One of the best Canadian soccer interviews I've read in a long time, although some parts were unnecessary in my opinion.
I have decided to translate it as literally as possible, without spending too much time and# altering the wording and phrasing too much. I've also omitted certains parts that I thought were redundant. Please let me know if some parts don't make sense!
Hope you enjoy it.
On a chilly april morning in 1911, a handful of businessmen, politicians and journalists with an affection as sincere as profound for the beautiful game, got together in Montreal. They established the basis of the development of soccer in Québec and created the Province of Quebec Football Association, which became throughout the years the Fédération de soccer du Québec.
If their objective is first and foremost to structure the practice of the sport in Québec and create a environment in which soccer aficionados could compete at a higher level, they allow the dream that one day, a player from la Belle Province will align himself/herself with the brightest stars in the world and will shine on world soccer.
The wait has probably been longer than planned, but what had been up until now a dream for generations of young Québec footballers has finally materialised itself more than a century later. On January 24th, 2017, a young prodigy by the name of Ballou Tabla is announced at one of the mammoth european football clubs: FC Barcelona.
It is a very happy day for the young Quebecer of Ivorian origin and his tranfer is certainly a success that makes all of Québec soccer proud.
Panellinios Football Club
It is thrusday afternoon and we are impatiently waiting for Ballou's arrival. The meeting's location was rather obvious : we didn't have to think too hard about it.
"Parc Jarry , 2 p.m, at Panellinios' artificial turf", we told him.
The footballer is maybe now used to great european boulevards, but he pertinently knows where that is. How many times did he make the trip to that field, where he accomplished his first prowesses, from his parents' house in the Hochelaga neighbourhood?
Around ten teenagers have been playing there for around an hour now, despite the temperature being over 30 degrees Celcius for the first time in June. They are probably aged between 8 and 13 years old, but seeing them dribble past each other with quite a bit of skill, we understand why Panellinios is one of the hotbeds of Québec football and from now on the "birthplace" of a Blaugrana.
And who knows, maybe in a few years we will try and get an interview from one of these youngsters. But for now, we will enjoy the presence of our guest who has just arrived. We won't try to hide it: we are very eager to meet with Ballou because, like everyone else, we are ignorant of the details of his new Spanish life.
(Describes what Ballou is wearing...)
We have only just greeted each other when Ballou's eyes pan slowly across the fenced field and a smile appears on his face. He is probably recalling old memories from his childhood...
"This field, artificial turf, he says, and this one, over there, in real grass... Ah! These were great years. It really brings me joy to come back here because I see where I came from, but also that I have a lot of work still to do."
Ballou has plenty of souvenirs from his time with Panellinios, as the club from the Villeray-Parc-Extension neighbourhood were going through golden years while he was with them.
"The promotion to AAA, the Canadian championship... We even played the Ontario Cup here, I remember! Captain's armband, number 10... These are great memories! And, I was scoring a lot of goals at the time", he recalls.
Surprisingly, for someone who is used to play in Stade Saputo and in Barça B's Mini Estadi (15 000 seats, no less), he assures us that the atmosphere of parc Jarry was, for him, just as electrifying.
"All my friends we coming to watch the games on the weekend. My parents as well. Parc Jarry was always full. I was young and I had no idea what the professionnal level would be like, but I already liked this environment, the febrility. It gave me goosebumps and I will always remember those times."
Suffice to say that Panellinios FC has a special place in Ballou's heart. The club was his "first canadian family" when he got here from Ivory Coast at the age of 12.
"The guys that I met here, up to this day, they are still my friends... Even like brothers! We grew up together, we lived through good and bad times together and we won and lost together."
With humility, Ballou explains that he probably would not have had the motivation and stubbornness to aspire to such a high level if he couldn't have counted on the encouragements of his teammates at the time.
"I'll admit something, I did not think I would make it. I did not think I would one day sign a pro contract... But these friends, they made me understand I had talent, that I could go far and that I needed to realise it quickly because I would miss out on something huge otherwise."
However, even if his skills with Panellinios caught the eye of many clubs overseas (most notably of Liverpool FC), Ballou swears that his eyes were set on another goal.
"At the time, I did not think of Europe... only of the Impact! There was nothing else in my head. Only the Impact!", he insists.
"Of course, I was watching videos of my idols... Ronaldinho, Zidane and others, but I was not dreaming about that yet. All I wanted was to sign a pro contract with Montreal, make my family and friends proud. Voilà, we start slowly and we'll see where my talent can bring me."
His critics will say that his transfer from Montreal to Barcelona happened too quickly, that a player who pretends to cherish his hometown club would not have left after only one season. But the Bleu-blanc-noir's number 13 at the time says he never was ill-intentioned.
"From outside, that's what it seemed like. People here were saying: 'Ah! Ballou, he left for Barça. He's not well, he's not happy, he's full of himself, etc, etc... But in reality, they don't know what is going on, you know. Me, it's my career and I do what I think is the best to go forward. They can try to attack me, but, for me, the Impact is my first real club, my favourite club. And that, that will never change."
Hearing him speak with the biting tone in which he spoke those last words, we feel that he is sincere when he claims he has always admired his adoptive city's club.
"I remember when I got to Canada, I was going to Stade Saputo often. I was watching Mauro, Ribeiro and all the older players play. I was in the stands and I was happy, I was shouting! Patrick Leduc and the others, they were my idols!" he says.
"I payed for my game tickets, my bus tickets. Me and my best friend, we went to the stadium. It was raining? Doesn't matter, we had ponchos. We were fans!"
Full of enthousiasm, Ballou even shares a confession: "I even had a Patrick Leduc water bottle. These are things people don't know, but Patrick Leduc, he really was someone I admired a lot when I got here in Montreal and I started following the Impact."
"Then, I had the chance to play for the Académie, and I told myself, why not? I went for it and in the end, it went well."
Ballou tells us that his intention were to play three, four or five seasons with the Impact, but an event came along that would disrupt these plans.
August 3rd 2016, he was part of the 23 players called up by the Impact to participate in a friendly match against pretigious Italian club AS Roma. That night, he played against Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Edic Dzeko. Among those players was also a certain Mohamed Salah.
"This is when eveything started falling into place. I could not control my desires. I did not want to leave the field. Deep down inside, I knew that this is where I belonged."
Barcelona, city of prodigies
The way he talks about it, Ballou's Barcelona life would make a lot of young footballers dream...
He resides downtown where he lives alone in an appartment located not far from the prestigious Camp Nou and the Avinguda Diagonal, the avenue where all the best known boutiques of the Catalan capital are found.
During the day, he takes part in the training sessions, which leaves him some free time in the afternoon and at night to wander through the narrow and labyrinth-like streets of the gothic quarter or to go and dip in the Mediterranean sea.
He spends most of his free time with Alex Collado and Marcus McGrane, two other Barça B players with whom he became friends.
"Alex is someone with whom I really bonded on and off the field. As for Marcus, he signed for Barça the same week as me. Since we didn't know anyone else at the time, we got closer."
Ballou tells us they often try out restaurants the three of them, or go walk along the harbor after training. They also play the FIFA video game from time to time, but our friend makes sure to tell us that it's "rather rare".
A food enthousiast himself, he has a list of places he likes to visit in Barcelona.
"Carpe Diem!", he recommends without hesitation. "A kind of nightclub type restaurant, with live shows and a mexican style ambiance, one of my favourite places", he says.
If not at Carpe Diem, you will assuredly find him enjoying a colombian dish at the chic Spoonik, or South-African style fried chicken at Spice BCN Amigo, only a few hundred meters from his place.
Since he started living in Spain, Ballou says he developped a taste for seafood: "It is something I already liked and I discovered it even more over there. Now, wherever I go in Spain, it's seafood, seafood, seafood!"
But the athlete doesn't spend all of his time eating. He must also train! And as was the case in Montreal a few years ago, Ballou points out that he trains with the B team in a field right next to the A team's field... That is, when he is not himself replacing a missing A team player.
"The A team coach calls me pretty often when he needs people. It happens for example when they had a game the day before and Messi can't train or Suarez is recovering. I can train with them during the week and play the Barça B game on the weekend."
We cannot help ourselves to ask him if he has the chance to exchange a few words with the five-time Ballon d'or winner, to which he calmly says "of course!".
He even shares this anecdote: "One time, we were practicing 3 on 3. We were two youngsters with Messi and two youngsters with Suarez. It was the first time and I recall telling Messi: 'Tell me where you want me to be, I'll be there. I know I don't have to worry, you are there and you will do your thing. I'll defend you'."
Because they are few, Ballou admits trying to enjoy to the fullest the moments he shares with Messi.
"When he tells me something, of course, I don't ask any questions. For me, he's my idol, he's an extraterrestrial. When he touches the ball, you see he's from another planet. So I listen very closely to everything he says."
We then ask him if he's had the chance to get closer to another first team player at Barcelona or if he has a mentor, in the way Didier Drogba and Patrice Bernier were guiding him when he was wearing the bleu-blanc-noir shirt.
"Yes, there's Ousmane [Dembélé]. He's a friend of mine. And Malcom as well, he says. These two are the players with whom I'm closer in the first team. Otherwise, someone who gave me a lot of advice coming in, is Abidal... Eric. He told me what I needed to do to pursue my dream, and how to do it."
Not a bad entourage for the new recruit, no?
A complicated ascent
At first glance, Ballou seems to be living the dream. He resides in one of the most prized city in Europe, trains regularly with La Pulga and even knows a certain success. But not everything is simple and easy at highest spheres of professional sport and the challenges awaiting aspiring athletes are many.
Ballou is not afraid to admit his beginnings in Catalonia have been rather trying. On one hand, because he had to adapt to a level of playing "way quicker and more technical" than what he was used to in North America. On the other hand, because he had to learn to cope with the jealousy and envy of other Barça academy members...
"When I started, I won't try to hide it, it was hard. Most of the Masia players have been at the club since they were five or six years old. Me, I'm coming from outside, I've been here for less than a year and, already, I've started to play with the first team. Of course, it might make some jealous", he says.
"It won't be direct, but believe me, you'll be able to feel it! Me, if you tell me you don't like me, if you're envious because we play at the same position, I will do everything to set myself apart and win my place. But I know that some of my teammates who come from abroad and whose skin is a different color, they will be unsettled more easily."
The Montrealer was warned, however. Before leaving for Europe, some players made it clear that there were disillusions that came with playing soccer at the highest level.
"Before leaving for Barça, Didier [Drogba] and Hassoun [Camara], they warned me. They told me it would be like that. I asked them why, because afterall, it's football! It's the most beautiful thing in the world! Why would there be people trying to scam me, to hurt me, to ruin my career? But since I started, I really became familiar with the world of football... how it's a stingy, hypocritical world!"
We are of course troubled by these unexpected revelations, but Ballou reassures us by detailing how he turned a blind eye to this negative energy and how he quickly established himself in the eye of the different coaches.
"What made it easier for me is that I was attentive. I've always done what was asked from me and I've never tried to compare myself with others. At the same time, I knew that if Barça came and got me, it's not for nothing! This episode really helped me to grow stronger and learn that I should not get close to some people."
Even then, Ballou hadn't seen the last of his challenges.
Apart from the internal competition that affects him, another situation arose on May 27th, 2018. At the end of a rather uneventful game against Albacete Balompié, which ended in a goalless tie, Barça B was relegated to the Spanish third division.
Hard to blame Ballou for this relegation. He started at the club with only a few games remaining in the season and he "didn't really have his say on the field".
But nevertheless, the doubt still settled in his mind.
"That's when I tell myself : ' Wait a minute... I get to Barça and we're in third division? Is this serious? ' I'm wondering whether I should stay... If I really made the right choice by coming here."
But as with all athletes that are finally within arm's reach of their dream, Ballou doesn't want to get sidetracked.
"I could have decided to leave directly after that, even if I just got there... But I opted to give myself a little more time... that with a little patience, the results would come by themselves", he tells us with a determined expression.
"And it's normal that my trajectory isn't perfectly straight, he adds. I'm still young! Let time do it's thing! It's a process. Look at Didier! He didn't go directly to Chelsea. He didn't become a legend overnight. He worked hard."
For someone whose patience was not the greatest virtue, we have to admit that his european experience had made him wiser.
"I really grew up in regard to that aspect... in regard to when I was with the Impact, he admits. Yes, there has been misunderstandings and yes, people will remember that, but I have to accept that. Here [in Barcelona], nobody leads me by the hand. That really helped me grow as a player and as a person. My first year at Barça, with everything that happened, it was really a great chance to work on myself."
Today, looking back on his Barça B experience, Ballou thinks his decision to stay was the correct one and that this was a beneficial episode.
"To stay, afterall, it really brought me a lot. Barça B wasn't the level I really hoped for, but the bonus I had was that I could train everyday with the first team and even maybe have the chance to play in a first team match."
The Quebecer's patience was effectively rewarded during his second season with Barça B, when the same Albacete Balompié who had relegated them a few months earlier came knocking and asked for his services to push for promotion.
Ballou was happy at first to join the ranks of a higher calibre team, ranked fourth of the second division. Was this finally the chance to shine he was waiting for?
But the footballer experienced yet another disappointing experience, with scarce playing time. In the end, he only played twice with Albacete during the five months he spent with them before returning to Barça.
We can imagine the exasperation, the disappointment... But Ballou, stoical, takes the hit and proves once again he is a mature young athlete.
"I am disappointed, of course, to not have played much with Albacete, but at the same time, I'm coming back to Barça where I learned a whole lot. And even if I don't have as much playing time as I would like, I am here, I'm learning football and I'm training with the greatest players in the world. I know that there are a lot of young people who would love to be in my shoes, so I don't complain. I'm really happy of where I am, the club, the city and the people who surround me."
In the end, even if the beginnings were difficult, Ballou explains that seeing Panellinios' turf again makes him realise how far he has come up until now. And no matter the pitfalls, the hardships, it only motivates him ever more.
"As I've said before, one day, I want to be in a club where I will be the leader, the captain. I want to play for a club that will trust me and where I can leave my mark... as did Didier at Chelsea or Patrice in Montreal! I'm still young. I still have a lot to do and a lot to prove. In those difficult moments, I have to be proud of where I am, but also of where I come from."