Moussa Wagué, who played barefoot as a child in Senegal, has just made his first appearance for FC Barcelona in LaLiga this season.
Last Saturday, FC Barcelona beat CD Leganes 2-1 at the Estadio de Butarque, in what was a very special match for Moussa Wagué. This is because the Senegalese defender made his first appearance of the season in LaLiga for the Catalan giants. Joining in the summer of 2018 to initially play in the club’s academy side, prior to Saturday he had already played three games under Ernesto Valverde last season. For this campaign, he has become an integral part of the first-team squad, sporting the number 16 that was worn in the past by legendary Barcelona players such as Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Eusebio and Guillermo Amor, among many others.
"Waguéis ready to play and he already did so last season. The reason he’s in the squad is that we think he’s got what it takes to face challenges such as playing against Leganes," declared Valverde in the pre-match press conference. He has indeed proved this, and following an atypical summer in which he led his team to the runner-up spot in the Africa Cup of Nations, Wague was finally able to make a start for his side in LaLiga the last matchday, playing the entire ninety minutes at right-back for Barcelona.
Given his age – he has recently turned 21 - it would not be unfair to suggest that Wagué's career has only just taken off. However, if you look into his back story, he has overcome obstacles with the ease of a seasoned pro. “When I was six years old, we played barefoot with whatever ball we could get our hands on,” Wagué explained to Barcelona’s club media. “Just by having a round piece of leather we’d be happy. Or plastic or whatever it was […] because of the fact that I started out playing without boots it helped me improve my technique and have tough feet.”
The scout who discovered him, Xavi Gisbert, recently also looked back to the time he was spotted, in an interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia: “It was a small field of beach sand, it was unplayable. Many of the 140 children selected for the trial played barefoot, most of them with rubber beach shoes you used to see in the seventies, others with inappropriate hand-me-down boots, the kind that are passed between brothers until they’re totally worn out.” In that environment in Bignona, Senegal, diametrically opposed to what La Masia can offer in Barcelona, is where Wagué's talent began to flourish when he was a child. And flourish it did.
Following this, aged 14, he was selected to play at the Aspire Academy, in Saly, Senegal. “On the day of the trials, I didn't want to go because I was afraid of missing school and my dad would have told me off,” Moussa, who is very close to his family, recalled. "Sometimes I’m asked about my childhood idol ... But the truth is that my only idol was my dad," he acknowledges. It was in Saly, 400 kilometres from his home, and with two training sessions a day at the advanced facilities of the Aspire Academy, when the Senegalese prodigy began to step up a gear in his development as a footballer. It was also where he converted to a right-back position, having previously featured as a defensive midfielder. In little more than three years from then, he had already made the leap to Europe to play for KAS Eupen in the Belgian first division, although he didn’t make his debut until he was 18. His coach there was Claude Makelele, a Champions League winner, with whom he learned "to be a warrior."
It was playing in Belgium that saw Wagué called up to the Senegalese national team, with which he represented his nation at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It was a golden generation for his country's football. “It's my family,” recognizes Wagué. “I have my routines, especially before games. We eat our traditional dishes like thieboudienne, our national dish which is rice and fish-based, we dance to shake off the pressure, we pray together… Some of us are Muslim and others are Christian. But it doesn’t matter. Our prayers ask for the same thing and we feel that we are united towards a common goal.”
In Russia, they were the first nation in history to be eliminated by the fair-play rule, due to having picked up more yellow cards than their direct rivals, Japan. Yet Wagué had time to leave his mark during the group stage: with his goal against Japan he became the youngest African scorer in the history of the World Cup, at 19 years and 263 days. It was the ideal stamp to put on a career marked by precocity and, without him knowing it at the time, it was the most important goal of his life, the one that served as a springboard to seal his transfer to FC Barcelona shortly after the tournament. It was the culmination of a journey from Senegal to LaLiga, passing through Belgium and Russia.
This was Moussa Wagué's career until he joined one of the strongest clubs in the world, in the best league on the planet. In doing so, he became the twentieth African to represent Barcelona, and the first Senegalese player to do so in history. Watching other African stars like Samuel Eto’o, Seydou Keita and Yaya Touré featuring for Barcelona was the stuff of dreams for him when he was a youngster, and now he’s playing for the Catalan giants alongside players like Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Gerard Pique, Andre Ter Stegen and of course Lionel Messi.
“When I joined the club, I didn't know anyone, to be honest. Well, I’d seen them on TV of course […] And I found out that they were just normal people. Well, almost. I’ve never had this feeling with Messi. I’m too shy to spend much time with him right now, and if he knew that I had his shirt when I was little ... Maybe one day he will give me one of his own, a real one?” Wagué wistfully commented back in June. That’s why the match against Leganes, in which he started, was so special for the Senegalese defender. It was really a dream come true, another milestone in a career full of triumphs, with many more to come.
EN-NESYRY’S STUNNER PUTS WAGUE’S BARCELONA UNDER THE KOSH
The match between Barcelona and Leganes had another African make the headlines aside from Moussa Wague. It was Leganes’s Moroccan forward Youssef En-Nesyri, who netted one of the best strikes of the matchday. His left-footed screamer which flew past Ter Stegen lifted the Leganes fans at the Estadio Butarque which saw the league leaders up against the ropes and made it look like it was, in fact, Leganes topping the table. It was the third goal that the Moroccan international had scored in the last three games in LaLiga, further proof of the great spell of form he’s enjoying. It’s a timely purple patch, as this Leganes side now led by Javier Aguirre are in need of points. The other African on show was Nigerian central defender Kenneth Omeruo, who started for Leganes for the second consecutive game.
Follow Wague and Barcelona as they face Atletico Madrid this Sunday!