Mamadou Sakho: From humble beginnings to ‘giving back’

Posted at 4:11 AM, Oct 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-15 10:07:37-04

His is a life that young, football mad kids dream of. A Premier League footballer, who also plays for his country, living in a beautiful house in one of London’s most desirable suburbs.

The house’s style is minimalist and of exquisite taste. Relaxed and frequently smiling, French international Mamadou Sakho sits on a sofa in an immaculate white T-shirt.

If he smiles a lot Sakho is also extremely thoughtful. He talks of his desire “to study” in the future — “football is a closed world and I like to open my mind,” he tells CNN Sport — and he is keen to discuss his charity projects, one that will involve working with South London barber Nikky Okyere.

When he talks to his wife Majda and two young daughters, Sakho slips into French. Upstairs the couple’s newborn baby is asleep. His eldest children gleefully stand behind the cameras and seem slightly awed by the hustle and bustle of of the photo shoot. To them he’s just papa.

Life wasn’t always like this for Sakho.

“I had quite a difficult life when I was young, but those hard moments helped me to grow up and be the man who I am today,” said Sakho as he reflected on his journey from Paris to the Premier League.

“Nobody can tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to not have food in the fridge, or nobody can tell me what cold is outside, to sleep outside or to ask for some coins, or to rob just to eat some food, because it was my life when I was young. It was my real life.”

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He was raised in the Parisian district of Goutte d’Or, which is close to Montmartre. These days it’s been described as a “creative hub,” but by the sound of it life was a bit tougher for Sakho.

He grew up in a family of seven siblings — three brothers and three sisters — and when he was 13 his father died, though he’s keen to emphasize his home life was filled with a “good ambiance.”

However he hints at how a forthright attitude may have played in his eventual success: “I had my own story … and I think we all grew up with a different mentality.”

‘When I’m someone one day, I will give back’

It’s also clear that those early experiences and memories left an indelible mark on Sakho.

“I would say it helped me to have quite a good mentality, a strong mentality. It’s why I always said to myself, when I’m someone one day, I will give back … because I know what it is it not to eat before sleep for a few days. Though I always say I never talk about it because I’m proud.”

Without football, Sakho’s life could have been very different. He began playing with one of France’s top clubs Paris Saint-Germain, quickly rising through the ranks of their youth teams. By the age of 21 he was club captain and, as a Parisian, a favorite of PSG’s hardcore fans.

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“I would say football helped me to change my family life. With football I learned to give back. To give a lot of pleasure. When I am on the pitch I give everything for the fans.”

PSG was bought by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011 for $170 million as part of the kingdom’s larger strategy to invest in global brands, whether in business, fashion, property or sport.

In 2013, PSG won the title for the first time in 19 years, but as the new owners bought a host of new players Sakho found himself increasingly sidelined under coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Move to England

So later that year Sakho joined Premier League side Liverpool. The Merseyside club came close to winning the Premier League title during the 2013/2014 campaign — Sakho made 19 appearances — but the following season he had a run-in with manager Brendan Rodgers after being dropped for the Merseyside Derby.

Rodgers was soon to be replaced by Jurgen Klopp, but in 2016 Sakho tested positive for a fat-burning substance — higenamine — in a sample taken after a Europa League match with Liverpool against Manchester United on March 17 of that year.

Sakho was provisionally suspended for 30 days and missed out on playing for Liverpool in the Europa League final and also representing France at Euro 2016.

European football’s governing body UEFA subsequently revealed that the WADA-accredited laboratory in Lausanne did not test for the substance at all while Cologne, where the former Liverpool defender’s sample was sent, did.

In July UEFA then ruled that it had “decided to dismiss the case against the player” in light of the evidence.

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Although he was cleared of any wrongdoing, a strained relationship with Klopp, who sent the defender home from Liverpool’s US pre-season tour, ultimately lead to Sakho’s move to Crystal Palace.

“I have already made all my dreams,” reflected Sakho. “My dream was to be a professional in PSG. Thank God I made it. I wanted to be captain in PSG. I made it. I wanted to win the first league with PSG. I did it.

“I played for the French national team. Thank God I did it, but I want to do it again, because it is my objective to.”

Last season Crystal Palace lost their opening seven games but after the arrival of new manager Roy Hodgson, Sakho played a key role in helping the club avoiding relegation from the Premier League.

His form saw him put on stand-by by French coach Didier Deschamps for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the Palace defender was also part of the Les Bleus squad for the recent games against Iceland and Germany.

Charity work

It was while playing for PSG, that Sakho and his wife, launched Amsak, which undertakes charitable work in France, England and Africa.

“So Amsak means Association Mamadou Sakho. I started my association when I was 18 or 19, when I was in PSG … I think it’s important to go in Africa and help people here in the UK.

“When I was in Liverpool [I] went to a few places, in a hospital to speak with the kids and to give what I could give.”

“Like I said, we can all help … before I had nothing, really nothing, and now everything is good. I work hard just to get what I can get and I try to give back.

“For me the most important thing is that I don’t need people to say Mamadou Sakho is a good guy. I don’t need that.

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“If you only have salt to help someone with salt then do it. If you have enough money to build a city or a village then do it.”

Sakho’s latest charitable project will involve him mentoring young people in Okyere’s South London barbershop.

While the choice of a barbershop has much to do with a shared desire to help young people, it also speaks to the uniqueness of the barber’s chair — there are very few spaces that all people, irrespective of wealth or affluence, share.

“When I first came here, when I came from PSG in France, I [started] with Liverpool, so I had to find a new barber in the UK,” said Sakho.

“So after I came here in London, it was the same, it was the same job. I spoke to a few players to find who was the best barber here in London. A few of them told me Nikki was really good. So I called him and started to work with him.”

Over the last few years London has been hit by a knife crime epidemic. By September over 100 murders had taken place in the British capital during 2018. Three in five of those murders were stabbings, while a third of the victims were aged 16 to 24.

Sakho’s mentoring message will be the importance of hard work.

“For me this is the key for success. Just to touch your dream you have to work hard. You can’t just wake up and say I want to be a professional footballer or any other job.”

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Sakho’s charitable work does not end there.

In April, Sakho tweeted, “Meeting friend with the same mindset is rare … #FamousFriendsProject #BeReady #Amsak” alongside a picture of Manchester United player Paul Pogba.

Although reluctant to divulge too much about the upcoming project, Sakho suggested that it would unite the worlds of sport and music.

“It’s coming from December. Yes it’s true, with Pogba, a few footballers and a few singers. Two or three names but Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Tinie Tempah. We have Omar Sy, a big actor in France. We have quite a few people, DJ Snake.”

“It will be good things for Amsak and the only objective is to help people and start to build one orphanage.”