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Koulibaly’s kindness: How Chelsea’s new signing gave coats to the homeless and ambulances to the needy

“It was like they’d met a hero, a great leader. Nobody important had taken care of them like Kalidou did.”

Salvatore Falco is head of media relations at Arci Mediterraneo, an organisation in Naples that helps migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. For years, he was like the majority of people in the city, only cheering Kalidou Koulibaly because of what he did in Napoli’s backline.

But then he got to see and know the other side of the man, a part of his character perhaps fans of Chelsea, who the 31-year-old joined last month for £34million ($41.43m), don’t know too much about: helping the less fortunate.

When Falco reached out to Koulibaly for the first time last year, stories of the defender’s generosity had already spread in Naples, like when he drove around handing out winter coats to homeless people; or when he bumped into a homeless child in a supermarket car park and passed them a €500 (£418, $509) note.

Koulibaly was never hard to spot when doing such things. He was famous anyway, but in the kind of areas he went to, there weren’t too many Porsches. It was always spontaneous, with no security to watch over him.

“He didn’t care,” Falco tells The Athletic. “He felt at home in Naples. We had some problems, a few cases where players had their car stolen. But it never happened to Koulibaly.”

Arci Mediterraneo wanted to acknowledge his efforts — along with Napoli team-mate Faouzi Ghoulam, who had also been spotted helping on the streets — with an award called the Social Impact prize.

Instead of putting in a token appearance, posing for a picture and leaving, Koulibaly asked questions about what Arci Mediterraneo was all about and what he could do to help.

On top of providing practical courses to teach people a trade and the Italian language, Arci Mediterraneo also runs a football team. One of the first things Koulibaly did after observing the facilities was send training tops, footballs and bags, among other items, to help them play their matches.

More significant was a personal visit last December to see the players, many of whom came from Senegal like his parents. The occasion coincided with International Migrants Day (December 18) and Koulibaly, who was racially abused during his time in Serie A, had a message to share with the footballers, most of whom were black.

Kalidou Koulibaly, fans


Kalidou Koulibaly with Napoli fans in May (Photo: MB Media/Getty Images)

The Athletic has been given a recording of the speech he made that night, delivered in Italian and translated in full below. It illustrates what the man was about and what he stands for.

“I don’t do a lot of public speaking,“ he began. “I’m more of a facts guy. What I can say is you (the team) are more powerful than we (professional footballers) are because at our level we don’t experience the same problems you do. We’ve experienced racism but not at the level you have because you don’t have the power to make your voice heard and be listened to like we do.

“We can go on TV. We’re more fortunate because if we’re the victims of racist abuse I then go on TV and it gets 10 times more coverage, I’m well known. You don’t have the power that I have. That’s why I’ve been arguing against the discrimination you go through.

“I use my voice to speak on your behalf because if you don’t have a voice, it’s my obligation to speak up, that’s my right. I don’t think about myself. It hurts when I’m a victim of racist abuse, of course it does. But the people who don’t have a voice, who aren’t listened to… they get abused and nobody says anything about it.

“Instead they get told: ‘Come on, don’t cry about it. It could be worse’. What do you mean it could be worse? For me, it could be worse, true. But for these kids, I don’t think it could get any worse. They’ve been on a far tougher journey than I have and I know quite a bit about it.

“I’ve got African friends who have been through the same, but it’s a journey none of us can even imagine. You have to hear their stories to believe them. I have friends who have tried. I didn’t because my parents moved to France. They moved for a job. It was easier for them.

“But these guys who have had to flee something or come because they dream of having a life like ours, honestly it’s surprised me. I admire them because they’ve taken a path that I can’t even imagine.

“I was lucky enough to go to school. My parents gave me a good start in life. I’m not from a rich family. I had what I needed and I continue to thank them for that. That’s why I fight for these kids who aren’t lucky enough to have my voice.

“I hope the team continues to do a good job, I hope in time the team changes. What do I mean by change? I mean some of the players hopefully go onto bigger and better things than the situations they’re in today. I wish them all the best in life because they’re part of the same society I’m a part of.”

Before he left, he made one last vow: “I won’t let you out of my sight, I want to know how things are going.”

A few months later, another van full of football gear arrived, but it was his words that had the most impact.

“Kalidou wasn’t talking like a football player, he was like a revolutionary or a prophet,” Falco concludes. “He listened to every story told to him, had time for everybody. A great guy. It’s not usual to meet a guy like him.”


Koulibaly arrives for Chelsea’s pre-season in the US (Photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

To celebrate his 30th birthday last year, Koulibaly shipped two ambulances, stretchers, hospital gowns, PPE equipment and thousands of protective masks to a hospital near where his parents were from in central Senegal.

When Cheikh Ndiaye, a 12-year-old Senegalese boy who suffered terrible burns after a fire, was flown to Naples for reconstructive surgery in 2019, Koulibaly was there to see him in hospital.

People get tired of all the negatives in the game and it’s refreshing to hear when a player does good deeds, but in a cynical world, there will always be those that will also ask if there is another motive.

His lawyer of several years, Fulvio Marrucco, who also negotiated Chelsea’s signing of Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo in 1996, knows Koulibaly better than most and insists there is no hidden agenda.

“I think Chelsea signed both a fantastic player and a fantastic human being,” he tells The Athletic. “Zola and Koulibaly are the best men, as well as the best players, that I have met in my life.

“When he arrived in Naples (Napoli signed him from Genk for £6.5m in 2014) he was young, very timid. But he has grown up over these years. His personality is so strong. I’m sure in a few years he could become another legend of Chelsea.

“Charity is part of his life. He always remembers his life from when he was young. His family came from Senegal and they were very poor. But he is a very reserved person when it comes to talking about what he does, so it is not easy to have news about his charity work. I know that he does a lot in Senegal as well as in Italy.”

He adds: “He is very close to the people of Senegal. This relationship is even stronger now he is captain of the Senegal team. The people call him the ‘minister of defence’.”

Koulibaly gave some insight when talking to The Players’ Tribune three years ago. After being born and raised in Saint-Dié, a town in north-east France, he didn’t meet his wider family in Senegal until he was six years old.


One of the ambulances Koulibaly shipped to a hospital in central Senegal

“My mother likes to tell a story about the first time we went back to Senegal,” he said. 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 mum says that I was begging her to go to the store and buy shoes for everybody so I could play football with them.”

It is not as if he lived a life of luxury in Saint-Dié, where immigrants from Senegal, Turkey and Morocco were simply trying to get by in a community, though many shared his inclination to think of others.

“If your mum needed something, you did not go to the grocery store first,” he added. “You went to ask your neighbours. No doors were closed to you. 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.”

Chelsea supporters were given another indication of Koulibaly’s disposition when he posted a clip on Twitter asking former captain John Terry if he could take the No 26 shirt at Stamford Bridge.

It was the number Terry wore during his Chelsea career. Koulibaly wanted it too, having worn it for Napoli, but was fully aware of what it might mean to Terry for him to do so. It was Zola who advised the centre-back to give Terry a call and the former England captain appreciated the gesture.

Marrucco offers some final thoughts on the player’s arrival at Chelsea: “He thinks this can be a great season. He sees Chelsea have a fantastic group and a fantastic coach. He is loving this new challenge.”

Just don’t be surprised if while he works hard to make Chelsea a success, he’ll be making a difference to others off the pitch, too. You just won’t hear much about it.

(Top photo: Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

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