Having been raised in a diverse area of France by Senegalese parents, before a football career that has taken in four different countries, Kalidou Koulibaly has experienced his fair share of different cultures during his life and credits that diversity with a big role in making him the man and player he is today.
The defender was born to Senegalese parents in the town of Saint-Die in the north-east of France and started his professional career in Metz, before moves to Belgium, Italy and now England with Genk, Napoli and Chelsea.
Like many French players of African origins of a similar age, though, including Blues team-mates Edouard Mendy and N’Golo Kante, it was events close to home which inspired his early love of football, as a seven-year-old Koulibaly watched France win the World Cup in 1998.
At the time it was touted as a unifying moment for the country, as a team made up of players from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds came together to lift the ultimate prize on home soil, and it is two of the key players from that side Koulibaly names as his early footballing idols.
‘Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram,’ he says, when asked by the official Chelsea matchday programme who inspired him as a young player. ‘I was French. I am French. I was born in France, so I grew up with them as my example, and it helped me a lot.
‘As French guys with African origins, I was watching them like big stars, idols. Today, I speak with Lilian Thuram and he gives me a lot of advice, a lot of help.’
Despite that childhood in France, the Chelsea centre-back has never forgotten his African origins, as shown by his decision to represent his parents’ homeland Senegal in his own international career.
‘It was a big, big choice, because I could have played with the French national team, but at 23 or 24 years old I decided to play for Senegal, because they were waiting for me.
‘I spoke with the coach, he gave me good motivation and good reasons to come, and I also spoke with my family. The most important people were my parents – they told me that I have to do what I want, but when I told them that I wanted to play for the Senegal national team, I saw the light in their eyes and I knew it was a good choice.
‘When I arrived and I saw the other players, it was like they were my family, because we were all used to eating the same things at home, to speaking the same language at home, so for me it was like I was home! I said to myself, “Why didn’t I come before? They are like my brothers”.’
‘We had a good dynamic, a good spirit, and when you have that, it brings you a lot of good vibes. This helped us a lot, because in the difficult moments, you need this to achieve something.’
However, the concept of his dual French and Senegalese nationality doesn’t seem unusual to Koulibaly, given the multicultural apartment block where he grew up alongside friends from many different backgrounds in Saint-Die.
In fact, he even credits that early education in understanding other people and cultures in giving him the mental adaptability which has served him well on and off the pitch to this day.
‘In France we call this kind of home ‘HLM’ [habitation à loyer modéré, or ‘housing at moderate rent’],’ he explains. ‘It’s where everybody who comes from a modest family is living.
‘All of my friends were living there too, how do you say, chilling out. Everybody was good with everybody. There were a lot of Senegalese people and I used to play with Turkish guys, Arabic guys, French. We were all together and this is the mix that I love.
‘I grew up in this ambience and it was good for me, I would say, because I was understanding things quicker – understanding things in normal life, but even on the pitch as well.’
That open-minded approach and passion for embracing different cultures has no doubt come in handy in recent months as the 31-year-old adapts to his new surroundings in west London with Chelsea.