In the latest part of our series looking at the upbringing of our Academy youngsters, attacker Thierno Ballo talks life before Chelsea, playing as a goalkeeper and his daily motivation.
Tell us a little about your earliest years…
I was very young when I had to leave Ivory Coast for Guinea. I must have been three years old, so I don’t really remember this time. I have many more memories of being in Guinea.
We signed you from Viktoria Koln. How did you end up playing for the German side?
The pathway to Viktoria Koln was a journey! From Guinea, we left for Linz in Austria. After first leaving Ivory Coast early in my life, it was another big change within my first seven years.
When we settled down in Austria, it was very difficult with the new language but I soon recognised that when you get on that pitch, it doesn’t matter which language you speak, which nationality you are or where you come from.
I spent my time after school playing street football and this helped me to become agile and very fast. This is also the reason why I love football, it connects people. While I was playing street football, I was scouted by Chemie Linz. I had some fantastic years in Austria with Chemie Linz and Lask Linz.
A few years later, we moved from Austria to Germany where I was able to play for Bayer Leverkusen. I think I was about 11 years old when I was there, we had a lot of international tournaments and I was able to continue my development at a good level.
At 15 I took the opportunity to play in the Under-17 Bundesliga with Viktoria Koln. I felt good there and this was the last step before Chelsea took a closer look at my performances. This is something I’m very happy and thankful for.
What’s your earliest memory of playing football?
I think the most important point was in Austria. It is maybe not the earliest one, but the most important one. I recognised in football it doesn’t matter how you are, how you look or who you are.
I used to meet new people all the time but after playing football in the street for an hour, we always left as friends. This is my strongest and most powerful memory of playing football.
Have you played in any other positions?
My coach in Austria once sent me into the goal as the goalkeeper as I kept on trying to score by myself instead of looking for a better-positioned team-mate in front of the goal but that was just once. I soon learned to play more for the whole team. That was my only experience of playing in a different position.
In general, I want to be able to play in all offensive positions as I believe that successful players must, in future, fit into three or four different systems/formations.
Did you have any idols as a youngster?
My idol was Thierry Henry. I loved his mentality towards the game and loved watching him play football.
Which one footballing memory sticks in your mind?
There have already been so many good times and some not so good. A lot of goals, assists, wins and some losses - ups and downs. Every moment was special for me, I don’t take anything in life for granted.
A little game-changer in my life was to sign for Chelsea. When we were at Stamford Bridge, I smelled the grass and closed my eyes for a few moments and set some dreams in my mind to one day make my debut for this special club. That moment is my daily motivation and inspiration.