Koulibaly gets plenty of screen time given his status as one of the most highly regarded centre-backs in Europe, with regular Champions League assignments for Napoli; he also played at the 2018 World Cup for Senegal. He has even been in the news during the pandemic – and not just the transfer gossip pages linking him with some of the continent’s biggest clubs. Geriatric nurse Nicola Bianco, in Milan, scribbled the Napoli centre-back’s name and number on to the back of his uniform, citing the inspirational example of his performances on the field, and posted it on social media. Koulibaly duly contacted him. “Thank you for what you said,” he wrote on Instagram. “I liked it a lot. However, you are the heroes!” Koulibaly has also provided financial support for almost 500 Neapolitan families by auctioning the shirt he wore during this season’s home fixture against Liverpool, as well as joining forces with international colleague Keita Baldé to donate money and emergency medical supplies to Senegal.
It is before the pandemic that our interview with Koulibaly at Napoli’s training ground takes place. In person, the stature that makes ‘KK’ such a powerful presence on the field is obvious (and explains his other nickname, ‘K2’). “I’m not sure if I’m one of the best defenders in the world – that’s up to others to judge,” he says. “I just try to go out and prove myself every day on the pitch.” His place alongside Leonardo Bonucci in the central defence of Opta’s Serie A team of the decade suggests he’s doing a decent job of that.
Koulibaly wanted to be a defender from “around nine or ten”. “I love one-to-ones, I love facing my man. That’s what I like most.” It is worth reviewing the highlights reel of Napoli’s 1-1 home draw with Paris Saint-Germain in the 2018/19 Champions League – and, in particular, one wonderfully timed tackle to foil Kylian Mbappé. The pair pause for a split-second over the ball before Mbappé goes through the gears in a bid to outpace him on the outside; Koulibaly executes a flawless tackle, hooking his left leg around the ball like a shepherd’s crook. In the same game he literally pushes team-mate Mário Rui from behind to put him into the path of another incursion from Mbappé; cue gifs aplenty.
Serie A’s big occasions have also brought out the best in Koulibaly. Napoli supporters still cherish the memory of his last-minute winner at Juventus in April 2018, when he sprang off the turf to bang a header past Gianluigi Buffon. If only for a week, it put his team right back in the chase for the Scudetto.
This is an extract from an article in issue 4 of Champions Journal. Get your copy to read the full story.