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Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Hard man's divine inspiration

Italy's Roberto Baggio converted to Buddhism to help him cope with football's many challenges, Brazilian Kaka points to the sky with both index fingers as a gesture of Christian gratitude, while the Omani team showed their Islamic faith when they prayed en-masse after scoring during last year's Asian Cup.

And then there's Jonas Salley in Australia's A-League and the AFC Champions League. The Adelaide United midfielder has a striking, pre-game ritual in which he prays on the pitch with his arms outstretched and his head tilted towards the sky.

Salley's public display of Christian devotion is unique in Australia's largely secular national championship where religious doctrine is rarely demonstrated or discussed, but the 26-year-old Ivory Coast import is more than happy to talk about his beliefs.

'I also pray before I go to bed and before I eat,' Salley said. 'He is powerful and the Bible says: 'If you believe in God you will see his glory in your life''.

If any new opponents think that Salley's prayers are a sign of a meek and charitable nature on the pitch, they're soon in for a rude awakening. The African is one of the toughest holding midfielders in the A-League, known for his uncompromising, physical approach and ability to win the ball.

A manager at one of his former clubs, the New Zealand Knights, even compared him to Chelsea's French international Claude Makelele, Salley's hero.

His contribution will be crucial for Adelaide United in Matchdays 3 and 4 of the AFC Champions League as they face Vietnamese champions Binh Duong, both away and at home.

Adelaide and Melbourne Victory are the A-League's two representatives in Australia's second year of participation in Asia's premier club competition. Adelaide top Group E on goal difference after two matches.

Salley was red-carded last month when the Reds pulled off a surprise 2-0 away victory over Korea's Pohang Steelers. A one-match suspension meant that he missed Adelaide's 0-0 home draw with China's Changchun Yatai the following week.

His journey to South Australia came via Auckland, Sydney and suburban Melbourne where his performances in lower tier competitions two years ago caught the eye of A-League scouts.

Family rather than football reasons brought Salley halfway across the world in 2005. His father had lived in Australia for almost 20 years and Salley was eager to escape the political and economic instability of his homeland, where he'd played for local clubs, Sirocco FC, Sewe Sport and Africa Sport National.

After a handful of games for tiny Mill Park and Victorian state league side, South Melbourne, he was snapped up by the now defunct New Zealand Knights for the 2006-2007 season. Despite some injury worries, Salley stood out and quickly became a fan favourite in a struggling side.

When the Knights dropped out of the A-League, Salley was snapped up on a short-term contract that same season by then Sydney FC coach Terry Butcher, who threw him into action for the Blues' ill-fated finals campaign. A month earlier, Salley had inspired the Knights to a surprise 1-0 victory over Sydney.

A two-year contract with Adelaide, starting at the beginning of last season, provided the stability that Salley craved. Along with Adelaide's Socceroo and Olyroo striker Bruce Djite - who has an Ivorian father and Togolese mother - he's one of two Reds players with African roots. Salley laughs when quizzed about the flip-side to his gentle and pious nature away from football: 'I put my body on the line for my teammates,' he says. 'But off the pitch is another Jonas Salley.'

Q: Jonas, would you have imagined just a couple of years ago that you would be playing in Asia's top club competition? How are you enjoying the challenge?

A: To be honest no, I didn't imagine it. When I got to Australia after watching the A-League on TV, I was looking forward to play that league. It's fantastic: we have the chance to compete with other teams and show them what we are capable of doing on the pitch.

Q: You left the domestic strife of the Ivory Coast in April 2005. Why did you make Australia your preferred destination?

A: My father has lived in Australia for years so he applied for me and my sister so we could come here.

Q: You've played for two other A-League clubs: for the old New Zealand Knights and, briefly, for Sydney FC. How do those two experiences compare to your time with Adelaide United?

A: I had a really good time over in New Zealand with the Knights, even though the result was poor at the end. That was my first A-League appearance so I wanted to expose myself and I believe I did that. As for Sydney FC, I was there on a short-term contract but what I learned and saw during that time was still of benefit to me.

I think there is not too much difference with my different clubs. It's all about your expectations, commitment and other responsibilities. With Adelaide United, I have the chance to play the AFC Champions League, which is the only difference.

Q: You're known as a tough, defensive midfielder. Who are your role models in that position around the world? A former coach once compared you to a young Claude Makelele... or is countryman Didier Drogba your hero?

A: Michael Essien and Claude Makelele are my heroes, not Didier Drogba. I was glad to hear those names but there's still a long, long way to go!

Q: Adelaide 's Socceroo and Olyroo striker Bruce Djite also has Ivory Coast roots. What do you think about Bruce's abilities as a footballer?

A: No doubt, he is a very good player. He is strong and he can score... he's proving that in the league.

Q: Finally, can you explain your praying ritual before every game... it seems incongruous with your tough image!

A: I just pray to God before every game, before I go to bed and before I eat. He is powerful and the Bible says: if you believe in God you will see his glory in your life and I do believe it. My tough image is on the pitch because I want to win every ball. It's first a personal challenge to stop my opponent and not be afraid to put my body on the line for my teammates. But off the pitch is another Jonas Salley.

Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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