When I spoke to Djibril Cissé – a man made just as famous for his image as he is for his football career – I found myself pleasantly surprised that he’s not only a warm, inclusive and friendly man but he’s incredibly down to Earth. Despite being distinctive visually, Djibril is just as happy with a rod in his hand fishing by the side of a river as he is strolling down a catwalk. Djibril Cisse is not the cliché millionaire footballer, I can assure you.
Djibril – a colourful and flamboyant personality – has enjoyed a storied career that has seen him play all across Europe in a variety of the top leagues on the continent, competing in the Champions League and on forty-one occasions for his country, France. His father – Ivory Coast international defender Mangue Cissé Djibrila – was rarely around due to his successful footballing career so Djibril was brought up mainly - with his six brothers and sisters - by their mother at their home in Arles, France. Although it was tough, Djibril’s upbringing was loving and the values he learned as a child transferred into his style as a footballer – he learned to enjoy playing football and play with dedication. He celebrates every goal as a fan would. That is why, despite the flashy image, fans of the teams that Djibril Cissé has represented still hold him in such high regard. He’s relatable.
Although born and raised in France, Djibril qualified to play for the Ivory Coast because of his father – though it was his home nation that came calling first.
"I was chosen for France in the 2002 World Cup and gained my first cap," Djibril shares. "The call from the Ivory Coast came too late, so I never followed my big brother to play in that shirt."
It was at French club Auxerre that Djibril found his first opportunity to prove himself as a professional footballer and, as he recalls, playing for such a big club led by a great manager was not going to be an opportunity he’d want to miss out on.
"Getting the chance to play for Auxerre was a special proud moment, lots of great names had played for this big club and the legendary Guy Roux, the French equivalent to Alex Ferguson, was the manager. It really was a big thing to play for Auxerre and I became a prolific scorer, scoring seventy times in under one-hundred-and-thirty appearances. I was skinnier than today, but was fast and still powerful."
After finding initial success playing in France it wasn’t long before a bigger European club came calling, and Djibril admits it was difficult to resist the overtures of a giant in Liverpool FC, managed then by Frenchman Gerard Houllier.
"Moving to Liverpool was a big step. Joining a team with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Dietmar Hamann and Michael Owen was really exciting for me," he notes.
When at Liverpool and having been signed for £14m it was not long before an awful injury befell him, snapping his fibula and tibia in a game against Blackburn Rovers. If it hadn’t been for quick medical attention, Djibril would have almost certainly have lost both his career and the use of his leg.
The medical team at Liverpool were convinced he would miss the whole season but Djibril refused to accept this and came back a few weeks before the end of the season. His recovery was extraordinary and testament to the drive and commitment he had instilled in him – nothing was going to stop him from playing football again. "The surgeon that saved my leg was the main guest at my wedding!" he quipped.
The rewards for having such determination to return was a Champions League winners medal, having scored one of the penalties in the shootout that saw Liverpool defeat the might of AC Milan having been 3-0 down at half time.
"This match was a highlight of my career. It is still a mystery as to how we managed to claw our way back into the game but when you have Steven Gerrard as your captain, miracles can happen. At half time we were three down and it could have been much worse for us - I can’t say there was strong belief in the dressing room - but we agreed if we could get an early goal then it would be easier. Steven scored and then the rest is amazing history."
After recovering from yet another serious leg break to earn a move to his boyhood club Marseille, Djibril found himself not always playing regularly in the side and he decided that he would need to move on elsewhere and find another club. That was when Sunderland came calling.
"Towards the end I was not playing so often and I needed games and time on the pitch so loan moves were considered. My agent called me and said that Sunderland were interested, and I knew that Anthony Le Tallec had played there so I had heard a little of the club. I went on to the internet to find out a bit more, and was intrigued. When I visited I was instantly very impressed with the Academy and the ground. I arrived on the Thursday and we had Spurs in London on the Saturday, so I did not train. My first game ended perfectly, scoring the winner to beat them 2-1."
Cissé is a footballing superstar and Sunderland being able to attract him to Wearside showed just how serious we were about competing in the most famous league in world football. Roy Keane showed Djibril just how much potential this sleeping giant had.
Roy was similar to Djibril in regard to them both being winners - both men spoke their minds and were clear on what they wanted. They both wanted Sunderland to be as high up the league table as was possible.
"I liked working with Roy Keane. It was a shame that our time together was much shorter and indeed not as successful as we had intended," Djibril explains.
"This was Roy’s first managerial experience and he was a young manager but he knew what he was doing. He was strict but fair, and incredibly thorough. When match days arrived he was ruthless and focused on game time. We were both 100% committed, and yes sometimes you react, shout and scream but you always knew it was the passion and drive showing and Roy and myself were always on the same page. At half time at Blackburn when we were not playing too well he came to me and said ‘I don’t think you are able to score the big goals’ and if you recall I did. I ran along the touch line and shook his hand. This was in complete respect and he now knew I could score the big goals. It was his challenge to me and I rose to it."
I had always wondered about whether or not Djibril was as tough to manage as some reports had suggested, so I asked him about his thoughts on the matter.
"I’ve had a long career. I have had two major injuries. My personality is bold, but football is my life. My career is very serious to me and I don’t cause problems for managers or clubs. I have always left at the end of the season and even if you never played me I was professional and respectful at all times, so anyone writing these things is wrong and does not know me or has not talked to my ex-colleagues." Point very well made, I think.
Djibril was at the club for under a year but in that short time he made a big impact. Scoring ten goals may well not be prolific but when he did score he had the ability to lift the roof off the Stadium of Light – "The greater the pressure, the better I play - I love the big games".
There is no doubt he left his mark at Sunderland. Scoring twice against Newcastle did much to endear him to the supporters, and it’s a time that Djibril recalls fondly.
"My first Wear-Tyne Derby was particularly memorable. I had played in many derbies (throughout my career) and tended to score. This was no exception, and I was confident. The atmosphere was tense, but I enjoyed it. I really wanted to make a statement to our fans and also the opposition.
We beat them 2-1 and it was the proudest moment of my short Sunderland career. In the reverse fixture we were winning through my goal but they got back into the game through a late equaliser - we were disappointed and we felt that we should have won both games. We wanted to win so much for the fans. The fans were always great to me. They sang my song all the time. I had been very lucky to engage with the fans and grow a special relationship with them. I gave my best and although I may have an occasional off day, I still believe that I give 100%."
Djibril’s strike partner that season, Kenwyne Jones, struck up an important friendship with the Frenchman during their stay – they even had their own goal celebration!
"Kenwyne is from Trinidad and we enjoyed the same types of Reggae music - our good relationship was easy to see. The goal celebrations came from a dance for a song we both liked at that time and it just stuck whenever we scored. Kenwyne scored eleven or twelve that season and I got ten, so I don’t think we made a bad partnership, did we?"
Djibril still has fond memories of his time at Sunderland, and of the fans. "I liked my time at Sunderland, it just came to an end too soon," he recalls. "Sunderland is a big club but they needed time to grow. They have a lot of fans who are very passionate, and will be a consistent top ten side given time, I am sure of that."
- Mark Harrison speaking to Djibril Cisse, October 2012.