done three interviews and a photo shoot for adidas, pausing only for time to pray, Ba was amused by the change in his circumstances. He likes events like this, he says, ‘once in a while’.
‘When I went to Rouen I got a little contract, earning less than 1,000 a month. I was living in a flat that is smaller than this,’ he points at a typical sports hall changing room and laughs. ‘Wow. You know I was so happy because I was playing football, and my team-mates at Rouen were absolutely brilliant, some good dudes.
‘It went well for three weeks, then I broke my shin and I was out for seven months. But I came back stronger, had a good two months and I scored seven in seven games, and then after that, Belgium. Rouen was the start of the happiness but there was no real sadness then.
Good times: Ba enjoyed life with Rouen
‘Unfortunately today in football there are times when it all goes wrong. You guys are on us all the time — people, press, media, agents, money, everything comes to a head and you just want to stop playing football.
‘And then you remember why you started and you keep on going. It has not been as dark as that for me but sometimes I do ask, “Why all this work, all these sacrifices”’
Trouble: Ba's life was endangered when Senegalese fans rioted
If Ba is willing to express such deep concerns about his profession after all his efforts and personal sacrifices, it is no wonder. Amid all the recent controversies, it has almost been overlooked that the Newcastle striker, along with team-mates Papiss Cisse and Cheick Tiote, were among the Senegal and Ivory Coast players being protected by army and police on the pitch when their Africa Cup of Nations play-off was halted by fans last month.
Days later Ba was the subject of alleged racist abuse during a typically poisonous Wear-Tyne derby at Sunderland. Ba’s late own goal settled the game and he was cruelly mocked by Sunderland fans as he made his way to the team bus afterwards. But after what he had been through in Africa, he was unmoved by the abuse.
‘The military were there, police, state police,’ he said of the riot in Dakar that led to Senegal being disqualified. ‘And this is not the police in Europe. If you go into the lion’s den in Africa you get some serious trouble.
‘When you see police trucks coming on the
pitch and all the players in the middle of the park waiting for half an
hour before we can go to the changing room and you need an escort, it
is a bit different to Sunderland v Newcastle, believe me.
‘It is a football match. But people have
nothing other than football and they put all their happiness in the
sport until it gets to a point where they get disappointed. And because
they have nothing else in their life that can bring them happiness, they
‘It is difficult to understand. When you haven’t been to Africa you don’t know how it is. I can understand how it can affect some African players when they go home.
Not like this: The derby against Sunderland paled in comparison with the African Cup game
‘Was I scared No, not at all. Because we
are Senegalese and they are Senegalese and they won’t hurt us. Senegal
as a nation is very good and unfortunately we saw a very bad image of
them for one week but they are very good people.
‘Football can bring out the best and
worst in people. The bad side saddens me and I was more upset about the
image of the country than anything. It is just a sport and should bring
happiness, not sadness or disappointment. But unfortunately football is
so important in the life of certain people that it becomes their reason
Of course there have been successes along the way for Ba, too. After helping Hoffenheim to get into the Bundesliga, he played 97 games for them in nearly four years and scored 37 league goals.
He has fond memories of Germany. ‘It was absolutely magnificent,’ he said. ‘Germany is one of the best countries in the world to live, the football is brilliant, all the stadiums are full every week, and the football is good. But from the beginning, for me, the target was always the Premier League. As soon as I was interested in football, that was the target. Germany has money and full stadiums, they have everything but Premier League is Premier League.’
Hammer time: Ba played well for West Ham during his time there
Stoke City offered the first escape
route after a bust-up with Hoffenheim’s owners over his desire to move
to England, but a 7m move collapsed after he failed a medical. How he
must have savoured his hat-trick for Newcastle at the Britannia last
can’t stop people talking,’ he said. ‘The only thing I can do is play
every week and prove people wrong but I am not playing football to prove
‘Even if I play 70 games this season
and score 50 goals, people will still talk about it. I am at the point
where it doesn’t matter what they think.’
West Ham stepped in to sign him, and though he scored seven goals in 12 games, they were still relegated.
‘I still do not know how that happened,’ he said. ‘When I came we were bottom, got up to 16th and then started losing. I don’t know how. I didn’t want to leave West Ham but the desire to play in the Premier League was probably higher. After five months in the Premier League and getting the taste for something, you just want to keep it going, so I had to leave.’
No bond: Papiss Cisse (left) and Ba are not best friends despite their shared nationality
The adventure has continued at Newcastle, although it has not all been plain sailing.
After the arrival of his Senegal team-mate Papiss Demba Cisse, who was given the coveted No 9 shirt, Ba only scored one goal, and that was in Cisse’s debut. They may share a name and frontline responsibilities, but not the goals or a close bond.
Ba added: ‘You have ups and downs, that is football. But I am happy at Newcastle and I am with a group of players who are very nice and it is good.
‘There is a good core of people. Our captain is very good as a man and player and we have the Newcastle legend Shola Ameobi. He is our big brother.’