When Seydouba Soumah lines up at Old Trafford for Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League on Thursday, it will represent another milestone in a career that began when he was discovered as a 12-year-old ball juggling whizz.
Now 28, Soumah has been playing in club football in Europe for almost a decade and represented Guinea at the Africa Cup of Nations finals.
But his route to a successful professional career came through a chance meeting with the South African club Ajax Cape Town when he was just 12 years old.
It was in 2004 when Ajax competed in the African Champions League away against Fello Star in Conakry.
The club’s then owner John Comitis travelled with the squad, then under coach Gordon Igesund, who was later to become South Africa’s national team boss, and remembers the day like it was yesterday.
“Behind the goal while we were training the day before our game, there was this young boy juggling a tennis ball.” Comitis told BBC Sport.
“When I say to you that I didn’t see it drop more than three times in a half hour, I’m not kidding. He used left foot, right foot, knee, the back of his neck, on his head.
“I couldn’t believe it. Gordon comes up to me, midway through the session, and asks ‘have you been watching this kid?’ I said ‘yes, can you believe it? Call him here’ So he calls the kid over and he is all shy.
“I speak French, so I asked him ‘how old are you?’ He said ‘I’m 12’. ‘Can you do this with the big ball?’ We threw him the ball and he started to juggle it,” adds Comitis, now in charge at South African top flight club Cape Town City.
“It was absolute wizardry. Our players were standing around and starting to cheer him. We asked him if he could play. He said, ‘yes I can play’.
“So we got him into the five-a-side game and our guys couldn’t get the ball off him. He was so quick. He was knocking the ball off, it was just an amazing thing to see in a kid so young.”
Months of paperwork
Comitis felt he had discovered a gem and decided to act straight away.
“When we finished training, I asked ‘where do you live?’ We took him, and with all the Ajax players, in the bus, I went to see his mother and asked her, ‘can I take your boy back to South Africa? I’ll adopt him as his guardian’,” he continued.
That initial meeting led to protracted negotiations with Soumah’s elder brothers and other family members but they were intrigued by the prospect of the young Seydouba joining the Ajax academy.
“It took me months of paperwork, going through the immigration process, the guardian process. He was already 14 when he finally arrived in Cape Town,” Comitis explained.
“We stuck him in the under-15 team, After one training session, we moved him to under-17s. Literally one training session, it was so obvious how good he was.”
“A year or two later (Turkish-born coach) Muhsin Ertugral had joined Ajax and he stuck Soumah in the first team at the age of 16.”
But Ertugral left soon after and Soumah did not win subsequent coaches at the club, who felt he did not work hard enough off the ball, and so he played sporadically and started to stagnate
“But let me tell you this kid could play. He is the kind of player that a team can afford to carry. You’ve got to back him because he’s got the magic, the rest can work around him.”
A move to Europe
Comitis loaned Soumah out to two other Cape Town clubs for senior experience and then when the youngster had a chance for a trial in Slovakia, he reluctantly agreed he could go.
“I let him go to get a chance, although as his guardian he still called me for advice. I couldn’t deliver for him even though I knew what he could do. I can’t tell coaches ‘play him’. I was really frustrated. And all my coaches missed it,” he said.
At Nitra, some 100km from the capital Bratislava, Soumah made an immediate mark.
“I checked the contract, it was small but decent money. Eventually he played himself into a massive transfer when Slovan Bratislava, the biggest clubs in that country, came to sign him.”
At Slovan, Soumah was top scorer, won titles and burst into the Guinea national team.
Since then he has played in Israel and now in Serbia with Partizan where he combines with Nigeria Umar Sadiq in a dangerous attack.
“Quite a story,” says Comitis, who had hoped to travel to Manchester to watch Soumah play but chose to watch his South African club Cape Town City in action following the sacking of Benni McCarthy.
By: Mark Gleeson
Football Writer, South Africa/BBC