Celtic Football Club, under the guidance of their talismanic Head Coach Martin O’Neill, had secured all available domestic silverware during the 2000/01 Scottish soccer season. The squad was well-equipped with a blend of proven and internationally renowned talent.
Mohammed Sylla joined Celtic in August 2001. Nobody but the most optimistic expected him to break into the team. He wasn't expected to rise to prominence and supplant the bigger, more established names within the roster. He wasn't expected to become a star.
Sylla stayed for four years and played only 47 games. He will not be remembered amongst the towering club legends of Jimmy Johnstone, Bertie Auld and Henrik Larsson. Many fans will overlook him altogether.
The club, founded in 1888, maintains a passionate and global fanbase deserving of its rich and celebrated history, As such, the supporters of Glasgow Celtic are a viewing public that have been blessed to call some of the game’s true greats their own. But within their immense and fortunate ranks there are some that will never forget Momo.
It was his family’s hope of a better life that saw him leave the Ivory Coast in his early childhood. The safer environment of Paris - harnessed with an economic stability — allowed a maturing Sylla to pursue and learn his trade in the lower leagues of France. He bounced around provincial clubs before being acquired by St. Johnstone prior to commencement of the 2000/01 season. His performance and proximity drew the attention of the league champions and he was promptly snapped up for a nominal fee.
Momo was an enigma. In a soccer climate that was moving steadily towards the culture of devised uniformity we know today, Sylla was a confusing throw-back. In this era, with its increasingly demanding professionalism in addition to an expanding level of tactical analysis — he stood out. Primarily for what was deemed to be the wrong reasons. Sylla, by every measurable trait, was far removed from the prototypical Scottish league player. He defied labels. This went beyond the natural level of fan discussion and debate regarding his best position and relative value. This was an entirely different level of scrutiny that his predecessors and contemporaries would face. In stadium seats and Glasgow bars the questions were being loudly whispered : Is he good enough for Celtic ?
By the time his Celtic career was over he had become somewhat of a utility man. He featured all over the field within O’Neill’s favored formation. Predominantly right-footed but capable with both, eager to compete and not without considerable athleticism, he seemed to attain all that was ‘un-teachable’. Yet for all of his flexibility and value to the squad Sylla would never cement a first team role as his own. He regularly filled in for someone. He covered. When his name appeared in a starting line-up it was rarely met with fan excitement or anticipation. The consensus response would seem to be that he was picked in lieu of someone more established, better qualified or more reliable. Momo was plugging a gap.
When opportunity or circumstance led to him taking the field there was always something intriguing, beguiling and utterly fascinating about Momo Sylla. But the attention he drew would swiftly morph into frustration. His skills were as evident as his inconsistency. He was wonderful with the ball and suspect without. There are few things in soccer as downright terrifying as the look behind Sylla’s eyes when he lost control of the ball. He would simply charge after it — seemingly possessed — forsaking any and all notions of positional responsibility. It was a compelling sight. However, the frequency with which this occurred would only galvanize those who questioned his viability as a useful player for a club with title aspirations.
It could be considered reductive to suggest Momo Sylla’s service to his club could be summed up within a single action on the field. But such a defining moment does exist.
August 2002 saw Celtic face FC Basel in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. The game was of huge competitive and financial importance. Sylla was selected to start.
His overall performance that night was nothing short of incredible. He was relentless as he charged up and down the right side of the field, covering huge yardage yet always maintaining a steady focus and level of concentration. On the most important of stages he matched craft with determination to help a team cautious to avoid defeat. But the moment that may serve as Sylla’s greatest in Celtic uniform occurred in the 88th minute. As the game crept into its dying seconds he drifted infield and ambled into the opposition penalty box. Steve Guppy was able to engineer space and loft the ball toward him. Sylla halted, stuttered backward, swung his right leg, connected with the ball and guided it into the top corner of the net. Celtic Park roared.
Repeated viewing of the goal will never fully shake the sense that the ball could have ended up almost anywhere. There is no doubt Sylla’s intention was to do exactly what he did. It would be churlish to argue otherwise. He wanted to score.
We have become accustomed to soccer players expertly dispatching balls into nets. We know what it looks like. We can anticipate the outcome. We can almost feel the connection between their expensive fluorescent Nike and the ball. Likewise we recognize an error in timing, a misjudgment or mis-kick. We can comprehend a faulty trajectory. We can see the application of incorrect force or power. We can see when it goes wrong.
That night, as Sylla cushioned the ball beyond the stranded goalkeeper and steered Celtic toward victory the connection wasn't perfect. Whether it was his lack of forward momentum, the slightly awkward angle of impact — or perhaps a combination of both — the ball didn't scream into the net. Instead, it made its way in a controlled, spinning arc.
It wasn't satisfyingly crisp. It wasn't ugly either. In fact, there was a nonchalant beauty in its imperfection.
It was Momo.