Summer, 2006. Chelsea, buoyed by roubles and the ruthless ambition of José Mourinho, have spent the last two seasons undermining the natural order of the Premiership. As the transfer window opens, the wealthiest club in the league cracks on with some high-spec housekeeping. Michael Ballack and John Obi Mikel are acquired to add sheen and strength to the midfield; Ashley Cole is plucked from Arsenal for a measly £5 million and one William Gallas. The headline arrival, a leaden-legged Andriy Shevchenko—foisted upon José Mourinho by the man who signs the cheques—a player whose star was not so much fading as trapped in the gravitational pull of a black hole even sprint sessions with Darren Campbell couldn’t help him escape from.
Amongst this astute recalibration of Chelsea’s artillery was nestled one Salomon Kalou. Sure, he’d done bits in the Eredivisie, making a mockery of goal-to-game ratio stats and winning the 2005 Johan Cruyff award, but unless you were avid consumer of Channel 5’s late night Dutch games, or one of those lonely people who pretend to be across all the European leagues, you’d have missed the partnership that bloomed between him and a young, thrusting Dirk Kuyt. In fact, you’d be forgiven for missing Salomon altogether.
In press photos released after his Chelsea unveiling, Kalou looks awed, bewildered even, by the throng of blinking lenses sent to capture his low-key arrival.
Holding his number 21 shirt aloft with the help of a shaven-headed Mourinho, he couldn’t have begun to visualise the journey he was about to embark on.
Salomon’s story begins in Oumé, a city in south-central Ivory Coast, but, as if his character arc were predetermined, scripted somehow by an ambitious and omniscient writer, led him far from home; his career guided by a procession of the greatest coaches seen in the modern era, and ultimately, to the pinnacle of the European game.
Congregating in the streets with his friends to play football, “our game, and the only one we had”, Salomon never felt as if he was marked out for greatness, at no point did the thought crystalise that he would hold trophy, after trophy aloft. “I never thought ‘I’m special, I’m a star, I’m gonna be in a top team, I’m the man’. I never visualized it like that; I visualized it like: this is a game, I was good at it, and I was lucky it turned into a job for me. And that’s how I saw it, to be honest.”
A cursory glance at the roll call of players, Emmanuel Eboué, Didier Zokora, Yaya and Kolo Touré—incubated by ASEC Mimosas, the Abidjan-based academy Kalou graduated from—suggests he definitely had something, but this steadying streak of humility runs through Kalou like a stick of rock.
While still a humble apprentice, yet to come into his own, Salomon’s brother, Bonaventure, was already establishing himself as an attacking force at Feyenoord, just as Salomon would go on to do three short years later. Of course, Salomon idolised him. How could he not, when, as Salomon explains: “People in my school, and in the streets were always talking about him. He inspired me to want to be a good player, and to learn the game.” But there was another striker whose playing style and career trajectory Salomon innocently hoped to emulate.
“Growing up, when I started to play in the academy in Abidjan I used to love Thierry Henry because I followed his entire career; I followed everything”, he tells me, “Henry was my guy! And my dream club was Monaco. People always asked me ‘why Monaco?’ because that was the player I wanted to be like. I wanted to make it to the top level because of him.” When ASEC Mimosas contested a youth tournament in London, using Arsenal’s training facilities as a base, Salomon was finally able to meet his hero. He had him sign his training equipment, impressed on him his desire to return to England as a pro and listened intently as Thierry told him that “everything is possible”. Years later, the men would face off for honours in the Premier League, with the apprentice often emerging as the victor.
Before that, though, Kalou would find himself at Feyenoord, a team that had won the UEFA Cup the season before. After a loan spell at Excelsior, he returned to De Kuip, scoring on his professional debut, of course. Salomon describes this goal as feeling, “like I’d won an award…but even though I’d scored my first goal the most important thing was to not stop there, it was to continue to improve and stay in the first team”. And stay there he did. After two seasons of acclaim, the aforementioned Johan Cruyff Award and a plea from Marco van Basten to become a naturalized Dutch citizen, he met with representatives from Valencia and was so set on a move to the Iberian Peninsula that he started learning Spanish.
This was all before a Portuguese protagonist entered stage left to dramatically alter the course of his career and the contents of his trophy cabinet.
“A few games before the end of the season, Mourinho came himself to watch a game. That day, I scored two goals and had one assist. On that occasion I didn’t talk to him because no-one knew he was there, he was wearing sunglasses and a hat; he was undercover” he explains. For Salomon, José’s visit simply wasn’t that deep; he put it out of his mind faster than the popular girl at school did your advances, but a month later, all that changed.
“On the last game of the season, my agent called me and said, ‘Let’s go to London’, so we went to the airport, we landed in London and went straight to Mourinho’s house. And from that discussion, that talk we had, I forgot about Valencia. The guy already knew the type of player I was; he knew what I could do well, what I couldn’t do well, where I could get better, and he knew the type of player I was at Feyenoord.”
In what feels and sounds like a captivating scene, José impressed upon Salomon the importance of team play, telling him in no uncertain terms that it was the “only way you’re gonna win trophies.” He wasn’t wrong, either.
At Chelsea, Kalou became an amalgam of sinew and selflessness. The embodiment of player’s player, and a manager’s one too. For Feyenoord, he’d been a lethal out-and-out striker, “I never played as a winger; winger was not my position. I became a winger in Chelsea. I had to change my way of playing.”
Salomon’s broader story of adaptability is as human as it is tactical. After touching down in Rotterdam in 2003, he moved in with a Dutch family and was also fortunate to find his brother and his extended pool of friends there. But he was also mature enough to blot out conflicting thoughts of home. “In every situation I wanted to learn, and I didn’t say ‘I wanna do this differently because I’m from Africa’, no, no, no.” he explains, “I just blocked every thought like that and said, I’m going to learn how they do things here, and I adapted really quick because I was willing really to open my mind.” How many 18-year-olds traversing a new continent do you know capable of that?
In a lecture titled Working Class Ballet given to the European Graduate School in 2016, philosopher Simon Critchley states that football is about “the movement between players who play together, with and for each other”. Critchley goes on to suggest that football is “not experienced apart from others, but only in and through association.” Few players, save Park Ji-sung, exemplify these themes more appropriately than Kalou, even less of them ally that with a happy knack of competing with a playful seriousness; scoring simple goals, but career-defining ones also.
Set against the revolving door of stars accumulated and discarded by Chelsea’s dysfunctional hierarchy, Kalou appeared regular and unpretentious; an ever dependent and self-described “foot soldier”. Though that may have been true, it masked a desire and a professionalism that helped him become a vital cog in Chelsea’s armoury during the most successful period of the club’s recent history. It’s important to remember that Kalou arrived at Chelsea 20 years young, and proceeded to compete with (and complement) some of the most brilliant forwards to grace the Premiership: Drogba, Anelka, Torres, Malouda, Joe Cole, Robben.
“If you wanna stay for a long time, learn with those players”, Mourinho advised him, “because you are young, you cannot compete with them they are already experienced players so change your way of playing, score important goals, be decisive”. And so he did.
There exists a clutch of contributions Salomon provided that underline his importance to the trophy-consuming juggernaut Chelsea became: Think the dipping volley in the 86th minute of the 2006 FA Cup quarterfinal against Spurs that arched away from desperate grasp of Radek Černý to force a replay, which Chelsea won on their way to beating Manchester United in the final. Or the cross he dug out from the left wing that was bound for Anelka’s right boot before a bewildered Jon Arne Riise headed it past Pepe Reina at Anfield, in the 2008 semi of the Champion’s League. Chelsea would go on to lose that final on penalties in Moscow; and while memories of Terry’s slip and Ballack’s legs giving way like a newborn calf’s in the rain endure, amidst this tragic denouement, we’d like to remember that Kalou tucked his pen away with an ease that bordered on piss-taking, sending van der Sar to the shops in the process.
His critical input didn’t end there, of course. But the Third Act of his glittering Chelsea career saw him move in from a supporting role to claim centre stage as a lead actor.
It’s curious to learn Salomon remains utterly grounded by a code of practice so centred it seems almost transcendental: “As a young player I never thought ‘I wanna achieve this, this and this’. I just thought, trust the process, learn and keep going forward. Wherever you go if you learn the game you’re gonna be ok.” He continues, “I know I’ll arrive at good times in the season I know I’ll arrive at bad times in the season, but I need to balance that and be decisive, be more important for the team. Whatever the team needed, whether an important goal or an important assist, I have to be part of that moment, because that moment can turn the season around, and that’s my mantra.”
On a balmy Tuesday evening on the 27th March 2012 at Estádio Da Luz, this mantra would set into motion a chain of causality that climaxed in the reconciliation of Chelsea’s torturous, unrequited love affair with the European Cup. After a determined run on the right wing, Ramires releases Torres, who in turn bursts into the area under a typically heavy touch, he retains his composure and squares it for our hero, Salomon Kalou, who slides home after a perfectly timed, purposeful run.
Two months later, Salomon will start and play a crucial role in front of José Bosingwa as Bayern’s formidable red tide is stemmed and stymied by a performance of collective endeavour for the ages. By the end, Chelsea are victorious, and the decision to shave a spider into the back of his head for the occasion is entirely vindicated.
Almost all of what we understand about the psychology of footballers is assumed. Though we study their body language both on and off the pitch, the rigorous banality of their post-match interviews and attempt to interpret their social media output, the truest gauge of their mental states can only be witnessed when the pressure is on, when the scrutiny of the watching world is bearing down on them like the Eye of fucking Sauron. In these instances it was rare Salomon Kalou was found wanting.
And therein lies the explanation for how Kalou was able to thrive at Chelsea during a period of continual upheaval. For despite the dizzying array of regime changes and the toxicity that we’re told came to characterise the dressing room at Stamford Bridge, there he remained; scoring important goals, being decisive.
Upon leaving Chelsea—after winning the Champions League and every top level domestic honour we invented—he joined Lille and continued to sparkle in a Ligue 1 awash with Qatari cash and Dmitry Rybolovlev’s billions. Salomon did so to seek responsibility and prove he could be an auteur after six years serving as a supporting actor. Double figures in back-to-back seasons in France offered a reminder of the potency he evidenced in the Eredivisie. Now back in the middle at Hertha Berlin, his arrival effectively galvanised a side that was finding its feet after promotion back to the Bundesliga two seasons ago.
Salomon’s story, it seems, isn’t over yet.
Calum Jacobs runs CARICOM, an independent bi-annual magazine that explores the space where football and the black experience intersect. It’s wicked, you should check it out. MUNDIAL Issue 13 is available for pre-order here, and you can subscribe to us here. All the best now.