One of my favourite games to play when I'm in England is to keep a rough mental tally of which player is getting the most love by fans, as measured by the number of people walking around sporting his name and number. There are the perennial favourites for Liverpool — Gerrards, obviously, and now a ton of Suarezes — but I get a mad rush seeing people make bold choices, like Jordon Ibe on this year's third kit. That's commitment.
People will always be drawn to popular players, but I'm a firm believer that people are also drawn to a specific archetype of player as well. Over the course of many seasons, player personnel may come and go but the template for who might be your next favourite always exists, whether that be a penchant for pocket-sized attackers, slightly crazy keepers, or something tied less to position than to deeper personal qualities.
My favourite players indeed all have similar characteristics: they're players who don't seek out the spotlight; who toil in the background of a match, quietly pulling the strings; who can summon a mighty righteousness on behalf of an aggrieved teammate; who lead without ego; who do not participate in nor can stand to witness attempts to play the game in an underhanded way; who can honestly assess their own and the club's performance, and call people to task when things aren't good enough; and who have an investment in the long term, who can see beyond their own short-term gain for what they might accomplish long-term with the club to which they're loyal, and who may even be willing to put loyalty above silverware. (Tattoos help, although are surprisingly not a deal breaker.)
It shouldn't exactly be shocking, then, that I find it so easy to love Mamadou Sakho. Aside from his obvious talent, at twenty-three years-old he already displays a maturity well beyond his years, and comes across as self-aware, confident, generous, and eternally fashion forward. More than anything, though, Sakho's experiences and priorities lend a sharp relief to some of the sillier things that occasionally pop up in football — say, kit swapping at half-time — and give moment for pause as to how those experiences have shaped him.
"I have always known what I wanted to achieve in life," said Sakho in a fantastic, thorough, completely worth of your time interview with The Telegraph. "I have grown up with quite a tough mentality. When I was growing up it was in a fairly tough area of Paris. To illustrate that, some of the people I grew up with are either in prison. Or dead. I guess that gives you an idea.
"I was fortunate enough to get into the Paris St-Germain academy [Camp des Loges] at a young age and I attached myself to that, I threw myself into that and that really helped. It gave me the chance to take my family out of the difficult existence that they had up to that point."
At a time when a lot has been said about young football players and the corrupting influence of big fat contracts, Sakho's experience is a nice counterpoint. With his father having passed away when they player was fourteen, taking on the responsibility of caring for one's family is a huge burden for a teenager, but it forced Sakho to grow up "very, very quickly" and to be incredibly cognizant of the opportunities available to him through football.
Those opportunities eventually led to Merseyside, where Sakho quickly zeroed in on the key beliefs of the club and its every day operating principles that are becoming more and more present every day under Brendan Rodgers.
"The values of respect," Sakho said in describing the club's ideals. "It’s a mixture of a lot of different values which make me feel at ease. Respect; the spirit of wanting to help people. There is a stability here, the objectives are very, very high, the targets are set high. There is very much a union, almost a communion, between the fans and the club itself. The ultimate thing is the respect for the history, the respect for everything that has happened before at this club."
Truly, the interview really is worth reading in full, and or perhaps even getting tattooed over your heart. Sakho speaks about the first time he ever heard "You'll Never Walk Alone" as a child, Steven Gerrard's qualities as captain, Luis Suarez's attitude, and the club's Champions League aspirations, amongst other things. So early into his tenure, Sakho really seems to be a perfect match between club philosophy and the type of player — players of character — Rodgers had hoped to bring last summer. It's now up to Sakho to provide the on-pitch performances that help build a legacy for the player.
"My intentions are to come here and write my own page of history and be known for my time here," continued Sakho. "Hopefully if I do things well then the fans will remember me and I can carve my name in Liverpool’s history.
"I am also the sort of person who likes stability and I see myself staying here for a very long time."