We Are All Brothers | Kalidou Koulibaly Opens Up About Racism On the Pitch

We Are All Brothers

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I think children understand the world better than adults do. Especially when it comes to how we treat other people.

Sometimes people ask me this question in interviews and it is very difficult to answer. They say, “Kouli, how does it feel when the fans make these racist howls at you? Does it bother you? What should be done?”

I think that until you have lived it, you cannot really understand. It is such an ugly thing, and it is hard to talk about. But I will try to explain it to you now, because there is an important message that I want every kid reading this to understand.

But first, we have to talk about hate.

The first time that I really experienced any racism in football was against Lazio a few seasons ago. Every time I got the ball, I heard the fans making noises. But I wasn’t sure if I was just imagining it. When the ball went out of play, I asked my teammates, “Are they only doing this to me?”

The match went on, and I realized some Lazio fans were making monkey noises whenever I touched the ball. It is impossible to know what you are supposed to do in this moment. There were times when I wanted to walk off the pitch to make a point, but then I told myself that this is exactly what they want. I remember thinking to myself, “Why do they do this? Because I am Black? Is it not normal to be a Black guy in this world?”

You are just playing the game you love, like you have done a thousand times before. You feel hurt. You feel insulted. Honestly, it gets to a point where you feel practically ashamed of yourself.

After a while, the referee, Mr. Irrati, stopped the match. He came running over to me, and he said, “Kalidou, I’m with you, don’t worry. Let’s stop these chants. If you don’t want to finish the game, let me know.”

I thought this was very brave of him. But I told him that I wanted to finish the match. They made an announcement to the fans, and after three minutes, we started playing again. But the chants did not stop.

Ettore Ferrari/ANSA via AP

At the final whistle, I was walking to the tunnel, and I was very, very angry. But then I remembered something important. Before the match, there was a little mascot boy who walked with me to the pitch, holding my hand. He asked if he could have my jersey. I promised that I would give it to him after the match. So I turned around and went looking for him. I found him in the stands and gave him my shirt. And guess what’s the first thing he said to me?

“I am very sorry for what happened.”

This really affected me a lot. This little guy was apologizing for I don’t know how many grown men. And this was the first thing he thinks about — how I was feeling.

I told him, “It doesn’t matter. Thank you. Ciao.”

This is the spirit of a child. This is what we are missing in the world right now. I know that these incidents are not just happening because of skin color. I hear what some fans call my teammates, too. They call the Serbian players “gypsies,” they call even an Italian like Lorenzo Insigne “Neapolitan shit.”

We need to do better. An incident happens, the clubs make a nice statement, and then it happens again. In England, we see how much has changed. When the person is identified, they are banned from the stadium forever. I hope that one day it is the same in Italy. But I also think of the people doing this. How can you make the people change? How can you reach them in their heart?

I do not have the answers for this. All I can do is tell you my story.

Maybe some people look at me and just see a footballer, or a Black footballer. But I am much more than this. I tell my best friends all the time, “If you look at me as a footballer, and not as Little Kouli, and not as your friend, then I have failed in life.”

Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

I grew up in a town in France called Saint-Dié, where there were many immigrants — Senegalese, Morrocans, Turks. My parents came from Senegal. My father came first, actually. He was a lumberjack. Yes, a real French lumberjack. They do exist. But before he got that job, he came to Paris with no papers and worked in a textile mill. Seven days a week. No Saturdays or Sundays off. He did this for five years so he could save up enough money to bring my mother to France. And then eventually, Little Kalidou was born in Saint-Dié. (My name was picked from the Koran.)

My mother likes to tell a story about the first time we went back to Senegal. I was six years old, and I was a little scared. It was my first time meeting all my grandparents and cousins, and it was a bit of a shock for me to see how people lived in other parts of the world. All the kids were running around playing football with no shoes, and I was really upset by this, I guess.

My mom says that I was begging her to go to the store and buy shoes for everybody, so I could play football with them.

But my mother said, “Kalidou, just take your shoes off. Go play like they do.”

In the end, I threw off my shoes and went to play barefoot with my cousins — and this is where my football story begins. When we got back to France, I was playing every day in the little park by our house. There were so many immigrants in the neighborhood that we would play Senegal vs. Morocco. Turkey vs. France. Turkey vs. Senegal.

It was like the World Cup every single day.

This was the kind of neighborhood where … how can I explain this? If your mom needed something, you did not go to the grocery store first. You went to ask your neighbors. No doors were closed to you, do you understand? When I would go to my friend’s house and say, “Hello, is Mohammed there?”

His mother would say, “No, he’s out. But do you want to play the PlayStation?”

You see, I didn’t have a PlayStation at home, so I’d take my shoes off and go inside to chill like it was my house. I was completely welcome.

If she told me, “Kalidou, go to the store and get us some bread,” I would go to the store like she was my own mother.

When you grow up in this environment, you see everyone as your brother. We are Black, white, Arab, African, Muslim, Christian, yes — but we are all French. We are all hungry, so let’s go have a Turkish meal together. Or tonight, let’s all go to my house and eat Senegalese food. Yes, we have differences, but we are all equal.

We are Black, white, Arab, African, Muslim, Christian, yes — but we are all French.

I remember during the 2002 World Cup, we had to go to school during the match between France and Senegal. The tournament was in Japan, so there was a time difference. We all went outside at recess and played football like it was the World Cup final, and then we had to go back inside and study.

We were very depressed.

The match was at 2 p.m.

At 1:59, our teacher said to us, “Come on, everybody open their books.”

We opened our books. We were dreaming, though. Nobody could think about reading. We were thinking about Henry, Zizou, Diouf….

Two minutes pass. Three minutes pass. Then our teacher looks at his watch.

He says, “O.K., everybody put their books away.”

We thought, What’s going on? What is he talking about?

He says, “Now we are going to watch an educational film that I am sure everybody will find very boring.”

He took the remote and turned the little classroom TV to the match.

He says, “This is our secret, yes?”

It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. There were 25 of us in the class — Turks, Moroccans, Senegalese, French — but we were all together. I remember so clearly after Senegal won, walking back home after school and seeing all the parents of my Senegalese friends dancing in the street. And then, because everybody was so happy, even the parents of the Turks and the French started dancing with them.

This memory sticks in my mind, because this is what football is about. This is what my neighborhood is about.

You can have everything in life — you can have money, you can have beautiful cars. But you can’t buy anywhere these three things: friendship, family, and serenity.

These are the most important things in life.

You can’t buy these anywhere. This is the most important lesson that we can teach our children. This is what my parents taught me. They did not care about football at all. Really, at all.

My parents never came to my football matches. My dad came one time. My mom, never. But sometimes they would watch the big matches with me when they were on TV. So I always had it in my mind that if they don’t come to the stadium, then I would have to bring the stadium to them.

I have to be on TV so they can see me.

I will never forget when I got called up to the first team with Metz. I came on late as a substitute, and I knew the match was on TV. So right after the game, I called up my mother and I said, “Mom, were you watching? Were you happy?”

She said, “Happy? You always play football. It is normal. It is what you like, right? Now you are just on TV. That’s nice.”

Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images

She didn’t mean it in a bad way — this is just the way she is. For her, it is the same game I was playing as a child. Maybe it would be good for more people to see it like this. Football is a game that is supposed to bring people closer together, no? Football has taken me around the world. I went to Genk in Belgium and then to Napoli in Italy, and I learned many languages and met many different people.

There is an expression, “When you learn all the languages, you can open all the doors.”

I will not lie to you, I am just as guilty as anyone of having my own ideas about people and places. Before I came to Napoli, I was really anxious because I didn’t know the language, and I had heard some people talking bad about the mafia and crime and all this stuff. I had never been there, so I didn’t know if they were telling the truth.

Actually, this is a funny story.

When I was in Belgium playing for Genk, my friend Ahmed was coming to stay at my house for a few days. So I’m waiting for him to arrive from the train, and I get this call from a strange number.

When you learn all the languages, you can open all the doors.

I answer, in English, “Hello? Who is this?”

The voice says, “Hello, this is Rafa Benítez.”

I say, “Come on, Ahmed, stop playing with me. I am waiting here for you.”

I hang up the phone.

He calls me again, and now I’m annoyed.

I say, “Ahmed, stop it. I am here. When do you arrive?”

He says, “Hello? I’m Rafa Benítez.”

I hang up the phone again.

Then I get a call from my agent. I pick up the phone.

He says, “Kouli, how are you? Have you heard from Rafa Benítez at Napoli? He’s going to call you.”

I said, “What?! Are you kidding me? I think he just called me. I thought it was my friend playing a joke!”

My agent calls Rafa to explain what happened, and then Rafa calls me again, and I pick up the phone like nothing has happened.

I say, “Hello, Rafa! Hello! Bonjour! Hola! Hello!”

He says, “Hello, do you want me to speak in English?”

I say, “As you wish, we speak whatever you want.”

So we ended up speaking in French.

He was asking me so many questions — do you have a girlfriend, do you like to go out to party, do you know the city, the players?

I said, “Well, Mister … I know Hamšík?”

The truth is, I didn’t really know the players or anything about the city, but of course I knew Rafa Benítez, and I was very impressed with everything he said.

I called my agent right away and I said, “Do whatever you have to do. We’re going to Napoli.”

Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

There were only 48 hours left in the winter transfer window, and Napoli could not work out a deal with Genk. But Rafa was true to his word, and he bought me in the summer. When I arrived for my medical, I was very nervous, because I didn’t speak any Italian yet. I was greeted by the chairman, Mr. De Laurentiis, in the hallway.

And I think this says everything about Napoli and the club.

He’s looking at me kind of funny, and he says, “Oh, you’re Koulibaly?”

I say, “Yes, I am Koulibaly.”

He says, “But you’re not tall? Aren’t you 1.92 meters?”

I say, “No, Mr. President, I am 1.86 meters.”

He says, “Damn! It is written everywhere that you are 1.92! I am going to have to speak to Genk and get some money back!”

I say, “It’s alright, Mr. President, you pay the full amount. I will give every centimeter back to you on the field, don’t worry.”

He liked that a lot. He was laughing and he said, “O.K., O.K., you are welcome here in Napoli, Koulibaly. You are welcome.”

Mr. President, you pay the full amount. I will give every centimeter back to you on the field, don’t worry.

After my medical, Rafa took me out to lunch, and the first thing he did after we sat down, before we even got the menus, he took all the wine glasses from the other tables. He was laying them out on the table and sliding them around. I am thinking, What is he doing? Is he mad?

He said, “O.K., now I show you the tactics.”

The waiter comes over, and the Mister is pushing the glasses everywhere, saying, “This is how we play. You go here, then you go there. Do you understand? Now, you must do two things very quickly: You must understand these tactics, and you must learn Italian.”

I said, “O.K., boss, O.K.”

When I returned from a little vacation, Rafa shut me in a room with the head of video analysis, and he was showing me all of my best plays. Sensational passes, dribbling, sliding tackles.

He says, “This, this and this?”

I say, “Yes? It’s good, no?”

He says, “Don’t do this shit anymore.”

I say, “But I won the ball back!”

It’s hard to translate the next part, but he says, “This is ass! You won it back because of your strength. If your opponent was smarter, you would be in trouble.”

Then he shows me this other video. Very boring. Normal plays.

He’s smiling and he says, “Yes! This is good. This is very good.”

I say, “But, sir, these are simple plays.”

He says, “Yes, Kouli, exactly.”

This says everything about my experience here. When I arrived in Italy, I was a boy. I became a better footballer, because I learned top-level tactics. They are so meticulous with the tactics here. But the most important thing is that I also became a family man and a real Neapolitan.

Even when I go back home to France now, my friends don’t call me “the Senegalese” or “the French.” They say, “Ah, here comes the Neapolitan.”

Napoli is a city that loves people. It reminds me of Africa because of all of the warmth. People do not just look past you. People want to reach out and touch you, they want to talk to you. The people don’t tolerate you, they love you. My neighbors, they consider me like a son. Since I have been in Napoli, I am like another man. I am really at peace.

Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

The best part for me is that my son was born here. And I will never forget this day, because it is a crazy story that sums up everything about Napoli.

You see, my wife went into the clinic in the morning, and we were playing Sassuolo at home that night. We were in a video analysis session, and my phone kept vibrating. I usually turn it off, but I was worried for my wife.

She called me five or six times.

Our manager at the time was Maurizio Sarri. He’s a very intense guy. So I didn’t want to answer. Finally, I ran outside and picked up the phone and my wife said, “You have to come now. Our son is coming.”

I go to Sarri and I say, “Mister, I’m sorry but I have to go now! My son is coming!”

Sarri looks at me and says, “No, no, no. I need you tonight, Kouli. I really need you. You can’t go.”

I say, “This is the birth of my son, Mister. You can do whatever you want to me. Fine me, suspend me, I don’t care. I am going.”

Sarri looks so stressed, and he is smoking his cigarette. Smoking, smoking, thinking … then finally he says, “O.K., O.K., you can go to the clinic. But you have to be back for the match tonight. I need you, Kouli!”

I raced over to the clinic as fast as I could. If you have never been a father for the first time, then you cannot understand this feeling. You can’t miss the birth of your son. I arrived at the clinic at noon, and thank God, at 1:30, a little Neapolitan was born. We named him Seni. It was the happiest day of my life.

At 4 p.m., I got a call from Mr. Sarri. This guy … you just have to understand … he’s crazy. I say this in a good way, but he is crazy!

He says, “Kouli?! Are you coming back?! I need you! I really need you! Please!”

My wife was still resting, and she probably needed me, too. But I didn’t want to let my teammates down because I love them, really. And I love the city of Napoli. I got the blessing of my wife, and I went to the stadium. So then I am getting ready to play, and Sarri comes into the dressing room and puts up the team sheet. And I am looking … looking … looking….

My number is not there.

I said, “Mister! Are you kidding me?”

He said, “What? It is my choice.”

He put me on the bench!

He didn’t even start me!

I said, “Mister! My son! My wife! I left them! You said you needed me!”

He said, “Yes, we need you on the bench.”

All of this drama, and I am not even starting!

I think about this now, and I want to laugh. But at the time, I want to cry.

Maybe you think this is a negative story. But for me, this story is everything that I love about Napoli. If I have to explain it, then you won’t understand. It is like trying to explain a joke. You just have to come to the city and then you will feel it. It is crazy, yes. But it is warm.

Claudia Gori/The Players' Tribune

Maybe now you know me a little bit more.

I am a footballer, yes.

I am a Black footballer.

But this is not all that I am.

I am Muslim. I am Senegalese. I am French. I am a Neapolitan.

And I am a father.

I have been all over the world, and I have learned many languages and opened many doors. I have been fortunate to earn a lot of money. But I will remind you again the most important lesson that I ever learned.

There are three things in this world that you cannot buy anywhere: friendship, family, and serenity.

This is what we understood in Saint-Dié, as children. This is what I want my own son to understand.

This is what I hope those people who howl at me will remember, some day.

Maybe we are different, yes.

But we are all brothers.