9 Apr 2011

Chelsea striker tells Stuart James he has more than football on his mind – his father is caught up in the Ivory Coast conflict

Salomon Kalou has a huge weight on his mind and it has nothing to do with Chelsea's Champions League defeat against Manchester United in midweek. The prospect of finishing the season at Stamford Bridge without a trophy is hard to contemplate but it pales into insignificance compared with the heartache Kalou feels when he turns his thoughts to his family and friends caught up in the conflict in the Ivory Coast.

The bitter and bloody fallout from last November's presidential elections has plunged the country where Kalou spent the first 17 years of his life back into civil war. Thousands have been killed and the harrowing images of the street battles in Abidjan, where his father, Antoine, and other members of his extended family live, together with the stories of food and water shortages in what was once West Africa's most prosperous country, plague Kalou's conscience.

"It's very hard to go on to the pitch and say I'm not thinking about people dying every day, I'm not thinking about my friends not eating, my dad not getting help," Kalou says. "To be honest, I worry every day. I am thinking more about that than anything else. Any chance I have to go on the phone or to go on the news and check I do, because that's my main priority. I need to make sure my family are safe.

"I got my mum and five sisters out four days before it started. When we played against Benin in Ghana last month with Ivory Coast [in an African Cup of Nations qualifier moved to a neutral venue because of the violence], I got them to come and watch the game and from there they went to Togo. They can stay there until the end of the situation. My dad was going to come as well but the war started on the day he was going to come."

Kalou acknowledges he is in a fortunate position to be able to afford sanctuary for his mother and sisters in Togo for as long as they need it, but he feels "helpless" in relation to his father's predicament. The problems in Abidjan mean that, at the time of this interview, which takes place at his home in Surrey on Thursday evening, Kalou has gone three days without speaking to his father. He is desperate to hear news of a peaceful resolution.

"I don't want to take any sides and I don't want to get involved in the politics of the Ivory Coast because politics is for politicians, but it hurts me to see my friends, my brothers, killing each other," he says. "Some of my best friends are from the north, I'm from the west, I have friends from the south – I have a lot of Ivorian friends. Ivorians don't have problems with Ivorians. Politics are dividing people. But is that a reason for people to kill? Why not stop that now and talk.

People from outside should help to bring peace. Bring food and water to people. That's what I call worrying about the civilians. Then I can have respect for that and say those people really care. If your priority is to say one side loses and one side wins, then you are not stopping anything. They will keep fighting and, in the end, when everyone is gone, what is left for those people? Those kids who have seen the war and people dying, how many years is it going to take for them to get over it?"

Although Kalou admits it is impossible to erase those questions from his mind, the football pitch at least provides a place to try to escape. His only wish is that he spent much more time immersing himself in playing, rather than watching from the substitutes' bench, which was again the case on Wednesday night, when Chelsea lost 1-0 to United and Kalou was forced to endure the familiar sight of the strikers picked ahead of him fluffing their lines.

It is a frustrating situation, especially as this season Kalou has by far the best goals-to-minutes ratio in the Premier League of the four Chelsea forwards and is second only to Nicolas Anelka in all competitions. "That speaks for itself," Kalou says as he runs his eyes over the figures. "I think a player can be great if you have the opportunity to play every week and show what you can do. If you take a player like [Lionel] Messi and you don't play him, you won't see how good he is.

"All along my time at Chelsea there is always a big name playing and that makes it difficult for the manager to put me in the team. And I understand that, because coming in as a young player in a big club, you have to fight your way through. But I have been here for five years, scored over 50 goals for the club and there are some big players who have been here who haven't done that. But I think the fans appreciate my record."

Kalou reels off the names of Hernán Crespo, Andriy Shevchenko, Mateja Kezman and Claudio Pizarro to illustrate his point. It is tempting to wonder whether the much-maligned Fernando Torres will be next on the list, although Kalou insists he is pleased the Spaniard signed. "The arrival of Torres is a benefit to me because now I get to play my real position, behind the striker – that's where I was playing before I joined Chelsea. I played with Torres against Manchester City and I thought it was really good. We had very good movement and created chances."

Chelsea triumphed 2-0 that day, although it was the only match Kalou has started in the last seven, raising the obvious question about what he can do to change things. "I think I can talk to the club and see what my position is because it's frustrating to not get involved knowing that you're playing better than others," the former Feyenoord striker says. "I did speak to Carlo Ancelotti. He is an understanding man. He knows what I feel as a player because he played before."

Will it get to the stage where he thinks he has to go to a club where he will be the main forward? "Of course. I think about it all the time," Kalou says. "That's what my goal is [to be the first choice]. If you look at those statistics, if I play double the games, I'm sure I can do better than that. I think people know and I think the club know – they never let me go or try to sell me. I believe that my time is coming at Chelsea, and if it's not at Chelsea it will be at another team."

Yet Kalou is such an affable, laid-back character that it is difficult to imagine him making demands or creating a scene when overlooked. "If I'm not happy I'm not playing, I don't really show my emotions," the 25-year-old admits. "Sometimes, maybe I should show more because it's good for the manager to know that the player is pissed off not to play. I'm relaxed and easy-going and people think that whatever he gets to play he will be happy. But that's not the case sometimes."

For Kalou, though, it is about "showing respect" for his team-mates when he is left out and supporting them, which helps to explain why he is so well liked at Chelsea at all levels. He smiles knowingly when it is suggested he is popular with Roman Abramovich, the club's owner, and the rest of the board.

"They know that I never complain, never make trouble and never try to bring the club's image down. They have the belief that most of the players who will complain will be doing crazy stuff in training and not training well and that's not the case with me, so I think they respect that and they also have respect for the fact that, even though I am not playing, I can have better statistics than the player who does."

One statistic Kalou would prefer not to have to his name, however, is the club record he broke last Saturday at Stoke, when he made his 94th substitute appearance for Chelsea. "It's like getting a plastic medal. It's kind of like, you've done good to be a sub. That's not what I want," he says, shaking his head. "I want to have a real impact as an important player for Chelsea because I know I have the ability to do that.

"The only thing is to be playing regularly and have the confidence and rhythm of those games. Then you can show what you can do. If you can play 20 minutes and change a game, you can change a game in 90 minutes."

The evidence of one of his more recent contributions from the bench can be found in his lounge, where the man-of-the-match champagne from the Blackpool game last month, when he replaced Didier Drogba to create two Chelsea goals in a 3-1 victory, sits next to the signed ball he took home after scoring a hat-trick against Stoke City 12 months ago. One of Usain Bolt's running shoes, a picture of Diego Maradona in his prime and a signed Muhammad Ali boxing glove complete the sporting backdrop.

Kalou gives a guided tour of the rest of the house, which is decorated with shirts from some of the world's greatest players, as an interview that lasts the length of time he would like to spend on the pitch against Wigan on Saturday draws to a close. One conversation, though, is difficult to leave behind. "We need to stop the war," he says. "What I worry about is my family to not get hurt and my country to not get destroyed. My concern is not who is going to govern. My main concern is peace."

SOURCE:The Guardian


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