Big Interview: Ismaïla Sarr
Winger speaks about his Senegalese roots, turning down Barcelona and facing his idol Sadio Mané, in a self-penned interview...
A WELL-TRODDEN PATH
I started my football career in Senegal. There was a club in my town called Linguère, and I played for a year there. After that I left to join Génération Foot, and I spent three years at that club. It was a good three years there because I worked really hard to be able to eventually transfer to Metz in France. When I was at Génération Foot, that is when I realised I wanted to be a professional footballer because when I was there I saw all of the great facilities they had, and that’s where I thought it was actually possible to become a player. The training ground was brilliant, and it was actually quite similar to the one here at Watford because it wasn’t synthetic. Obviously it was not top level like here, but it was in a very good condition. It was great to play there. Many players have come through at Génération Foot. Of course, I knew that Sadio Mané played there before me, but there were other players like Diafra Sakho too. Génération Foot is a team that shapes players.
THE METZ STEP
In 2016 I moved from Génération Foot to Metz. While I was injured at Génération Foot, they operated on me and after my operation they told me that I would finish my recovery at Metz, because I wasn’t playing at all that season. I think it was a case of me getting back to being fit with Metz and getting the right treatment there too, and it was a good move. I believe that Génération Foot and Metz have some sort of agreement, or they collaborate together. Génération Foot may even be part of Metz! It wasn’t a decision for me to go there, it was the norm. Players naturally move between the clubs, they mix together. Training at Metz was the same as in Senegal at Génération Foot because there was a coach that had worked at Metz and then moved to Génération Foot, and he implemented the same programme.
TURNING DOWN BARCA
When I moved to Rennes in 2017, it was a last-minute transfer. It is true that I chose Rennes over Barcelona and I made this decision because I didn’t want to go to Barcelona to just sit on the bench or play in the B level. I wanted to play, I just really wanted to play and that’s why I chose to go to Rennes. I heard many good things about the place. I didn’t know anyone there before joining, though. It didn’t matter for me that the club was in France, all I cared about was playing. I didn’t feel any pressure from the big transfer fee, I never feel that kind of pressure with transfer prices. We had a good season when I went to Rennes. We finished fifth in the first season and we finished lower in the league the second season, but we won the Coupe de France, so we were really pleased because we qualified for the Europa League.
I scored in the Europa League against Arsenal, but I wouldn’t say that the goal is a particularly special moment for me. I prepared myself like I do for any other match. I knew it was an important match because Arsenal is a big team and so we had to prepare ourselves for that. I scored in the game, but it doesn’t make it my favourite or most important goal. Every goal is important. I love to score. We prepared ourselves as expected and we won the game 3-1. It was the first time for me to play in the Europa League. We got to play Arsenal and at the beginning they were putting a lot of pressure on us, we had barely got started, but then we gradually started to get into the match and started to play how we knew we could and how we had prepared.
My first time in the national team was in 2016, I think. I was at Metz and I think I had a game going on that day. I had no idea I had been called up to the national team. In fact, it was my older sister who told me! I had received a message but hadn’t seen it, and my sister got in touch with me to tell me. Normally we find out on the television, when the list of players is made official, but for me it was my sister who told me that I was going back to Senegal to play for the national team. It is an honour to be able to wear the national team colours and badge. It is a total pleasure. When I am representing my country, I want to give everything I have. For me, it is the most important part of my career, being able to represent my country. I’d say the players I admire the most, on top of Sadio Mané, are Moussa Wagué, Saliou Ciss and Cheikhou Kouyaté. It is not easy to come on as a sub for Sadio Mané, like I did on my debut. But Sadio came off and I came on, I carried on doing the job that I was put on to do, and I did what I needed to do. I don’t feel responsibility when I wear the shirt. I do get nervous, but the truth is, all I want to do is do my best and give everything. It was very important for me to play in the World Cup in Russia in 2018 too, it was great because I was able to play every game.
THE MANÉ MAN
As I have said before, Sadio Mané is not only a Senegal teammate of mine but he is my inspiration and my idol. I watch lots of videos of him to see how he does things like accelerating and dribbling, and for me he is the best player in the world. For sure, the best African player in Europe. When I first came to Watford he sent me some messages welcoming me to the Premier League and any piece of advice he gives me I listen to carefully. He has won the Champions League and I’m so pleased he will soon be winning the Premier League because he deserves this. He also does things very well outside of football. He’s our national team leader but he’s also a nice guy, and I love him.
LOVING LIFE AT WATFORD
My transfer to Watford was similar to Rennes. It was last-minute. I got a call to say that I was going to Watford. I was in training and I heard that they were negotiating, and I said I was going home and that when they made their decision, they could give me a call. It was very important to me, transferring to the Premier League, and even more so being Watford. I always wanted to play in the Premier League because I’ve always liked it and since I was small, and I used to watch it a lot. I used to like Manchester United. I always watched the Premier League more than any other league. Everyone in Senegal watches Premier League football. I’ve been at Watford for six months now. I haven’t got a favourite moment at Watford though, because every day is great. Every day I wake up to go and train, and that’s great for me. My best friends here are Kaba, Capoue, all the French speakers, really! Foulquier when he was here, too. We speak a lot and joke around.
In my spare time I don’t really go out much. I play Grand Theft Auto a lot at home, sometimes I play FIFA too, but GTA I play a lot more. On FIFA 20 I’ve been recognised as a ‘Future Star’ and given a special card on Ultimate Team. It was Troy actually who told me that FIFA had recognised me as a future star, I didn’t know beforehand. When I play FIFA, I do use this card. Recognition from FIFA makes me really happy because it means I have shown that I have worked hard and it is paying off, and that I just need to continue to work as hard as possible.