Sylla listens without prejudice

THE Scottish Executive’s poster campaign to raise awareness of racism is clearly in evidence on the approach roads to Celtic Park. From a certain angle, indeed, the stadium seems perched atop one billboard emblazoned with the stark slogan: "No place for racism". But Celtic midfielder Momo Sylla prefers to get on with the football rather than become embroiled in the politics of a problem which can blight society.

The obscenity of discrimination on the grounds of skin colour has been dominating the football agenda again: abuse meted out to Emile Heskey and Ashley Cole while playing for England in Bratislava last weekend not only ensured this, but prompted calls from Kick It Out, the group set up to challenge racism in the game, that there should be a Europe-wide boycott of football by black players if affirmative action is not taken to tackle the issue.

Sylla’s personal experiences in this country serve as proof that it is not only religious bigotry that makes for the wrong kind of headlines.

In December 2000, Motherwell player Steven Hammell was accused of racially abusing the midfielder, who was then with St Johnstone, after an off-the-ball altercation at McDiarmid Park. Charges relating to this incident were later dropped, but at the same venue 11 months later, the Perth constabulary had to intervene again on behalf of Sylla, who had moved to Celtic four months previously. This time they arrested two St Johnstone supporters alleged to have sworn and gestured at the player in a racially-inflammatory manner as he warmed up on the touchline.

The case reached court, but was eventually dropped, and Sylla’s reflections suggest a desire not to give racism the oxygen of publicity for fear of exacerbating the problem.

"The two supporters were drunk, and probably not aware of what they were saying," he says. "I didn’t want the police doing anything because I think the men said these things to me as they resented the fact I’d left for Celtic, rather than because of my colour.

"I was born black, I am black and will die black, so things anyone might say to me about my colour, I pay no attention to. In every crowd there will be one or two nerds. I think it is important not to judge everyone by the actions of a few."

It is instructive that when asked to what extent racism has been a concern for him in Scotland, 25-year-old Sylla turns the focus on himself. "My girlfriend is white, the husband of my sister is white, and I have plenty of school friends who are white, so it is not an issue. When I came into Celtic, my team-mates were fine with me, our fans were fine with me, and my social circle was fine with me."

With a recent survey revealing that one in four Scots admits to being racist, Sylla is almost infuriatingly reasonable about a matter that strikes at the heart of civilisation. An extraordinarily laid-back fellow off the field, he proffers his opinions sporting a smile that exudes enough warmth to melt an iceberg. Doing so with baritone vocal delivery that calls to mind the icon Paul Robeson.

Unlike that black singer who was pivotal in American civil rights, Sylla has no desire to use his place in the entertainment industry to attempt to right wrongs.

"I am not interested in politics," he declares. "As when I was living in Africa and France, there are things I see in Scotland that I like, and things that I don’t like. Above all, though, I am a sportsman."

Throughout his life, Sylla might be said to have conformed to what would be expected of him for personal well-being. Raised as Mohammed Sylla - his religion is a "private" matter - in the Ivory Coast’s Bamoro-Bouake, he is the youngest of six, with three sisters and two brothers. From the age of 10, he was reared by the female children of his family in Paris: his mother and his father believed this move afforded him greater opportunities than were available in Africa.

"It was difficult without my parents, but I followed their wishes," says Sylla, whose mother, Massiami Bamba, is on her first visit to Glasgow.

Athletics interested him more than football, but he was encouraged to stick at the game by teachers who spotted a natural talent. "They pushed me, and I’m grateful they did."

After starting out at French Second Division club Creteil on the outskirts of Paris, Sylla moved to Le Havre as an 18-year-old. With three Eastern European players on the books, the UEFA ‘three foreigners’ rule that was then in operation led to his taking out French citizenship to enhance his career prospects. This was at the behest of the club that he left in 1997 for a three-month trial with Ayr United. Later came a move to Le Mans, and St Johnstone manager Sandy Clark plucked him in the summer of 2000 after Sylla had impressed in a friendly.

By then a Guinean internationalist through his father’s nationality, the invention and ball-playing abilities that had earned him such a step up brought widespread acclaim. In picking up 16 cautions in his Perth season, however, he revealed a tempestuous side at McDiarmid Park. His talent appeared to be an untamed one.

Even this, though, could perhaps be attributed to his desire to adapt to his surroundings. Which might explain why he has been a more controlled figure in his recent, and most concerted, run in the senior side at Celtic. All of 14 months after the player moved to the Glasgow club in August 2001 for a 650,000 fee.

"It is a long story why I played the way I did for St Johnstone, and one I do not want to go into," Sylla reveals. "Celtic do not dwell on the aggressive side as much as St Johnstone did, and are more concerned about a player’s football capacity, though I can become heated. This is because I do not like to be taken for a fool.

"But I have gained wisdom and knowledge in recent years, and when Martin O’Neill came in for me after my 16 yellow cards, there was an element of trust from him. Therefore, I do not want to let him down. People made some wrong assumptions of my style because of the bookings at St Johnstone, and I want to prove them wrong."

The opportunities to prove anything during his first season were severely limited because of the outstanding form of Didier Agathe in the right wing-back slot, the position O’Neill would appear to believe is also best suited to Sylla.

In the past few weeks, he has been preferred to Agathe in this role, and he will be hoping this continues today against Hearts, in the televised Premierleague match at Tynecastle, and also on Wednesday, when Celtic face up to their nemesis of 2000, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, in the CIS Cup. This might be considered reward for the fact that, while on the periphery last season, Sylla says he never surrendered the belief that his time would come.

"Hope kept me going, kept me working as hard as I could in training...Without hope, life is pointless."

A significant hope would be for a world in which Sylla was not maligned because he is black.