There’s something about AS Bondy.
The club provided a platform for Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry to shine, while it subsequently set Lille youngster Jonathan Ikone and Paris Saint-Germain ace Kylian Mbappe on the path to stardom.
There is a third rapidly emerging talent in Ligue 1 also touched by the magic of the outfit from Paris’ northern suburbs, a player with just 16 league appearances and 1546 minutes of top-team football to his name, but one with a price tag on his head of £25 million ($32m) and, reportedly, 20 clubs vying for his signature this summer.
That young man is William Saliba, who only signed his first professional terms with Saint-Etienne last summer and who only turned 18 in March.
He spent six years at Bondy from 2008-14, where the club’s very own Tinkerbell, Wilfried Mbappe, Kylian’s father, dusted him with the magic that has subsequently made his career explode.
“Wilfried taught me everything, and if I’m here today, it’s thanks to him,” he explained to Le Populaire while with the France Under-18 team earlier this season.
“As his dad was my coach, I’d often go to Kylian’s house. When we saw where Kylian got to, it made us want it.”
Saliba’s career is ready to take off in a similar manner to his primary school colleague, who is three years his senior. He has come a long way from being the physically imposing but somewhat ungainly youth who turned out for Bondy.
The Arsenal-led gaggle of clubs chasing the centre-back – who can also play on the right of defence when required – is testimony to the quantum leap he has taken over the course of a remarkable season, during which he has been promoted from the France Under-17 side right through to the Under-20s World Cup squad.
His rapid rate of progress is largely thanks to a brain and a body that are unusually advanced for one so young.
Even head coach Jean-Louis Gasset, who is generally frugal with the amount of first-team exposure an individual academy graduate will earn, has been forced to concede that he merits regular football, despite previously stating a will to “protect” his most precious asset.
Saliba’s first start came in a midweek Ligue 1 match in Toulouse as he replaced emblematic captain Loic Perrin, with Gasset mindful that “there was less pressure” away from home than at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Seven of his first nine appearances came on the road and he only forced his way regularly into the starting XI in the midst of an injury crisis.
Initially, it would have been easy for the fledgling pro to have become disenchanted with bobbing in and out of the team, despite his strong performances, yet in contrast to Jean-Clair Todibo at Toulouse, who went to war with the club and forced an acrimonious exit to Barcelona in January, he remained patient and it paid off.
Ten top-team appearances were all it took for Saint-Etienne to act quickly and tie him down to a fresh contract that runs until 2023. However, a player quickly labelled ‘the new Thuram’ had, unsurprisingly, already caught the attention of others by then.
Jose Mourinho, the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Chelsea boss renowned for his defensive acumen, has been drawn to the physicality and game-reading qualities of the young Parisian.
“He’s got all the assets to become a top player, just like Kurt Zouma I had with me at Chelsea,” Mourinho told RMC, referencing the centre-back, who also started out at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard before being sold to Chelsea as a 19-year-old.
Saliba, though, is undoubtedly a classier, more rounded player than the muscular Zouma.
Despite the meteoric rise he has enjoyed over recent months, his push into the senior game was not necessarily straightforward.
He began as an offensive player but struggled with the technical side of the game, with the unusually tall youngster reliant on his power, which was so impressive it outmatched boys two years older than him when he was still only 13.
“If he wanted to go further and flourish, he had to drop deeper,” Abdelaziz Kaddour, who picked him up at U15 level with Montfermeil, a partner club of Saint-Etienne, explained to France Football.
Lacking the class to play offensively and the dynamism to fulfil a midfield role, the 14-year-old was pushed into defence, much to his initial disappointment.
Three months later, however, that was tempered as he had been snapped up by Sainte, whose Ile-de-France scout Ludovic Paradinas had been alerted to the monumental young defender by Kaddour.
There has been little holding the teenager back since then, with his impressive strength dovetailed with a sense of anticipation and understanding of the game that many players have to wait years into their career to forge.
Crucially, the technical flaws that prevented him from playing in a more advanced role were all but ironed out. Loose passes are few and far between, he has become more incisive in his use of the ball, while he possesses composure that belies that this aspect of the game was once an Achilles heel.
Now his weakness is a more surprising one for a player who stands at over 6ft 3in (1.93m); he is still deficient in the air. Nevertheless, he is sure to give his all in developing that area.
Indeed, his improvement in the frailer aspects of his game is testimony to the focus that he has on improving his play, which extends to all aspects of his life, including sleep and diet.
This unwavering commitment to improving is reminiscent of that of Mbappe, and like the Ligue 1 Player of the Year, he retains a close link to Bondy.
“Wilo is loved and listened to by everyone, he keeps his feet on the ground,” childhood friend Daniel Mboma told France Football.
Saliba has played a late but important role in pushing Saint-Etienne into the Europa League thanks to a fourth-place finish in Ligue 1, but he will not be present as they complete their programme on Friday against Angers.
Instead, he will be with the France U20 side as they seek to win their World Cup in Poland. Saliba will be the youngest player in the squad, but he will also be one of the most closely studied.
“For me, this little one has an extraordinary future,” Gasset said. “At his age, he possesses maturity, intelligence in his game, technique, size and, above all, he knows where he wants to go.
“If everything’s gone quickly for him, he’s met it by progressing every day.”
Like Mbappe, this is another Bondy graduate destined for the top.
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