Teenager exiled by Barcelona becoming big news at Lazio
Burak Yilmaz. Fabio Quagliarella. Alberto Gilardino. It was Lazio's intention to sign one of the three strikers at the end of the transfer window. They expected to as well. Why else would they allow Libor Kozak to go to Aston Villa? Mauro Zarate, AWOL since April, had returned to Velez Sarsfield.
Whenever Klose had got hurt in the last couple of seasons, usually over the spring, Lazio had lost ground. The prospect of Champions League qualification, so real until February-March, slipped agonisingly away. They couldn’t allow it to happen again. Circumstances, however, conspired against them.
Offered Yilmaz by Galatasaray - “the Turkish ambassador [to Italy] even came to my office and said: ‘Give’em €15m (£12.7m)'” - Lotito agreed a fee [“€13m plus €2m in add-ons”] only for the player's agent to ask for a €2m commission just as they were about to sign the paperwork. Lotito termed it “extortion” and called the whole thing off.
Roma then scuppered his contingency plan. Lotito had arranged the transfer of Quagliarella from Juventus for €6m. “I’d closed the deal, but Walter Sabatini [Roma’s director of sport] didn’t give Marco Borriello to Genoa and so Gilardino [who Juventus had lined up to replace Quagliarella] stayed where he was and we could do nothing about it.”
The day after the transfer window closed, Lotito and his right-hand man Igli Tare received some mail in the post. Included therein were death threats - not the first either have been sent over the years, but still cause for trepidation, not to mention disappointment. Lazio remember had won the Coppa Italia only a couple of months earlier, beating rivals Roma in the final. There’s a case to be made - a provincial one, it must be said - that this was the club’s greatest ever victory. Roma would never live it down. Not in the Eternal City.
And yet, this was the gratitude Lotito got. Some fans have short memories, eh? The exasperation, though, was understandable. Should Klose get hurt, which he would, they’d suffer. To be fair to Lazio, they had bought a forward over the summer, his name: Brayan Perea, the Colombia Under-20 international, from Deportivo Cali.
The problem was no one had heard of him, no one knew what to expect. Without any experience of playing in Europe, it was thought that he’d take time to adapt and wouldn’t be able to guarantee a steady return of goals like Yilmaz, Quagliarella or Gilardino might. Felipe Anderson, the multi-purpose midfielder, 20 like Perea, signed from Santos, freshened things up further but there’d surely be an adjustment period with him too.
“You’ll see. Our young players will do great things,” Tare reassured supporters. One in particular was getting everybody at Lazio excited: the left-sided attacking midfielder Keita Balde Diao. Born in Spain to Senegalese parents and raised in Arbucias, a town about an hour or so north of Barcelona, he’d been brought to their attention a couple of years ago by a pair of agents, Nunzio Marchione and Ulisse Savini.
A curious situation had developed around Keita. At age 10, he’d kicked a ball about on the pitch at the Camp Nou as part of a masterclass taken by Samuel Eto’o. Inducted into Barca’s famous La Masia academy, he was highly regarded. Seydou Keita was at the club at the time. Another player by that name, it was thought, might one day follow him into the first team.
But at a youth tournament in Qatar a joke too many heralded the beginning of the end of this particular Keita’s time at Barcelona. He’d put ice cubes in a team-mate’s bed, or so the story goes. His coach didn’t see the funny side and Keita was sent to Barcelona’s satellite club Cornella as ‘punishment’.
The arrangement, however, wasn’t a loan. So when Barca decided to end his exile and bring him back, they had to offer him a new contract. The expectation was that he’d agree to it, but still smarting at how he’d been treated, Keita, to their astonishment, turned them down. Lazio swooped, getting in ahead of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United. In accordance with FIFA’s rules, they had to pay Barça €270k and Cornella €30k in compensation for their part in the training and development of Keita, but that was it.
Though a Spanish citizen, he’d yet to receive a passport. So determined, however, were Lazio to get him that they had no qualms about using one of their non-EU spots to register him. For them, it was a coup. They knew as much when Real and Juve supposedly followed up their offers, coming to them with new and improved ones.
Lazio had one of the most promising youngsters in Europe. That became clear over the course of last season. Keita starred as Lazio won the Primavera title for the first time in 12 years. He got the goal that ended a decade-long wait for a victory at Trigoria in the Derby della Capitale against Roma too. It made him an idol among the supporters even before making his first team debut.
On the back of lighting up Italy’s prestigious youth tournament at Viareggio where he found the net four times and would probably have gone on to be top scorer had Lazio not been knocked out in the last 16 by eventual winners Anderlecht, Lotito tied him down until 2017. Keita will earn €1m over that time. A lot for a teenager, but Lazio believe he’s worth it and so far you have to say he’s proving to be so.
Given his senior debut by Vladimir Petkovic towards the end of a 3-0 win against Chievo in September, he started in the Europa League a few days later on Legia’s visit to the Stadio Olimpico and set up Hernanes for the winner. Thrown on again a fortnight later with Lazio 3-1 down to Trabzonspor, Keita got Lazio back into the game, his cross finding the header of Sergio Floccari, who’d make it 3-2 and then 3-3 in the final 10 minutes.
With Lazio struggling, it was becoming harder and harder for Petkovic to hold him back. On dropping down to the Primavera again, it was Keita’s pass that Riccardo Serpieri turned in to seal another win over Roma. Drafted back into the first team for Apollon Limassol’s trip to the Italian capital, the cross for Floccari’s clinching goal was provided by him. It was his third assist for the seniors. “All I’m missing is a goal myself,” Keita said. “Next time, I’ll get one.”
Had he seen the future? Maybe his team-mate Hernanes, nicknamed ‘the Prophet’, had revealed it to him because sure enough, on his first start in Serie A, Keita would get his first goal. It came in the 50th minute against Parma at the Tardini on Sunday.
Antonio Candreva was breaking down the right. As he cut inside the box and tried to go outside Felipe, the ball was flicked away from him. Keita meanwhile had been in hot pursuit. On reaching the penalty area, however, he had rather cleverly checked his run, fooling Mattia Cassani into thinking that he had more time to clear the loose ball. He didn’t. Keita stole it off his toes, showed excellent balance to feint past Antonio Mirante, leaving the Parma goalkeeper on his bum, and then the composure to finish just before another defender slid in with an unsuccessful attempt to block his shot.
At 18 years, eight months and two days, Keita became the youngest player to score in Serie A this season and the fourth youngest goalscorer in Lazio’s history after Alessandro Capponi in 1936-37, Luigi Vettraino in 1938-39 and Marco Di Vaio in 1994-95.
It was well-deserved. Keita could have had a couple. He’d been through in the first half but couldn’t control Lorik Cana’s long ball over the top. A header had gone just wide as well and then after his goal Mirante pushed another shot of his around the post, an effort for which Klose applauded him.
The only thing spoiling Keita’s day was the equaliser Alessandro Lucarelli found for Parma in the 64th minute. Petkovic, though, was full of praise for him. In previous weeks he’d felt Keita had to improve off the ball and give more protection to the left-back behind him. This time, he’d done that, tracking back and covering Stefan Radu well.
“He’s a diamond that needs polishing, a talent out of the ordinary and a good kid,” Petkovic said. “He just needs to keep his feet on the ground, but the future is in his hands.” Should he do that then the future looks very bright for Keita indeed.