The 22-year-old striker is adored by the Viola faithful and loves his club just as much, but Francis Kelly says there may come a time when he must make some difficult decisions...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: March 17, 1993
- Place of birth: Thiès, Senegal
- Height: 6ft 3in
- Position: Striker
- Club: Fiorentina (64 apps, 18 goals)
- Former club(s): Racing Santander, Padova, Modena (all loan)
- International: Senegal U20 (6 caps)
Few strikers would survive a four-year wait between scoring their first and second league goals for a club, but then Khouma El Hadji Babacar and Fiorentina enjoy a special relationship.
Brought to Italy aged 14, Babacar first joined Delfino Pescara 1936 having been initially offered to the Viola. However, when former Fiorentina sports director Pantaleo Corvino finally watched the Senegalese forward the following year, in 2008, he quickly corrected that decision, fighting off advances from European giants Manchester United and Real Madrid for the youngster’s services and paying €35,000.
It was the beginning of an association that has lasted seven years and, with a recent contract extension until 2019, looks set to continue for at least another three. The news of his new agreement in July – announced by the player over Instagram while back in his hometown in Senegal – was greeted with hearty approval by the Artemio Franchi faithful, who had seen Babacar emerge as a potential Serie A star over the previous 10 months.
Having spent the preceding two seasons on loan, Babacar then stepped in for the injured Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez at the start of 2014/15, scoring four times in eight matches. He finished with nine goals, but knee troubles prevented him from completing a maiden season.
While intent on securing a starting role this year, the now-22-year-old has returned at a slightly slower pace than expected, with coach Paulo Sousa electing for a more measured approach as Babacar concludes his rehabilitation. Yet it has not prevented the precocious striker from proving influential, having netted five times to help propel Fiorentina to the top of the league.
Why you need to know him
Liverpool and Tottenham are both rumoured to be interested in bringing him to the Premier League in January
As one of the most exciting young attacking talents in Serie A, Babacar’s canny ability to score important goals for Fiorentina has increased attention and heightened expectations. Liverpool and Tottenham are both rumoured to be interested in bringing him to the Premier League in January as they attempt to improve their forward options.
And although yet to perform consistently for Fiorentina, hampered by injury, his contributions under Sousa have been vital to the team’s bold title bid. An impressive 20-goal return from 41 league matches while on loan at Modena in 2012/13 marked out his potential early.
A strong-willed individual, Babacar is refreshingly open to self-criticism, and not shy in outlining his intentions to forge his own career: “Many on Facebook compare me with [Mario] Balotelli, but I have nothing to do with him. He’s Balotelli and I’m Babacar, I play for Fiorentina, and nothing else.” Settles that, then.
That headstrong mindset was apparent when he first moved to Florence, shunning bigger clubs in the process, and is clear in how he plays the game. Babacar is always looking for goal and driving forward, and that determined characteristic will prove useful as he attempts to develop into a top hotshot.
The role of a centre forward has changed dramatically in recent times, but Babacar possesses the useful traits of a powerful, accurate shot from distance – as seen by his thunderous strike against Inter Milan (above) – while he is also able to make smart runs behind defenders. Previously questioned about a willingness to score 'ugly' goals, his poacher’s ability has improved considerably over the past 18 months. Constantly crafting space, exploiting his pace to dart around the box and tuck away stray balls, Babacar now seems more willing to do the gritty work too.
Never short of confidence – evident by his successful recent panenka penalty in a comprehensive win over Frosinone – Babacar is full of deft touches and audacious shots, with a playful instinct oozing from his excellent first touch and close control.
For an intelligent young forward who’s clever at finding gaps in the opposition defence, Babacar has struggled at times to make the most of chances created.
Previously guilty of lapses in concentration, he has worked hard to eradicate those mistakes, although is yet to fully demonstrate the prowess in front of goal needed to make a top side desperate for his signature. For a player of his size usually deployed in the centre of a roaming front three, he must master retention of the ball and regularly draw team-mates into the game. And while a handful for defenders when using his 6ft 3in frame where possible, Babacar can be overzealous at times, making unnecessary fouls.
He still makes too many mistakes during the game, but I see in him an endless potential still untapped
Fiorentina Primavera coach Alberto Bollini did little to ease the pressure on the teenage prodigy when he publicly compared Babacar to one of Africa’s most famous footballers, George Weah. Former first-team coach Vincenzo Montella was a tad more reserved in his adulation in 2014, though admitted he expected greats things in the future. “Babacar is a product of our academy. We strongly believe in the guy,” said the former Roma striker. “He has to grow. He still makes too many mistakes during the game, but I see in him an endless potential still untapped.”
Did you know?
While having only made 64 appearances in all competitions for Fiorentina, the 22-year-old is the second-longest serving member of the club’s squad. He debuted at 16 in the Coppa Italia against Chievo, levelling the scores before Adrian Mutu clinched victory.
What happens next?
“I never want to leave. I am happy,” Babacar revealed to relieved Fiorentina supporters after renewing his contract earlier this year. The comments instantly ensured his place as a fans’ favourite; further remarks and goalscoring celebrations with the Curva Fiesole crowd have cemented that endearment.
The potential for Champions League football in 2016/17 with the club he’s grown up at is another draw
Fiorentina’s startling start to the season, top of Serie A after 12 matches to make them real scudetto contenders for the first time in years, will help reassure Babacar that it’s still the right place for him. The potential for Champions League football in 2016/17 with the club he’s grown up at is another draw.
In truth, there has been no indication made by Babacar that he is looking to leave; the last hint that he was contemplating life elsewhere came in 2013, before his elevation to first-team duties. Then, when linked with West Ham and Arsenal, he specified he’d prefer to join the latter thanks to manager Arsene Wenger’s history of trusting young players.
Either way, any prospective transfer will come with a hefty fee – Fiorentina showed during Juan Cuadrado’s £25 million deal to Chelsea that they are capable negotiators.