Speaking in an exclusive interview with Football News, former Rennes, Montpellier and Aston Villa midfielder Yacouba Sylla discussed a topsy-turvy 2017/18 campaign that saw him caught up in the madness of the Greek 1st division and relegated in Belgium.
How have you been finding playing in Belgium?
I came to Belgium after terminating my loan with Panathinaikos as I wasn’t being paid. Here, I’ve been able to discover a league which is completely different to the ones I’d known before. Unfortunately, my team [Mechelen] was relegated at the end of the season, having already been in a bad position when I arrived. So in the end, I had gone in a short period of time from Panathinaikos, an iconic club with a great history that was playing in Europe, to ending up at a relegated side in Belgium.
What specifically were the problems at Panathinaikos?
There were issues related to paying my wages. Nevertheless, it’s a great club and the people there are really nice and keep working despite the club’s financial problems. Whether it be the physios or the technical staff, you wouldn’t tell that they’re not being paid – every morning, they’re giving it 100%, it’s exceptional. Their culture isn’t one where you complain, and I found this amazing. Aside from the salary issue, it was going well. Unfortunately, it had to come to an end in December as my future was at stake, seeing as the option to buy on my loan wouldn’t be taken up due to the club’s financial situation, even though I’d played all the games since I arrived.
So this mentality was new to you?
I’ve known the Turkish mentality, the English mentality and the French mentality, but this was totally different. The Greeks really don’t complain, they make the most out of what they have and just get on with it. It’s a shame this situation tainted our season because we had a quality team, we had even played a European qualifier against Athletic Bilbao this summer.
How did you transfer to Mechelen play out?
It was in December, and I had contacted the Rennes management to let them know that I wanted to leave Panathinaikos because my future wasn’t secure and that I wanted to find a solution that suited me. The club accepted, and the club president told me that if I found a club that would take me, I could go back out on loan. I went back to Paris as I waited for the situation to play out, but a few days later Rennes had changed their stance and wanted to sell. I then found myself in a situation where I had to find a new challenge whilst finding a club that could buy me, which was difficult as the original plan wasn’t to leave permanently.
I found myself with offers from two Belgian sides as well as interest from Amiens. The original loan offers didn’t really interest Rennes, so those offers for a permanent deal were better. Amiens were very interested, but I don’t think they managed to go all the way. The Belgian teams were Eupen and Mechelen, who both put €750k on the table and in the end the club president let me leave.
The situation was that if I didn’t go, I would have technically been unemployed – seeing as Panathinaikos had taken on the responsibility for 100% of my wage for the whole season, Rennes were under no obligation to pay me for six months when I came back, even if I was still under contract with them. They told me we had to find a solution where all parties benefited. Otherwise I wouldn’t have imagined myself coming to the second to last placed team in Belgium, considering my previous clubs, but I went there so that I could keep playing competitively and in a first division. I’ve taken a lot from this season, and although it hasn’t gone to plan and we were relegated, I’ve met some great people there.
With the club now relegated, have you had any transfer offers this summer?
I already had an agreement in place with Mechelen so that the club would facilitate my departure should the club be relegated at the end of the season. They know that it would be difficult for me to be playing in the Belgian second division, especially considering my status as captain of the Mali national team. But I want to thank them for their incredible support.
The most important thing for me is to find myself within a project that suits me so that I can have the season that’s missing from my career, which I know is coming. People have been getting in contact ever since the club went down. However, now that I’ve played in Turkey and Greece, I’m a bit hesitant in terms of the potential destinations. My entourage has been contacted by several Ligue 1 clubs with a view to a potential transfer.
So is the objective a return to Ligue 1?
Not necessarily. The objective is to find the right project, one where there will be a good understanding between me, the coach and the people in charge, or the one where I’ll feel the most at ease and where things are set out from the beginning. I’ve no worries about this, because my people are already speaking to Ligue 1 clubs. As we know, the market is big in Ligue 1, because clubs have to sell before they can start buying. I would say I’m one of the potential good deals of the summer, but I’m not going to worry too much about it – if it has to be abroad, then it’ll be abroad. I just don’t want to get it wrong this time round.
Clarity and stability are the most important things for you, then.
Exactly. That’s very important for me at this time. While I don’t regret my time at Mechelen, I know that it’s not my place. It’s a very well-structured club that was unfortunately relegated despite its history, its standing and its fans – they’re a lot like Lens’ fans, I’ve rarely seen anything like it! But that’s the way football is.
What have you thought of your little brother’s [Moussa Sylla] rise to the Monaco first team this season?
It doesn’t surprise me at all, he’s always known exactly what he wanted. We’ve always worked together as a family, with individual objectives that all seem to resemble each other. He’s worked hard, been patient and waited for his time, which came at the right moment seeing as he replaced Falcao at a time when the pressure was high with Champions’ League qualification at stake.
Scoring a brace in your first match is something extraordinary – not many young players have achieved that at the start of their careers, but on the other hand we shouldn’t get carried away. I know he’s had offers, but he has a European Championships to prepare [U19 European Championships, in mid-July] for and there he’ll have to confirm what he’s already shown.
You just have to look at the example of players like Layvin Kurzawa or Valère Germain at Monaco, for whom it wasn’t easy but they waited for their time to come. It’s up to Moussa to keep it up and we’ll be behind him to encourage him. He deserves his place in the first team and he’s shown a lot of patience, and who knows, if his performances stay that way he can really impose himself.
What have you made of the World Cup so far?
It’s really the Holy Grail of football, it’s not everyone that gets the chance to play there. The big teams have to show up, as it’s not easy to play against weaker nations. Not all players in Russia have had the same journey to the World Cup, especially if you’re from South America, Asia, or Africa, so not everyone has the same level. It’s a big game for each of these teams, so I would say well done to the big teams who managed to win in these first few games, but things will start to get interesting once we get to the quarter finals, though.
I’ve personally been following Senegal and Morocco. I grew around a lot of Senegalese people, so it’s in a way my second country, and I have friends who play for the Moroccan team. I’m also following France since it’s my country of birth, and it would be great to see them get as far as possible.
Can Mali one day reach the World Cup?
Of course. Anything is possible, as long as we can get past the qualifying rounds. These days we’re seeing teams like Iran in the World Cup, so why not Mali one day? As captain, that’s all I want for the team, be it with this generation or a future one.