The making of Sheffield United starlet Ismaila Coulibaly, a young man who has had to grow up fast
As a young man just turned 20 years of age and learning his craft around 5,000 miles from home, Ismaila Coulibaly has had to grow up fast.
Originally from Mali, the midfielder is currently earning rave reviews on loan with Beerschot. He is technically a Sheffield United player, having been signed from Sarpsborg 08 in Norway and loaned instantly to Belgium. When he moved to Sarpsborg, it was the first time he had left Africa. He had to make repeated trips back to Mali because his visa was only valid for a short time. A few months after arriving in Norway, he saw snow for the first time.
Coulibaly's career is still in its formative stages, but could have taken him elsewhere in the world already. Italian giants AC Milan were rumoured to have made an approach for his services in the present transfer window, while he turned down approaches from Club Brugge and Galatasaray - both offering more money - to sign for United, knowing that he would be loaned to Beerschot to further his development.
"My father advised me to accept the proposal: first a loan with a Belgian club, in order to obtain playing time, then join the Premier League", Coulibaly said.
"Smart reasoning, because there was no shortage of proposals, but you don't always have to go for the money. The Beerschot gave me more possibilities to progress."
Coulibaly's father is a big influence on his career and his household, of nine, was one of few back home to have satellite television, enabling those in his neighbourhood to gather and watch Premier League games.
The young Malian has set his sights on playing in the top flight one day, and many Blades fans want that day to arrive sooner rather than later – especially considering United’s perilous position in the table.
"If I already join the Premier League next season, it would first of all be a big compliment for [manager] Hernán Losada and my teammates. Because it is thanks to them that I am progressing so quickly," Coulibaly added, in an interview with Sport/Foot magazine.
"The coach often takes me aside to discuss details. Here, we give young people a chance and we correct you, so that you can improve. I signed a three-year contract, so the goal is for me to go through with it.
"I was greeted with open arms from day one. Right away, I felt like I had been playing here for several years. I set myself big goals when I arrived here and I want to achieve them at all costs.
"I feel good in Belgium, primarily because it is less cold there than in Norway. This cold tired me, both physically and mentally. I would have liked to stay in bed all day.
"All Beerschot players consider me their little brother. They protect me and keep telling me that I can go far. It gives me a good feeling. I was educated like this: I have respect for others and I always remain professional.
"Tactically, I still have to improve. I never worked on this aspect when I was young, but I think I have a good vision of the game. I often ask for advice, and I also insist that the staff tell me what has been and what was not.
"I was already doing it in Sarpsborg. I always want to know where I can still improve myself. What I learned at Beerschot is to play with one or two touches of the ball, to speed up the game.
"I was trained as a midfielder, but when necessary I was also played as a striker. It helps me today, I think I am able to feel the moment when I can carry myself forward. My natural position, however, remains that of central midfielder.
"As a number eight I can express myself more offensively. I have to say that the playing system used at Beerschot is the one I feel the best in. The Belgian championship suits me.
"I also try to think about my positioning after losing the ball, but it is not yet perfect. In fact, I am never satisfied."
A goalscoring midfielder, Coulibaly is so far the success story of the United World partnership. Prince Abdullah, United's owner, has a stake in Beerschot and after Coulibaly was flagged up as a player with potential by United World's recruitment team, joined United before immediately being loaned to Belgium.
United youngster George Broadbent has joined Coulibaly in Belgium, after being loaned to Beerschot for the remainder of the season. The Blades U23 regular made his debut for the club at the weekend, replacing Coulibaly as a late substitute in a 3-0 defeat to Club Brugge.
It is currently unclear whether United would be able to obtain a work permit for Coulibaly, after Brexit changed the system for players who don't hold a British passport.
Becoming a senior international with Mali may help smooth that particular process - players featuring regularly for a nation ranked in the top 50 by FIFA are essentially guaranteed a work permit. Mali are currently 57th.
"Defending the colors of the national team of Mali, it's a dream," he added.
"I have already discussed with the coach Mohamed Magassouba, he will probably call me soon. He follows me, but has not called me yet because he thinks I am too young. My moment will come.
"I remember as a child I was very moved when I saw the players lined up during the national anthem.
"I miss Mali a lot. I never saw my parents anymore, my brothers and sisters for over a year.
"I hope the pandemic will go away quickly, so we can meet again."