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‘Next Vieira’ who rejected Wenger & made history to meet Real Madrid has settled in

Western United’s Tongo Doumbia brings some incredible experiences to the A-Leagues, writes Tom Smithies.

Tongo Doumbia is laughing at the thought of what might have happened if Arsene Wenger had managed to sign him, and he really had become “the next Patrick Vieira”.

Western United’s Malian midfielder is looking for a French term akin to “sliding doors” but his gestures say enough. 

“Completely different,” he says shaking his head with a smile – but there’s no regret over the way his career has panned out, full of rich experiences including going toe to toe with Luka Modric and Real Madrid, “making history” in the Middle East and winning titles in Croatia in the most febrile atmosphere he can imagine.

More than a decade on, you get the sense that Doumbia’s pedigree – and the excitement there was around him in French football – has rather gone under the radar in the Isuzu UTE A-League, though his coaches and teammates certainly know what he has brought to United’s midfield this season.

At 22, he was seen as one of the best emerging talents in France and was compared extensively to Vieira by the French media – not least because he had caught the eye of Wenger, who initiated contact with the player’s agent.

As it was, his club Rennes ruled out any possibility of a mid-season transfer – and in retrospect, Doumbia can see that it might have been a blessing in disguise in the long term.

“(As a young player) you’re happy when you know some big clubs want you or they have some interest,” he says now. “It’s not hard, you just have to keep working. 

“There was some contacts with my agent (from Arsenal) but we didn’t finalise because also my club didn’t want to sell me. They stopped it.

Tongo Doumbia flies over Newcastle’s Angus Thurgate in February.

“If they said yes (my life) is completely different but at this time, in this moment, I was not ready to move there. Before you go to a big club, you have to play all the games in your (existing) club and prove you’re ready to move. If you are leaving just to go to the bench, then no – better that you stay in your club.”

By the end of the season, Rennes were willing to sell him and an ambitious Wolves side – just relegated from the Premier League and aiming to return under new Norwegian boss Ståle Solbakken – paid the required fee, reportedly €2.5m (A$4m).

Unbelievably, though, it quickly became apparent that Solbakken’s English was poor, and the team wasn’t ready for his progressive brand of football. “In England it was difficult for him, coming from Sweden, to stick with the players,” Doumbia recalls. “It was hard because he tried to do some good tactics but if your players don’t follow you then it’s very difficult.”

When KEEPUP mentions Dean Saunders and then Kenny Jackett, the old-school managers who quickly succeeded Solbakken, Doumbia is laughing again.

Kazenga LuaLua of Brighton & Hove Albion shoots past Doumbia in the Championship in 2013.

“They like English players who run, who fight, who win the second ball,” he says. “It’s different football, you know, it was totally different.”

Hardly suiting the blood and thunder approach, Doumbia returned to spend four years in France’s top flight but there were new adventures to be had. Mali, the country of his parents’ birth, came calling and in 2015 he played for them at the African Cup of Nations. 

Slightly out of left field, Dinamo Zagreb signed him a year later, and won the league and cup double in his first season. There were, he learned, many reasons to celebrate.

“Dinamo Zagreb is one of the biggest clubs in the Balkans,” he says. “When you win there, you go out in the city and you are the boss, you pay for nothing. When you lose… better you stay home. 

“It’s different, a bit like Real in Spain or PSG in France, a big, big team in Croatia. When you win the title you have to win by 10 or 15 points. If not, the fans are not happy. If you win by only two or three points, they are definitely not happy. It’s like you lost. 

“You have to dominate, kill the other teams. And when you play Hadjuk Split you have to kill them. The fans prefer to win against Hajuk than win the league.”

Then his life took a surreal turn. Dinamo president Zdravko Mamic – a hugely controversial figure – told Doumbia that his brother, Zoran Mamic, had taken over as coach of Al-Ain in the UAE and had an offer for him.

“When they knew Al-Ain were playing in the Club World Cup, he said to his brother, ‘We need Tongo’. I had come into Dinamo, I did my job, and so they said I could go to Al Ain. Unbelievable, this Club World Cup we made history.”

Karim Benzema of Real Madrid competes with Doumbia at the Club World Cup in 2018.

And some. As hosts, Al-Ain scraped past Team Wellington on penalties, then Esperance de Tunis, to reach a semifinal with Argentine powerhouse River Plate. Again it went to penalties, again Al-Ain kept their nerve – and Real Madrid awaited in the final. Signed as a pinch-hitter, Doumbia played almost every minute as the story unfolded.

“For the people there (in the UAE) it was amazing, great memories,” Doumbia says. “Real Madrid in the final – it’s another step, another level. But the tournament, we played four games and they were crazy. Every game the stadium was full, the pressure I cannot explain. Even until now (in the UAE) they speak about that Club World Cup.

“When we beat River Plate on penalties, I remember this game was in the UAE but it was full of Argentine people. Many supporters come, shouting “River Plate..” It was crazy.”

In a way that’s where the dream ended in the sense that Real spoiled the party with a 4-1 win – but really there were no losers that day.

Dombia with his children at AAMI Park in December.

“You play Marcelo, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos… good players, eh? For me it’s a small tournament but it’s one of the best memories of my career. For what we made, the history of the country, it’s one of the best moments for me.”

Now he’s added Australia to his meandering CV, thanks to a chance conversation with an agent in Paris and subsequent discussions with United coach John Aloisi. 

“To be honest I’m very happy to make the change,” he said. “Your country is unbelievable and the life here is so good. I did many countries but Australia is a good one.

“Every time (Aloisi) is a positive guy, calm, I’m happy to have him as a coach. It’s a difficult season but even so, every time he is the same, positive and calm. Now you see we play much better than before.”

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