TIEMOUE BAKAYOKO has a motto that motivates him: “Because I know where I’m from, I know where I’m going.”
The Chelsea star – signed from Monaco in July for £40million – grew up in poverty on the Parisian backstreets.
And on Tuesday the midfielder, 23, one of eight children to Ivorian parents, scored his first goal for the club in the Champions League win over Qarabag at Stamford Bridge.
I met Bakayoko’s old friends, ex-coach and two of his brothers at Montrouge FC, one of his former youth clubs, a stone’s throw from the council flat where he grew up to learn about his rags-to-riches tale.
Rudy Mirabel, 23, has been a friend since they were at nursery aged four and visited him in Monaco this summer.
They attended Maurice d’Ocagne primary and then Francois Villon secondary schools – and played at CA Paris for two years from the age of 10.
And he said: “When you come from a disadvantaged background and your parents work hard to make ends meet, you want to please them and give them the comfort and wealth they didn’t have.
“Looking at parts of this district, you could think it’s a rich area but there’s a lot of social housing and poverty here too. The poor gather and make a community.
“When we were growing up, we were poor but could see wealth next door – and that was a big motivation.
“Tiemoue was aware of the poverty and wanted to overcome it.”
The French star – who has five brothers and two sisters – is now a Chelsea millionaire.
But Mirabel – who has finished studying to become a journalist – insisted: “Everything he owns he worked for, he didn’t steal it.
“People say footballers get overpaid but Tiemoue has sacrificed so much.
“And the wealth hasn’t changed him. He’s still the down-to-earth, non-materialistic person he always was and has never forgotten his roots.
“It’s what shaped him and continues to.
“He once told me, ‘Because I know where I’m from, I know where I’m going.’”
Bakayoko twice feared his football dream was over.
First, when the French Football Federation rejected him joining their Clairfontaine academy, and when he broke his leg aged 13 playing for Montrouge.
His former coach Mathieu Laporte shudders when he recalls the lowest point of Bakayoko’s journey.
He said: “Tiemoue was at Montrouge from 2006 to 2008 and broke his leg in the second season.
“We had to lift his spirits after his Clairfontaine rejection.
“Many clubs were interested – PSG, Rennes, Monaco. And during the December of his second year, he signed to join Rennes at the end of the season.
“But then in January he broke his right leg after a collision with a goalkeeper.
“We took him to hospital and he had to wear a cast for three months.
“He was crying because he had already suffered one setback and didn’t want to fail again.
“He feared Rennes would lose interest and his dream was over. But he fully recovered and moved in June.”
Incredibly, while recovering, Bakayoko pleaded to be allowed to play in a cup final for Montrouge’s under-14s.
Digital business student and ex-team-mate Yacine Roussi, 23, said: “He built up enough strength to run and insisted he was ready.
“He pleaded with the coach but it was right not to pick him. We lost 2-1 and would’ve won had Tiemoue played.”
Despite the hoards of scouts that came to watch Bakayoko, he kept his discussions with clubs under wraps.
Roussi said: “He was secretive about where he might be heading but it was obvious he was going places.
“He wasn’t a great trainer but had natural talent. His ball control and strength were incredible.
“He was very fast and could change direction quickly.
“I saw his body physically changing from Rennes to signing for Monaco. He became a monster.
“When we were children, he was skinny but had good ball protection.
“It was almost impossible to get it off him. His bones were very tough.”
Off the field, Bakayoko was mischievous and got into trouble at school.
Mirabel recalled: “He was the class clown. Sometimes he’d spontaneously dance in the middle of a lesson.
“But because of his joking, he got accused of things he hadn’t done.
“One kid stole a teacher’s phone and he got the blame.
“Once he left Paris for Rennes, the change of environment saw him grow up.
“When I visited him in Monaco, I was so proud of what he had become – a mature and professional man.”
Although Bakayoko has grown into a top-class defensive midfielder, his old friends believe he can be an attacking force – especially alongside N’Golo Kante.
Mirabel said: “He may be playing defensive but his true nature is to attack.
“He’s the only player in my life who I’ve seen be able to do the Ronaldinho ‘flip flap’ – he did it as a kid.”
And Laporte said: “A lot of people say he’s similar to Patrick Vieira.
“Physically they’ve the same capacity but Tiemoue has more technical qualities.
“He just needs to let himself go more, allow himself to go forward more, be free, and be that box-to-box player they love in England.
“If he’s playing with Kante, we’ll see that from him.”
While Laporte is telling me how he made Bakayoko his captain to “coax him out of his then shy shell”, we are interrupted by a small, slim 12-year-old boy entering his office.
It is Bakayoko’s youngest brother Youssouf.
Giving him a gentle tap on one cheek, Laporte proudly says: “Meet the latest Bakayoko! He’s a ring-winger.”
“Maybe, you’re going to be a future Chelsea star?” I ask the shy boy, who responds with a big smile.
His other younger brother, Namory, 19, is also playing at the club as a full-back.
And he tells me Bakayoko always dreamed to be a Chelsea player since watching Didier Drogba.
He said: “He always watched Chelsea games on TV because they were his favourite team and always spoke about wanting to play for them.
“Because our heritage is from the Ivory Coast, he loved seeing Drogba too.” Namory says his brother is settling in but has refrained from driving for the time being.
He said: “Tiemoue is learning English and enjoying the food but told me he isn’t allowing himself to drive because he thinks it’s too crazy driving on the left! But he’ll get round to it.
“Our eldest brother Abdou is in London with him and the rest of us go over whenever we want as Paris isn’t too far away.
“Already he’s making friends, which doesn’t surprise me because he smiles a lot and is never sad. He enjoys life and is authentic.”
And his impressions of Chelsea and the Premier League? His brother laughed: “He loves the stadiums and says the atmosphere is incredible because England is the true home of football.
“When he was at Monaco, the stadiums were rarely full but so far he’s played in front of a full house every match.”
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