Sol Bamba

Former Player Remembers: Sol Bamba (Part One)

Ivory Coast international Sol Bamba was a popular figure at Leicester City between January 2011 and June 2012.
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The expressive centre-back played club football in France, Scotland, England, Turkey, Italy and Wales. He was also in the Ivory Coast Olympic squad in 2008, FIFA World Cup squads in 2010 and 2014 and the CAF Africa Cup of Nations sides of 2010 and 2012. This incredible career was the basis of his conversation with Club Historian John Hutchinson this month.

“I had a great time at Leicester,” Sol began. “To be honest, I left in a bit of a hurry, but now being at the end of my playing career, I realise how lucky I was to play for such a good club. It’s good to connect with Leicester again and tell my story.”

Sol was born in 1985 in Ivry-Sur-Seine, a suburb in south-east Paris.

“Paris Saint-Germain was my team when I was a young kid growing up in Paris,” Sol continued. “I went to see them a few times with my older brother and fell in love with it. Joining their academy in 1999 and playing a couple of games for them as a professional before I moved on was a dream come true really.”

In July 2006, Sol moved to Dunfermline Athletic in the Scottish Premier League.

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Sol Bamba

Playing in the Scottish Cup Final for Dunfermline.

“People are surprised I moved from such a massive club as Paris Saint-Germain to Dunfermline,” Sol explained. “At the time, I just wanted to play first team football. I was fortunate to have been at the academy at PSG.

“I played one league game and one cup game for them, but I wanted more regular football. I was 21 at the time. I didn’t think I was ready for English football at Championship level, let alone Premier League level. I think I did the right move to learn my trade in Scotland before I moved down to England.

“At Dunfermline, I played in the Scottish Cup Final against Celtic, whose fans are very passionate, at Hampden Park in front of 80,000 people. For Dunfermline to play in that game was huge. We had a very good number of fans there supporting us. Unfortunately, we lost 1-0, but I was Man of the Match. It is a very good memory for me.”

While at Dunfermline, Sol represented the Ivory Coast at the 2008 Beijing Olympics: “My mum and dad were from the Ivory Coast. I knew very little about that country apart from going on holiday when I was a kid. I decided to go to play for the Ivory Coast because they were playing in the Olympics.

“I thought it would be a good career move to play in this massive tournament. My mum and dad were proud that I’d picked the Ivory Coast, but playing for them came with a lot of baggage and a lot of pressure. In Africa, there was a lot of politics involved. My parents were worried about that, but for me, it was a no-brainer, because playing in the Beijing Olympics was very special.

“When I was in Beijing, Watford wanted to sign me. I went to two clinics to have a medical and they sent two people to look after me. Everything was set and done, but at the last minute, Dunfermline refused the move.”

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Sol Bamba

Battling Celtic's Scott Brown during his time at Hibs.

Instead, Sol moved to Hibernian in August 2008.

“That was the perfect move before I went to England,” he added. “I needed to do a step up again and Hibernian provided that. It’s a big club with very big support and I spent two years there. We finished third one year and we played in the Europa League. It was a good move before I came down to Leicester.”

With Sol at Hibernian, the Ivory Coast qualified for both the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the 2010 World Cup.

“When I first got into the Ivory Coast’s first team back in 2008/09, it was a dream come true,” Sol recalled. “They had some big players. and they looked after me and they cared about the country. We’re still in touch these days.

“In the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, which was played in January, Ivory Coast, who hadn’t won the tournament since 1992, were favourites to win so the pressure on us was huge. I played in all of the matches. Unfortunately, we got knocked out in the quarter-finals, but for me to play in that tournament was big.”

Five months later, Sol was in Ivory Coast’s World Cup Finals squad. In one of qualification matches, he had played against Malawi in March 2009 in Abidjan, when tragically 19 people were killed in a stampede following the collapse of a wall at the stadium.

“In the summer after AFCON,” Sol continued, “we had the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After we’d been beaten in AFCON, Ivory Coast decided to keep their manager Vahid Halilhodžić (who Sol had known from his time at  Paris Saint -German) for a couple more months, but the pressure got too much and, just before the World Cup, he left and they brought in Sven-Göran Eriksson.

“He was a big name because he had a lot of experience. It was good for me because, when he came in, he looked after me and straight away we had a good connection. A few months after that tournament, he brought me to Leicester when he was there.

“We should have done better in the 2010 World Cup. We had an unbelievable team with such big players as Yaya Touré, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Kolo Touré (who was, of course, some years later Assistant Manager at Leicester City).

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Sol Bamba

Bamba made a total of 55 appearances for LCFC, scoring four goals.

“People called our team the ‘golden generation’ but we never lived up to expectations. However, for me, it was huge. I can give you a number of massive key players who never played the World Cup but eventually I managed to play in two and I’m very, very happy with that.”

After the 2010 World Cup, Sol continued to be a regular in Hibernian’s side but, in January 2011, he was signed by Eriksson at Leicester City.

“Without Sven, I wouldn’t have been at Leicester,” he admitted. “We had a great time together with the Ivory Coast national team. He did tell me, after the World Cup, that he was going to sign me one day and he kept his word. I was very happy with that.

“When I signed, it was the start of something for Leicester at that time. There had been a lot of problems before that, but then the new owner came in and he had a dream, a vision, and he managed to achieve all of that. It started with Sven, who had a plan, but unfortunately it didn’t work out for him.”

On his City debut, which was a home game on 9 January, 2011 in an FA Cup Third Round tie, Sol scored in the first 45 seconds of the match, setting a new Club record for the fastest-ever debut goal.

“A lot of fans say to me that they missed that goal because they were parking in the car park and came in after five minutes when we were already 1-0 up,” Sol laughed. “Yes, that was special!”

Sol immediately established himself in the first team, but 10 months after his arrival at Leicester, in October 2011, the Manager who signed him left the Club.

“To be fair, we were all surprised about it,” he said. “We knew that the pressure was huge. When Sven came in, we did very well from January onwards (winning seven and drawing one in a run of eight matches).

“The following season, there was a lot of expectation on us. The Club was looking forward. We’d spent a lot of money on new signings during the summer as well. When Sven left, it was a bit early in our opinion but we understood. It’s football.

“It had an impact on me personally because Sven was the reason I was at the Club. That’s the reason I left in the summer. I regret this 100 per cent now, because I should have seen the bigger picture, but at the time I was young. I was upset because Sven had brought me to the Club and had now gone.”

Sven’s replacement as Manager, just over three weeks later, was Nigel Pearson, who returned for his second spell at Leicester City.

“I love Nigel,” Sol said. “I’m still talking to him now. We always had a great relationship, but what I love about Nigel is that he’s a good man, he cares for people and he’s honest. What you want as a football player is honesty with your coach. He said to me straight away: ‘Listen. You’re an important player for the Club’.

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Sol Bamba

At Belvoir Drive back in 2011.

“I’d just signed a new deal with the Club and he did say: ‘As long as you behave properly, you train well, play well like I know you can, you will play. I will have no problem with you’. I respected that and I liked that from him. I played in the First Team for the rest of the season. In the summer, I just went to see him and said: ‘Listen. I just want to go.’ He respected that too.

“He told me he preferred me leaving than having someone stay at the Club who didn’t want to be there. So that’s why we parted ways. He’s a great man, and a good man manager. He’s probably one of the best managers I worked under. I’ve always said that. He’s very, very good. He’s a clever man and he knows about a lot of things. We’d sit for hours sometimes and talk. He’s a brilliant man. I love him.”

During the season playing for Pearson, in January 2012, Sol once again went to Africa to represent his country in the Africa Cup of Nations.

In part two of this interview, Sol continues his story. It’s a fascinating one. Among other things, he played in every game for his country in the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012, including the showpiece. He spent two years playing in the Turkish Süper Lig.

He starred in the UEFA Champions League and in the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. He then went to Italy before returning to England, where he had a spell in the Premier League, and played at two clubs for Neil Warnock. He also talks about his health and his ambitions for the future.

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