Cissé fuels SC Freiburg's success
Hamburg manager Armin Veh's rank desperation was on full display before the game at SC Freiburg last Saturday, as he prayed for an arctic advantage.
"I hope that he'll really feel the cold now in the winter, and that he won't score as often from now on," the 59-year-old coach said.
But the "he" in question, SC Senegalese striker Papiss Demba Cissé, wasn't affected at all by frosty temperatures. The 25-year-old scored the only goal, in the third minute, before putting in an impressive shift of classic, intelligent center-forward play.
"With his great technique, he held up and distributed plenty of balls, he worked hard and decided the game," gushed
Said Cissé: "I'm very happy that it worked out again. We will take the points where we can get them."
The win over HSV brought fifth-place Freiburg's tally to 24 points from 15 games, a fantastic achievement if you consider the club's modest finances. Player wages come in at $18.5 million a season, less than one-tenth of Bayern Munich's annual budget. Bayern happens to trail Robin Dutt's men by a point.
Dutt, 45, the son of an Indian father and German mother, is part of the young, "new school" gang of Bundesliga coaches (Thomas Tuchel, Jürgen Klopp, Ralf Rangnick) who bring out the best in their teams with the help of highly drilled, pacy collective football. Tactically, Dutt's very flexible, too: Freiburg can switch between several formations during a game with ease. And the players rarely stop running. "Playing against the ball," Dutt calls it.
Most of this energy would ultimately be wasted, however, without a focal point, an end product. And this is were Cissé comes in. The fast, muscular forward has not only perfectly complemented Freiburg's style with his exceptional work ethic, but he's also proved to be an expert finisher. No wonder they call him "Toumboule" (The Effective One) back home in Africa: Cissé is not one for showboating or flashy stuff; he collects goals in the calm, unassuming manner of a farmer picking ripe apples. His strike against Hamburg was his 11th goal of the season.
"It's important to stay focused from the first to the last minute because you might only get a single chance," he said. "Your attitude has to be right."
Said Dutt: "He is as important to us as Sami Khedira was for Stuttgart or Arjen Robben is for Bayern."
Cissé has called playing in the Bundesliga "a dream come true," but it's hard to believe he ever fantasized about being the toast of the Black Forest as a youngster growing up in the Casamance region, in southwest Senegal.
"My father didn't want me to leave my village at first," he told the newspaper
His relative would get up every day at 6 a.m. to drive Papiss to training with his first club, AS Génération Foot. At 18, Senegal's top division club AS Douanes picked up Cissé. A couple of seasons later French outfit FC Metz took him to Europe on a trial basis.
"I was lucky to score five goals in eight games for their reserve team, and they gave me a contract," he said.
Cissé was immediately loaned to AS Cherbourgh in the Ligue 2, where he managed 11 goals in 26 appearances. Back in now-relegated Metz in 2007, the goals kept coming. After another six months out on loan at LB Chateauroux, Cissé established himself as the main striker for Metz by the time the 2008-09 Ligue 2 season kicked off.
In August 2009, Metz played a friendly in Freiburg's Badenova-Stadion. Guess who was the star of the game? Cissé scored one and orchestrated the other in the visitors' 2-1 win. Freiburg general manager Dirk Dufner approached Metz with an offer, but the French club didn't want to sell. A few months later, however, financial problems made "Les Granats" (The Maroons) more amenable to a sale. Freiburg shelled out a club-record $2.1 million for the striker last January.
Hannover 96, a bigger and wealthier Bundesliga team, had also been in the running for his services, but Cissé chose Freiburg.
"I'd had good talks with Dutt and felt their philosophy to develop young players would be right for me," Cissé said.
The club's history of employing African players might have also played a part. Cissé's compatriot Souleyman Sane played for SC in the 1980s.
"We are from the neck of the woods. I think he was the first professional footballer ever from Casamance," Cissé said.
In Cameroon international Cedrick Makiadi, Cissé has found a translator and friend, and he's no longer fazed by the different training practices in Germany.
"We run a lot more than in France," he said, "but that's OK. As long as I can get up in the morning, I can go to work."
"We see high potential," Dufner said back in January, when some critics questioned the (relatively) high transfer fee.
He's been thoroughly vindicated. In fact, the fear is that Cissé might have too much potential for the club from the southwest of Germany. A couple of Premier League sides have taken a keen interest in his development, and a source familiar with the situation told SI.com that VfL Wolfsburg regards him as a possible successor to Edin Dzeko.
"I feel it will be a challenge to keep him here," Dutt said last week. Officially, he's not for sale. "Papiss Cissé has a contract with our club until June 2014 and he is a key player within our first team," Dufner said. "We have not been contacted by any club. No one has inquired about his availability." Unofficially, a price tag of $10.6 million has been mentioned.
For Freiburg's opponents, the winter break can't come soon enough. But no one should be surprised if Cissé's hot streak continued in mid-January, despite the less than ideal conditions.
Asked about Veh's quote after the game, this year's biggest surprise success in the league laughed out loud.
"Actually, I don't mind the cold at all."