The story of a lost prodigy: Dissecting Mamadou Sakho's move to Liverpool
All good things must come to an end. All great relationships and fairy-tale associations eventually run their course and that is now unfortunately the case for Mamadou Sakho and Paris Saint-Germain after 11 years together.
The French international has joined English Premier League side Liverpool for a fee of 19 million euros, potentially rising to 23 million with bonuses, and the French champions lose a rare homegrown talent. Sakho's exit is a sad day for the club and it is a painful divorce. But the split had arguably become inevitable over the past few years, even if it was completely avoidable for both parties.
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It all started like a beautiful story, one that looked destined to start and finish in Paris. A wild and rebellious teenager, Sakho was tamed by a club that had made a habit of letting the greatest talents from its own doorstep slip through their fingers. Since the club's golden era of the mid-1990s PSG had taken their eye off of the youth academy. But the boy from the north of Paris was such a prodigious talent that the club had to sit up and take notice of him.
Sakho became a teenage prodigy for the side from the capital. Debuting at just 17 years of age, he became the youngest ever player to captain a Ligue 1 side, let alone PSG, when he was handed the captain's armband by coach Paul Le Guen against Valenciennes just four months after signing his first professional contract.
Full-time captain of the side by the age of 21, Sakho had quickly become an indispensable player for PSG. Along with fellow academy graduate Clement Chantome, who has also left the capital this summer, he became a symbol of the club's identity and proof that they could nurture talent. Interest from bigger clubs followed as his reputation grew, but despite some lean times before the arrival of Qatar Sports Investments, the club found a way to extend their star player's contract.
Heading into the QSI era, Sakho was the leader of the team, but that is when the dream started to fade. Under Antoine Kombouare, himself a former PSG player, he was indispensable. But once Carlo Ancelotti replaced the Frenchman, he disagreed and benched Sakho before eventually stripping him of the captaincy.
Eager to prove his worth to the Italian, the Sakho was brought on as a substitute late in the 2011-12 season away at Lille with PSG 1-0 up and chasing the title. After only 25 minutes on the pitch, Sakho conceded a penalty, was sent off and Lille went on to win 2-1 with the spot-kick proving the catalyst for victory. Since that costly error, he has faced an uphill battle at the Parc des Princes and Laurent Blanc's arrival sealed his fate.
The heart and soul of PSG on and off the pitch, you only need to look at what a first title in 19 years meant to the player to know how committed he was to the capital club. Vocal in how he bleeds Rouge-et-Bleu, Sakho led the title celebrations that followed victory at Lyon back in May. He even got carried away in his own jubilation with the title win and was disciplined for anti-Marseille chanting as he finally got to savour the league success he and the club craved.
But despite the immense promise, the loss of an exceptional talent and claims that another part of PSG's identity is dissolving, there has to be some realism exercised on the topic of Sakho. Firstly, it is an excellent deal for the French champions given that the player was in his last year of contract. Potentially it is also a very good signing for Liverpool, despite the relatively high transfer fee.
Potential, though, is the key word with Sakho, and it is a stick that has beaten him over the last few years.
When on top of his game, the 23-year-old is unplayable and tailor-made for Premier League football. Brute-like strength, athleticism and aerial prowess are just some of his main strengths; he also reads the game well and is as strong on the ground as he is in the air, losing little mobility. However, despite those traits making Sakho a potential world-class defender, the Frenchman has some character flaws that were eventually too severe to overcome in Paris.
His attitude, a lack of discipline including poor dieting habits and fractious relationships with certain members of staff, particularly in the early days, put his future at the club in jeopardy a long time ago. Many of his coaches were unhappy with his unprofessional demeanour, peaking with a nasty altercation with a journalist regarding his social habits, and PSG actually almost got rid of him as a teenager. However, at that time Sakho focused enough on his football to stay, although he arguably never embraced being a true professional.
That is perhaps why Ancelotti stripped him of the captaincy, despite the other obvious problems that making a 21-year-old captain creates. The club assumed that it was inevitable that he would eventually lead the side and do so for a long time, so why not prepare him for the role early by handing him the captaincy early?
That lack of professionalism, combined with the pressure of being a leader at such a tender age, had a terrible effect on Sakho though. He immediately started playing within himself, totally devoid of the confidence that had previously made him seem indestructible. Once the club realised that the responsibility was crushing their young star, Ancelotti had to make the difficult decision to remove him from the captaincy.
No longer PSG's most outstanding talent, Sakho struggled in the face of the new arrivals at the club after QSI's arrival. At the start of Ancelotti's reign, Alex joined from Chelsea as a direct rival for the central defensive berth alongside Milan Bisevac who spent less than 12 months in Paris. Even by this point early Qatari signing Diego Lugano was sinking without a trace.
Sakho also had to deal with criticism from within the hierarchy; sporting director Leonardo remarking that he was "a bit overweight" when asked why he wasn't featuring in the first team towards the end of the 2011-12 season. Then PSG managed to snare Brazil captain Thiago Silva from AC Milan at high cost, meaning there was realistically only one place in the side that he could now expect to occupy.
The Brazilian added to the competition for places that included his compatriot Alex and old stagers Sylvain Armand and Zoumana Camara who were viewed as the elder statesmen of the side. Sakho now found himself as the third choice in the centre of defence, surrounded by players vastly more experienced, and crucially more serious than he was.
When he was PSG's star, not only was he exempt from criticism when it perhaps would have done him some good, but he was staunchly defended by the club and especially the fans. But because of the comfort zone that had been created for him, he cried out in public instead of doing his talking on the pitch and in training. Now he had influential coaches such as Claude Makelele calling his complaints about competition for places "childish".
Earlier this summer, Marquinhos joined the club for 35 million Euros, heightening Sakho's anxiety. But when it became obvious in preseason that Blanc still saw a future at the club for Alex, who had been expected to make way for a Silva-Sakho partnership, it effectively made him fourth choice.
Sakho is and surely was a better option, in terms of pure talent, than Alex. But it can be no coincidence that Ancelotti and Blanc both chose to prefer an all-Brazilian Silva-Alex partnership knowing Sakho's situation and value to the club. As cumbersome as he may be, the former Chelsea man is simply more reliable and contributes towards a serene presence at the back alongside Silva.
There have been suggestions that Alex is preferred alongside the Selecao captain because he speaks Portuguese. It is not exactly true, but there may be some sense to it as Alex and Marquinhos are both Brazilian, and Silva's French still leaves a lot to be desired. But the underlying belief is that neither Ancelotti nor Blanc rated Sakho as serious or reliable enough to lead PSG to the glory they seek.
The harsh reality is that, despite how massively talented Sakho is, he had not developed in the two years since he was handed the bumper new contract and captaincy in 2011, making him one of France's best-paid players, before Qatar Sports Investments arrived. He has not regressed, but he has also not evolved into the player that so many predicted that he would become two years ago. That is largely down to his loveable, but at times debilitating immaturity.
In essence, he needs to grow up. The move to Liverpool could be perfect for that, and if he does then the Reds have some genuine leadership material on their hands.
PSG fans defended Sakho as passionately as they could, and still do in the wake of his move, because he is one of them. The club, to their credit, also gave him all the time they possibly could afford to, being more patient with domestic talent than any other European club in a similar situation. But the 23-year-old just could not mend his ways enough to convince both Ancelotti and Blanc, or the PSG hierarchy, that he was more than a squad player going into the future.
Identity-wise Sakho's loss is a massive blow for PSG. But as Adrien Rabiot showed with his goal against Guingamp on Saturday, and as Hervin Ongenda, Alphonse Areola, Kingsley Coman and Antoine Conte have all suggested with their recent progress, the capital club's future from the youth academy is extremely bright.
That doesn't mean that the move is completely acceptable though. Sakho, for many fans, was PSG's pride and joy, as evidenced by the angry tirades directed at the club following the move, but he was also immensely popular in the dressing room and as an elder brother figure to many of the current youth academy starlets.
His departure is made worse by the fact that, arguably, had it not even been the year before a potential World Cup appearance, this move might not have even happened and Sakho would have stayed to fight for his place. He hasn't though and the club and the player have to move on, both in a scenario that they never though they'd find themselves.
There are so many memories from Sakho's time at the club; it is difficult to just pick one or two. But he has always worn his heart of his sleeve and been open with his love for the club, so his unbridled joy at last season's title triumph was symbolic for PSG fans and will perhaps be the defining memory that sticks with them. It is better than the recollection of him in his last Ligue 1 outing in Lorient at the end of last season, finishing the match in goal after Ronan Le Crom was red carded.
Sakho is, and will always be, loved by the fans. He is one of them. He will be welcomed back to the Parc des Princes with open arms should he return in the future, but would also receive rapturous reception as an opponent.
Whatever happens in the next chapter of his career, he won't be walking alone.