From homeless and starving to playing in Serie A
Two years ago Mamadou Coulibaly left his home in Senegal with only a backpack. Now, he's playing in one of the top leagues in the world.
His parents thought he was dead. If the boat carrying him had sunk he almost certainly would have been. But on Sunday, the 18-year-old completed his journey by playing the full 90 minutes for Pescara against one of the teams he supports, AC Milan.
"I left with a backpack," Coulibaly told Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport. "I only told Mamadou, my best friend. My parents thought I was in school. I turned off my phone, I didn't call them for three or four months. They thought I was dead.
"My family weren't poor ... But papa didn't want me to play football. For him it was only important to study. Ours is a family of teachers. He told me he would take me to some European teams but it was only so I would be good. I risked my life for football, but I also did so for them: soon I will be able to help them."
Players talk about making sacrifices to reach the top but few will have known the hardship Coulibaly endured on his incredible journey, which took him to Pescara via Morocco, Marseille, Grenoble, Livorna and Roma, and which left him homeless and starving at times.
"I got to the boat by bus," Coulibaly said. "I paid for a ticket from Dakar to Morocco and it wasn't dangerous. It was worse after. I slept in the port in Morocco. I didn't have money for the boat.
"A man saw me for several days and he asked me what I was doing there, sleeping on the street. I replied to him that I wanted to go to Europe. After a few days he returned: he worked on a boat which was going to France, he told me I could get on ... It wasn't dangerous but I don't know how to swim. If the boat had sunk I would have died."
Coulibaly arrived in Marseille and went to live briefly in Grenoble with his aunt. But he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
"The start at Livorno was the most difficult. A man had taken me there to present me to some teams, then one morning I woke up in a hotel and he wasn't there anymore," Coulibaly said. "I didn't have money, I didn't know anyone, I didn't speak Italian."
The teenager didn't let that get him down and he was spotted playing football on the beach by Livorno scouts. The Serie B team wanted to sign him but Coulibaly didn't have any documents, so he continued his journey. Things grew steadily worse.
"I was sleeping on the streets and maybe in a day I managed to eat a sandwich," he said. "I was in Rome and then they told me that there were many Senagalese in Pescara, so I took the train without paying the ticket.
"I got down at Roseto, the wrong stop, and I slept on a sports field. The police found me and took me to a foster home in Montepagano."
Coulibaly slept on the sports field for three days before he was taken to the foster home, which helped him get documents, and shortly after he was signed by Pescara following a trial.
The midfielder, who only recently left the foster home for a shared room in a boarding school for the youth team, played just two matches with Pescara's youngsters before making his senior debut in the final 20 minutes of Pescara's match at Atalanta on March 19.
Coulibaly was handed his first start against Milan on Sunday and was one of the best on the pitch — in just his fourth proper match, including his time in Senegal.
"I had a bit of football school in Senegal when I was a kid and I learnt how to play on the street," he said. "The rest from TV. I always watched so many matches and I learnt the movements.
"Playing comes natural to me."
Being a Manchester United and France fan too, Coulibaly will have closely watched the movements of Paul Pogba, with whom he has been compared. Some who have watched him closely have even said he is better than the midfielder.
Coulibaly, who did not let the hardships affect him, has not let the comparisons go to his head either.
"When he arrived he didn't have anything, neither clothes nor documents," said Nadia Mazzocchitti, who was in charge of the foster home. "He was immediately very humble, smiley, very polite and respectful.
"Now he still calls me all the time. He's still a boy, maybe even a bit shy."
Pescara is all but mathematically relegated. It is bottom of Serie A, nine points from safety with eight matches remaining. But it is unlikely Coulibaly will stay in Serie B for long.
Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.