Sadio Mane Exclusive: Voiding Premier League Season Is ‘Crazy’ But Coronavirus Fight Must Come First
Sadio Mane insists that voiding the Premier League season is "crazy" - but that working together in the fight against coronavirus is more important than anything else.
Even as Mane's club Liverpool sit agonisingly close to a first league title in 30 years, one of this season's outstanding stars can keep the campaign's sudden stoppage in perspective.
"Even though football sometimes feels like my life, it's only difficult without it until you say to yourself: 'Wow, what's happening in the world right now?' And then you don't even want to hear about football," he tells SPORTbible in an exclusive interview.
"More important, before you play football, you need people to be healthy. Life is more important. So we have to stick together, try to fight against corona and come out of this. It's passing right now - and it will go away."
The Liverpool forward's natural optimism is clear by the grin regularly plastered across his face. But even he cannot see any bright side to talk that the 2019/20 Premier League season could, potentially, be scrapped.
"It will be really, really sad if it's the case," he says. "If you are 25 points in front and, in nine games, you just need to win one or two - and it could be void? It would be so disappointing and a crazy moment for everyone at this amazing club.
"But we're still positive. I think the season will end safely - and Liverpool will be champions. Hopefully! Even if you are not a Liverpool fan... come on."
Mane smiles and shrugs at us down a video screen, indicating that even Liverpool's rivals must concede they've earned the right to win this title.
But the 27-year-old knows all about earning things the hard way. That's clear from a new documentary, Sadio Mane: Made In Senegal, which shows his journey from a small farming village in Africa - where he played football with rocks or grapefruits when there were no balls to be found - to one of the world's best players.
Mane spent €250,000 to build a new school for his hometown of Bambali and is also funding a hospital, currently under construction. While football has been doing its best to rediscover its conscience of late - Mane's emotional and financial commitment to his home is longstanding.
His bond with the people of Liverpool is also strong, as he jokes that Anfield is the only ground "where they allow 11 players to play against 12, because in tough games our fans motivate us so much."
Given that, how does he feel about the season finishing behind closed doors - of potentially winning that league title at an empty Anfield?
"I always say football without fans is only half a sport - it would be only 'foot' not 'ball' - because the fans make this sport unbelievable," he says. "We wish to have them with us, especially if we can win the league and party with our fans.
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"But we also understand the situation - and they [the fans] will be OK with it, because you have to put health first. That's most important. We would love to have this moment in front of our supporters - because I think Anfield, the Kop, is unique - but we have to deal with this situation."
Jurgen Klopp is another man who could struggle in this bizarre scenario, given the way he harnesses the energy of his club's fanbase. But Mane has a unique insight into his manager's main asset.
"He's always positive, that's what makes him so strong. You do not often see that in football - because when things are going wrong, people lose their nerve. But never with him."
"I can remember in my first season, when we finished fourth in the league and he was really, really motivated already for the next season. He said: 'Listen, we have a good group of players, we're going to stick together for years now and win things.'
"I've seen him in some really, really bad moments for us - so that's why I'm saying: he has this belief in us. He's a great person, on and off the field."
Part of Mane's success at Liverpool is his selflessness. Klopp praises his No 10 in the documentary for his display in that 4-0 win over Barcelona saying, with Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino injured, "Sadio played for three. That's a fact. His performance was unbelievable."
His goals, assists and scintillating runs have become such regular sights in a red shirt that it's easy to forget that many thought the £34 million Liverpool paid to Southampton in 2016 was too high. His value has trebled since.
Yet everything he does on the pitch benefits the team. Flashy tricks for the sake of it, designed to end up on a YouTube compilation, aren't part of his regular repertoire - but that doesn't mean his sights aren't set on the pinnacle of the sport.
Describing his pride at winning the 2019 African Player of the Year in January, Mane shyly admits he aims to go one step further.
"I do want to win the Ballon d'Or - but it will be really, really tough," he says. "From day one, I never stopped dreaming - and I will do everything possible until the end of my career. So we will see what is going to happen, but it's one of my life's big dreams for sure."
That self-belief and burning ambition is what's taken Mane from the farming life that was destined for him to where he stands today: a Champions League winner via Dakar, Metz, Salzburg, Southampton and Liverpool. Who would bet against him taking yet another giant leap forwards.
Made In Senegal is available 8th April for free on Rakuten TV
All imagery: PA Images