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01 Nov 2002 00:00
It is not easy asking a man who has lost 12 members of his family, including aunts and uncles, how he is coping, particularly when the same ferry disaster cost the lives of many of his friends and more than 1 000 compatriots.
Aliou Cisse answers with astonishing sangfroid. Only when the Birmingham City midfielder describes his trip back to Senegal, where three weeks ago he played in a friendly international against Nigeria to raise money for the families of the victims, does his voice betray emotion.
“It has been—it is difficult, right up until now when I am talking to you,” Cisse says.
“When you lose 12 people from your family it’s not easy.
“Life is like that. I am a believer and I think it was meant to happen like this. The week in Senegal before the Nigeria game was so hard, though. I couldn’t sleep. Maybe I have a character that allows me to deal with certain things but around me were tears. Around me was deep unhappiness.”
Cisse’s strength of character is a pulsing reality. After Le Joola sank off the west coast of Africa he kept quiet about his loss for almost a week, turning up to Birmingham’s training sessions with a smile on his face, to “protect the group from my state of mind”.
Says Cisse: “That week I kept it all to myself and we won [against West Ham] and I think that really made an impact on the fans.”
Those fans continue to maintain this level of respect for their new hero. For last weekend’s visit of Manchester City they displayed a giant Senegal flag and this week, when Bolton are visitors to St Andrews, there will be a collection for the victims’ families.
“What they are doing ... I don’t want to say anything about it other than thank you, thank you so much,” Cisse says.
“The people close to me have helped me a lot but Birmingham has, too. The players have helped a lot by staying close to me, by talking to me. [Manager] Steve Bruce and his assistants were really there for me, and what the supporters are doing and have done has moved me.”
It seems as if in the four short months after Cisse leapt to attention with a series of masterful displays while captaining his country at the World Cup, a surprisingly deep tissue of affection has been knitted between the former Paris St-Germain midfielder and his new club.
He has nothing but praise for the manager and the fans who chanted his name after 10 minutes of his debut against Arsenal. “It made my heart go warm, I got a crazy amount of pleasure out of it.”
But Cisse has not thoroughly succumbed to a blue-tinted view. “If we manage to save ourselves this year, I think that the years to come will be much happier ones for Birmingham.”
These last few weeks have been anything but happy, yet Cisse chose to return to play last week, even after Bruce had given him indefinite leave. His explanation is simple: “I didn’t want to be alone. When I get back home, I am really unhappy. I am not good because I am cut off from the rest of the world.
“It’s not easy. I said to myself I couldn’t stay there, alone. I had to be here, where I could run, train, meet people. I really had to get out of the house, and where could I go? The stadium was the obvious choice.”
Last weekend, when Cisse and his support act lost 0-2 to Manchester City in that stadium, he received an ovation that did, if only for an instant, warm his heart once more. - (c) Guardian Newspapers 2002
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