Leipzig’s Amadou Haidara: ‘I loved Yaya Touré and Steven Gerrard’

Leipzig’s Amadou Haidara: ‘I loved Yaya Touré and Steven Gerrard’

Amadou Haidara smiles when he remembers the good old days. The RB Leipzig midfielder thinks back to playing football on the streets of Bamako, the friends he made while rising through the ranks at the illustrious JMG academy and leaving Mali to pursue his dream of making it as a professional. “I was 18,” Haidara says. “It was hard to leave my family. But it was important to work hard. You have to make sacrifices to reach your goals.”

The Mali international did not want anything to get in his way. As a boy Haidara was so desperate to help his teammates that he tried to play on with a knee injury during an important youth match. “I felt the pain,” he says. “But it wasn’t right to let my team play without me. I kept playing and my knees started to swell up, so the coach eventually took me off. I was crying because I couldn’t help my teammates. It was so hard to watch them from the side.”

Overcoming those obstacles must have felt worth it when Leipzig, whose hopes of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League rest on whether they can avoid defeat away to Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday evening, earned a shock 3-2 win over Real Madrid last week. “It’s a big thing to beat Real,” Haidara says, although he is not getting ahead of himself. “We still have one more match. We have to keep working.”

Such clarity is typical of Haidara, who had been at Leipzig for a year when they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2020. The 24-year-old thought carefully about his career path when he was a youngster. A lot of European clubs were interested after he played a key role in Mali’s run to the final of the Under-17 World Cup in 2015 but RB Salzburg made the most compelling offer.

“Before I signed for Salzburg I stayed there for a week,” Haidara says. “I saw the club was different. I saw they formed not just the player but the personality. I had a good friend in the academy there already, Diadie Samassékou. I knew it was a club who would give me a chance to play and grow.”

It was within Salzburg’s academy that Haidara first came across Marco Rose, Leipzig’s manager. Rose led the Austrian side’s youngsters to the Uefa Youth League title in 2017 and later became first-team manager. “Marco and me have done a lot together,” Haidara says. “Marco is a manager who makes young players grow. He takes the time to talk and listen to them.”

Leipzig turned to Rose after sacking Domenico Tedesco hours after the Bundesliga team opened their Champions League campaign with a 4-1 defeat at home to Shakhtar.

“It was a difficult start but we knew we could do better,” Haidara says. “The new coach came in and he talked a lot with us. He showed us a lot of videos and what we would need if we were going to have a chance of staying in the Champions League.

“He gives us trust to play. If we have the ball we can be creative. Tactically he gives us good tips. He gives us a lot to do when we lose the ball. We like to press. He also just makes us believe in ourself. He backs us to beat big teams.”

Haidara, who describes himself as a box-to-box midfielder, has always had belief. The JMG academy was created by the former France international Jean-Marc Guillou and has several bases in Africa. The former Barcelona, Manchester City and Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Touré is a notable graduate, and being offered a place was a crucial moment in Haidara’s development.

“We were kids but they taught us how to be grownups, how to become disciplined and how to become a player,” he says. “It was a good time. I still talk to my old teammates about the time we spent together. It made me stronger.”

Haidara’s former teammates include Crystal Palace’s Cheick Doucouré, Tottenham’s Yves Bissouma and Monaco’s Mohamed Camara. The competition was fierce and Haidara had to work hard. He wanted to repay his parents’ faith.

“At the start it was hard for my parents because I was very young,” Haidara says. “They thought about school and what it would be like if I didn’t become a professional. The academy said I would be able to focus on my education but at the same time I would be able to have a good level of training every day.

“My parents were always supportive. For them it was important that I stayed in school because you never know what can happen in football. But they were always there for me. They just wanted me to know right from wrong and that I became a good person.”

Haidara has not lost touch with his roots and has been involved in the construction of a health centre in Kéla, south of Bamako. “It is in a little town nearby,” he says. “They don’t have access to hospitals there so if something bad happens in this town you never know how it could turn out. The centre is still in construction so hopefully it will be built soon.”

Haidara’s foundation has also helped to set up summer football camps for children in Bamako. One event was attended by players in Mali. “It was a very special moment to see the children smiling when they were playing and to know I could organise something like this – to give them the gift of football,” Haidara says. “The camp in Bamako did very well and Orange became a partner and took a few children to play in a tournament in Morocco. We got to the final. We lost in the end but we were there.

“Just to see the children smiling and dreaming and knowing I could help them was special. I know how cruel and difficult life can be in Mali. It’s not easy to live there but now I am a professional I can make these children smile.”

Perhaps the next Haidara will emerge in those camps. The man himself knows what it means to have heroes. “I loved Yaya Touré,” he says. “He could do everything with and without the ball. I also loved Steven Gerrard. Everything he did was amazing. I love to watch his videos and try to take things from his game. There also players now. Marco Verratti is amazing with the ball. Casemiro is great. But I need to look at myself and be the player I am.”

Haidara was linked with a move to the Premier League in the summer, but he has ignored the noise. “I have a few good friends playing there,” he says. “But I am at Leipzig and I’m working hard to continue my development. The matches in the Premier League are very intense. It’s always a good game, no matter which club plays. We’ll see what happens. But I’m happy at Leipzig.”