Salomon Kalou has always been a model professional. Wherever he has played, the Côte d'Ivoire forward has pushed himself hard to meet expectations and score goals. And score them he has, starting in Europe at Feyenoord, where he arrived at a very young age from ASEC Abidjan, before further feats at Chelsea and Lille. He has the evidence to prove his impact too, having kept the match ball after notching hat-tricks in all three countries.
The key to Kalou's professionalism is no doubt his passion for the game. Nostalgic for the days when he followed the CAF Africa Cup of Nations with loved ones back home, the 29-year-old showed up for his first training session at Chelsea wielding a camera and counts the shirts he has swapped with opponents as some of his most cherished possessions. Intermittently serious and light-hearted, but always sincere, his enthusiasm also makes him an engaging speaker on issues such as witch doctors in African football and the civil war in Côte d'Ivoire.
Talking to FIFA.com, the Hertha Berlin striker shared his thoughts on all those subjects, along with his hopes for the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and the legacy of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o.
FIFA.com: Côte d’Ivoire are about to start their 2015 Africa Cup of Nations bid. What is the atmosphere like across the country ahead of the event?
Salomon Kalou: Everyone's getting prepared for it. People talk about nothing else, get together and check the TV works. People decorate their homes and everyone wears orange capes and orange shirts. They always do everything they can from home to push our country towards victory. It's a huge party, and you see everyone in the streets dressed in orange, white and green. People organise evenings to watch games together, and there are parties and music. It's a bit like a huge carnival across the whole country every time the competition is approaching.
Has that enthusiasm faded for you a little since you became part of the squad?
Yes, I miss that a lot. When you become a professional player, you lose a bit of that passion and you see the tournament differently – we're focused and have objectives. You lose the fun and festive side of the Cup of Nations; we just want to get stuck in and can't wait for the competition to start. When you're a fan, you feel that passion and you can feel the temperature rising little by little until kick-off in the first match. After that, you live every second of the competition very passionately. I used to love that atmosphere.
Along with Guinea and Mali, you will face Cameroon in Group D – a game that will not feature international retirees Drogba and Eto'o. That will feel a little like Real Madrid against Barcelona without Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
(Laughs) Yes, it's true you could describe it like that. It's difficult to imagine. But it's a little like if you tried a few years ago to imagine Barça without Ronaldinho and Real without Zinedine Zidane, and yet today we have Messi and Ronaldo. Both teams always have new players who come in and take over. Even if the two teams will miss Didier and Samuel greatly, a match between Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon is always huge and it's been that way for a while. There's a big rivalry between the sides and that will carry on, even after the retirement of those two great players.
Are Drogba and Eto'o models for a whole generation of African youngsters?
Both players pushed African football beyond its limits. Today, Eto'o and Drogba represent not just Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon but the success of an entire continent, and they've set an example for youngsters across the whole of Africa, and not just in football. The fact that they experienced success with their countries and also the big clubs they've played for has opened doors for all of us. Thanks to them, when an African player joins a club, people respect him more. They've set the best possible example of what you can expect from an African player.
At the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Côte d'Ivoire had Drogba, Cameroon had Eto'o, Argentina had Messi, Brazil had Neymar and Portugal had Ronaldo – but Germany won with more of a team approach. Does that prove that success comes from collective effort?
Having the best players isn't enough to win. You need to be organised and balanced to win a tournament. When you look at the records of all the biggest teams in history, Germany and Italy always go very far, and often all the way, because they always have good organisation and a winning mentality. And yet, neither of them has really had the kind of immense players Argentina and Brazil have had. It helps to have a great player, but it's not an automatic guarantee that you'll win tournaments.
Because of that, do you think the Elephants can be even stronger and win a tournament without Didier Drogba?
It's clear that, when you lose a major asset like Didier, people don't see you as favourites so much because they reckon you're less strong without him. But we're still a solid side and we can be even better collectively and win the tournament. At certain times in the past, perhaps we relied too much on our individual players to the detriment of the team. In a few of the easier games, that was enough for us to win, but each time we faced better organised sides like Egypt or Zambia, we had trouble getting through. They were well organised and had a strong team, and we tried to respond to that with the talent of our individual players. It caused us a lot of problems.
You spent six seasons at Chelsea without ever being an automatic starter. Might you have had a better career as a starter for a smaller club rather than a substitute at a big one?
I joined Chelsea very young. I was 20 and there were great players of quality and experience who'd been there a long time. I learned from being around them every day and they helped me improve. But I also won titles there, and it wasn't just by staying on the bench. I scored 60 goals in six years, and for someone who was young and not a first-choice starter, I'd say those are good figures. To spend six years at a club like that, who had the means to buy great forwards every year, and manage to keep my place is something I'm proud of and which helped me mature.
According to one rumour, you went to your first training session at Chelsea armed with a camera…
(Laughs) No, it didn't happen like that! When I joined, we were about to leave for a training camp in the United States. I'd never been before, so it was my first time. We were going to Los Angeles, so I brought my camera with me. People distorted that, saying I'd come with a camera to take photos of the big players and I got teased for that. But I knew Didier well and some of the others too a long time before I signed for Chelsea, so it was just to take photos and keep some souvenirs of the United States. I need to set the record straight! (Laughs)
It's a little like if you tried a few years ago to imagine Barça without Ronaldinho and Real without Zinedine Zidane, and yet today we have Messi and Ronaldo.
You have been playing for Hertha Berlin since August. How would you sum up the start of your first season in the league of the world champions?
It's a high-quality championship and I think it's at the same level as Spain, but I'd put England a notch above because there are several teams fighting at the top of the league, whereas Bayern Munich are very dominant in Germany because of the players and resources they have. Behind them, the general standard is high, the stadiums are full and the pitches are great – it's top quality. The style of play is open, so a forward who gets in good positions in front of goal can score a lot. I arrived at the end of August, when the season was already well under way. I haven't played a lot – just seven games as a starter – but I've scored five goals. Given all the qualifiers and now the Africa Cup of Nations, it feels as if I've spent more time with my national team than my club. So I haven't really had time to settle in, but it's often like that when a player changes club in an Africa Cup of Nations year.
Are you content with fighting to avoid relegation after having always competed at the top of the table?
That's the goal of the club, so it's mine as well – 100 per cent. I'm here to help the club achieve it. It doesn't bother me to be helping the club to stay up. That said, it's true that when you've been at the top, you always want to stay at that level. But that will happen little by little. This is a season of transition and, next season, the club and I will have other goals.
What souvenirs have you kept from your career so far?
I collect the shirts I've swapped with opponents and I keep certain balls. I've got the one from the Champions League final, the one when I scored a hat-trick in the Netherlands, plus the ones when I got hat-tricks in England and France. Now I'm waiting for the one from the match where I get a hat-trick in Germany (laughs). But of all the objects I've kept, the most precious is the shirt I swapped with Messi at the Olympic Games in 2008, when we played against Argentina. That's the most valuable one because at the time he wore No15. Now he wears No10, so it's strange to see a shirt with Messi's name on it and a different number. It's a collector's item!
In Europe, people do not tend to take spells, talismans and witch doctors very seriously. Are they a big part of daily life in Africa, and in particular in football?
Yes, of course, that exists. It's an important part of our culture and that obviously has a big place in football. Of course, some people believe in it more than others. When you play in Europe, with all the high levels of organisation and professionalism, and with nothing left to chance, that loses its importance a little because, despite the beliefs and superstitions, when you manage to spend your entire career at a high level, the only thing that counts is work. Work alone can get you there. When you work, you improve. If you stop working, no talisman is going to make you improve. So, yes, spells and beliefs are very important, but the best talisman is hard work.
Several African footballers have played in Europe while their home country has been at war. Having experienced that yourself with Côte d'Ivoire, how difficult is it to deal with?
It's true that it's difficult to focus when you know your family is over there and you're cut off from them and don't hear any news. In 2011, my sisters and my mother were able to take refuge in Togo, but I went several days without hearing anything from my father. You spend all your time on the phone trying to find out what's happening. It's frightening, and even if everything's going well with your club, you can't be happy when your family and your country are suffering. When you put on the Côte d'Ivoire shirt, it's a responsibility because you know that football has great power in terms of peace and reconciliation. Lots of things divide us, but football is one of the rare things that unites every Ivorian. So wearing that shirt is an honour and a responsibility. Football is much more than just a sport – it's a representation of the country, so we're loved and respected if we do well. It's a double-edged sword, though, if things don't go well.
Of all the objects I've kept, the most precious is the shirt I swapped with Messi at the Olympic Games in 2008