Hibs provide World Cup springboard as Bamba comes on leaps and bounds

WITH every respect to the Hibernian squad which reached the semi-finals of the first-ever European Cup, it is not often that anyone on the books at Easter Road finds himself in contention for a major international trophy.

But all that is about to change next year, when Sol Bamba takes his place in the Ivory Coast team which is among the favourites to win the African Cup of Nations, and which also harbours hopes of winning the World Cup.

Although little known compared to such illustrious team-mates as Didier Drogba, Bamba has cemented his place in the Ivorian squad. After this afternoon's Edinburgh derby he will fly out to join up with them for their last World Cup qualifier – a formality, as they have already secured a place in South Africa 2010 – followed by a friendly against Germany.

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Shortly after Christmas he will be on his travels again, this time to the African Cup of Nations in Angola, which could mean Hibs will be forced to do without his services for five or six weeks. Then, next summer, it will be the World Cup itself. To have even a hope of scaling such heights of the world game was all but inconceivable to Bamba as recently as three years ago, when he was released by Paris Saint Germain and joined Dunfermline. Since then, however, he has made rapid progress.

He moved to Hibs at the start of last season, proving his versatility by playing a defensive midfield role.

This season, with club captain Rob Jones having left for Scunthorpe, Bamba is back at centre-half, where he has quickly calmed the nerves of those Hibs fans who thought the loss of the skipper would be costly.

Born Souleymane Bamba in Paris in January 1985, he has come a long way in a relatively short time. If in international terms he is not yet the finished article, he has at least already shown he is capable of learning quickly.

Curiously, though, it was only because his manager at PSG thought otherwise that he ever made it to Scotland at all. "I'd been playing for PSG for five years, and the last year I only had two games for the first team," Bamba recalled this week. "They wanted me to sign a new deal but I wasn't happy. I wanted to sign but go on loan.

"It's funny, because the manager then is the Ivory Coast manager now. He said he wanted to keep me, but we didn't find a solution, so I said I wanted to leave.

"Some French clubs were interested, but I was disappointed because my club said, 'He's a good player but he's a tough guy – he doesn't listen and he can get the team into trouble.'

"I was young, and when I wasn't happy I'd argue straight away. I preferred to be direct and speak my mind, not just stay in a bad mood, and that got me into trouble a few times. I'm calmer now.

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"The thing I don't like is injustice. When something is just and right, I just have to listen, but when it's not I just go and argue. I can go crazy. I know I shouldn't do that. I try to keep my cool."

There was some evidence of Bamba's inability to keep his cool in his days at East End Park, and also after his move to Easter Road – he was sent off on his Hibs debut for a second bookable offence. What is more, those who have played against him would understand what his old club meant by describing him as a tough guy: 6ft 3in and robustly built, he can be a formidable competitor.

In person, though, there is nothing tough about Bamba. Courteous, good- humoured and relaxed, he is an engaging, instantly likeable character.

Now, as an integral part of the Hibs team, he may seem naturally suited to Scottish football, but he admits that, even for someone as naturally outgoing as he is, the move from France to Fife was not without its difficulties.

"I didn't find a team in Paris, and my agent worked with a Scottish agent, who told him there was a club here who were looking for a centre-half," he reflected on that period in the middle of 2006. "So I just came on trial for two days, played two friendlies and signed for them.

"It was very, very different. I remember I tried to play and (Dunfermline director of football] Jim Leishman said to me: 'It's not Pauleta in front of you' – Pauleta, the Portuguese international, played for PSG – 'You don't have to pass the ball, just kick the ball away'.

"I was surprised. But I decided if the football was like that here I'd just have to get on with it and do what I was asked to do."

He has made a decent fist of getting on with it, all right, and no longer feels the Scottish style of play is alien to him. "The football here is very physical," is his verdict now. "I really like it."

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If Bamba's own game were just about physicality, his international career would not have even begun to flourish as it is doing now. But he has graduated from the age-group teams, played in the last Olympic football tournament, and, having made his full debut in 2008, is now an Ivory Coast regular.

Until three years ago, Ivory Coast's experience of playing in the World Cup finals was limited to the rugby union version. They qualified for the tournament in South Africa in 1995, and were thumped 95-0 by Scotland in the group stages.

Back then, the Ivorian football team had no track record to speak of, but since the turn of the century they have got better and better. They were runners-up in the 2006 African Cup of Nations and reached the World Cup in Germany that summer.

Two years ago they reached the semis of their continental championship. With their squad still largely the same as it was then, they have high hopes of becoming champions this time round.

"I'm going to say we have to win," Bamba pronounced. "We have a good team, and after two years and four years ago everyone knows we are going there to win the cup. It's a big ask, and massive pressure, but we're ready for that."

It's an even bigger ask to win the World Cup itself, of course, and, while Bamba is not quite so bullish about his team's chances in that, he is sure they will be able to give a good account of themselves.

"I'm not going to say we're going to win, but everyone says we have a good chance," he said. "It's true we have a very, very good team, and we learned from the last World Cup, which was the first one for us. I wasn't there, but nearly half the team was, so we learned from that.

"I think we have a chance. If we don't have a tough group like last time I think we can do something. It's in Africa, so for us it's something special. We know about the weather as well, and it's going to be easier for us than for the European teams. I think because it's the first one in Africa all the African teams want to do well.

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"Because we're Cote d'Ivoire and have a very good team, everyone expects us to do well. It's not really pressure, but we know we have to do well.

"We have a good team, a very good team, with some very big names who play for some massive clubs. It's always good to play alongside players like that. I can only learn, and they give me good advice."

Ivory Coast were among the first teams to book a berth in South Africa, but the qualifying tournament was traumatic. In March, the collapse of a wall before the game against Malawi led to the deaths of 22 spectators.

"It was difficult after the tragedy," Bamba said. "It was a difficult time. We had a family game, for all the people who had been killed. We raised money to give to the families. We don't forget about it, but I think it's behind us now."

Looking forward beyond next year's two big tournaments, Bamba is not sure where his football career might take him next. Being only midway through a three-year contract with Hibs, he is no hurry to think about his next move.

Certainly, he is not hankering after a move back to France. "Not really. I'm really enjoying my time here," said Bamba, "And if I were to move away I would prefer to go to England or Germany rather than France.

"But I'm very happy here just now, so I'm not thinking about that. I'm a very quiet guy so I'm very happy here.

"The only thing is the weather – apart from that I'm happy here."