One of the biggest commitments that has come under John Herdman’s watch, Ballou Tabla turned heads and made a lot of Canadians happy when he committed to Canada for his national team football. A promising young prospect, he caught the attention of many when he made the move from Montreal Impact to Barcelona “B” at the young age of 18.
A tricky winger who had established himself into the Impact’s lineup at 17, his move was a pretty big one for MLS, as selling on a young homegrown player to a big club is always good for the league. It was a big deal for Canadians as well, because if he were to commit to Canada he would offer another option in a pretty impressive array of attacking options that they have assembled in recent years. Born in Côte D’Ivoire, he came to Canada at the age of 8 years old, representing Canada at the U15 and U17 levels. However, due to those 8 years spent in Cote D’Ivoire, he was eligible for their national squad, which many speculated he would commit to, especially considering his relationship with Cote d’Ivoire legend Didier Drogba from their time at Montreal together
He announced his commitment to Canada last October, allowing him to play in matches against Dominica and St Kitts and Nevis soon after, while allowing fans to breathe a sigh of relief as Canada was on the right side of another positive commitment, giving a boost for Herdman as he avoided what Canada had felt many years prior with players such as Asmir Begovic.
Only 19, Tabla has done pretty well so far in Europe, playing matches for Barcelona B, training with their first team and scoring a loan move to Albacete, a Spanish Second Division side deep in a promotion battle, great experience for a player of any age. While he may seem a couple years away from possibly cracking the Barcelona first-team, he offers potential for a country seemingly spoiled with winger depth all of a sudden, with Herdman now able to rely on Tabla, Junior Hoilett, Alphonso Davies, Liam Millar and Jonathan David amongst others.
A few days ago, at Canada Soccer’s training for this upcoming match against French Guiana (check out our preview here) we got a chance to speak with Tabla, a great chance to get to know him better since he has fallen under the radar since his move. We asked a few questions, including why he chose Canada and his experience in Spain, and he gave some good insight to how he likes to play on the pitch. (The interview was in French, so we have transcribed it down below for those of you who speak French or wish to practice).
Tabla’s commitment to Canada was one of the biggest question marks heading into last fall, as losing a player of his calibre would have been a big blow for a program attempting to establish themselves under a new coach. However, it never really was in doubt for Tabla that he would want to represent Canada permanently going forward.
“I came here when I was 8 years old, and this country has adopted myself and my family as I have taken big steps in life” He told us.“I’ve had a chance to play in youth teams , U15, U17 (For Canada), and now the first team, and I am happy (that I’ve committed)”.
While Ivorian legend Didier Drogba was a good mentor for Tabla during his time at Montreal, his influence remained more on the professional side of the game, allowing him to grow as a player and off the field as he managed expectations.
“I wasn’t really thinking of the national team with him (Drogba), it was more about learning the professional side of things, and how to manage things since I signed young, so he gave me lots of advice” Tabla said.“I made my decision after he left Montreal, as I took the time to sit down with my family and my entourage in order to make my decision”
The decision came after around 9 months in Spain, which were tough as he adapted to new surroundings on and off the pitch.
“The first few months were not easy, you don’t speak the language, you’re alone without your family, you have to get used to the food and the temperature since it’s so hot” Tabla said. “I had to manage that, so I brought in my family when I could, helping me stay strong mentally. I had a chance to practice my Spanish, and my teammates and coaches helped a lot, taking care of me so I could be more confident on and off the field”
While the move had some challenges, it was still a dream move for a young player establishing himself in the pro game. Going from Montreal to Barcelona would be a dream move for most players, and Tabla got to experience it at such a young age.
“At first, it was more like being in your childhood dream. Playing at Barcelona, where big players like Messi and Neymar have come through, it was a dream” Tabla told us. “I told myself that I am here, I have to work hard, I have to get involved, I’m now a Barca player. I had to introduce myself into that dream in order to work hard and learn (to show that I belonged)”
After playing with Barcelona’s B team for around a year, along with many training sessions with the main team, he got loaned out this past winter to second-division side Albacete Balompie, a small outfit fighting for promotion. It was a good move to gain experience, giving him a different experience of the pro game after the year in Barcelona.
“It’s not been quite what I had hoped for personally, because I haven’t had a chance to get into many games, but it’s a great club, and we are preparing hard for promotion” He said.”Right now we are 5th or 6th, we’re playing some good matches, getting good results, so for now I’m here for the next few months and we’ll see how it goes”
“For now I’m focused on helping us get up to the first division, winning the promotion playoffs, and help Canada get to the Gold Cup this Summer” Tabla lists “ I just want to be able to win as much as I can right now”
He is happy to have commited to Canada, as there are many players that he is familiar with from his time in MLS, and he enjoys it a lot, calling the team his family. It has made things easier in his adjustment, as the group is very diverse and gets along pretty well.
“I’m very happy with the players we have here, I’ve had a chance to play against many of them, as well as playing with Maxime Crepeau, Samuel Piette and a few others” Tabla said. “These guys here are my friends, they are my family so I am happy”
He has a lot of attacking potential to bring to this country, but for many fans it is unclear what his preferred position is as they have not had a chance to see him play much. He is described as a winger, but like many other young Canadians in this squad, he is very versatile.
“I like to play both wing positions as I like to dribble up and get in behind.” Tabla described. “I can also play centrally, as a 10, as well as on the left and right of the midfield as I like to pivot around. I like to score goals, but providing assists is my favourite thing as it’s satisfying to create chances and help the offence operate”
He will look to do that tomorrow, as Herdman will likely rely on him to help his team get some goals and fire up a decently-sized BC Place crowd. He is going to be a key offensive piece for Canada forward, so it was a pleasure to interview him and get to know him better as we follow his career for Club and Country the next few years.
Full Interview (French):
Pourquoi le Canada?
“Tout simplement, à l’âge de 8 ans je suis arrivé ici, et ce pays m’a adopté très bien ma famille et moi, puis c’est de là que j’ai commencé mes premiers pas, et voilà, j’ai fait les équipes de jeunes, 15, 17, qualifications, puis aujourd’hui la première (équipe), alors je suis content”.
Comment sont tes relations avec Drogba, est ce qu’il a influencé ta décision?
“Ouais c’était un moment décisif, parce que je pensais pas forcément l’équipe nationale,je pensais vraiment en apprendre beaucoup sur le niveau professionel avec lui, et comment gérer parce que j’ai signé très tôt, et il me donnait des conseils, puis c’était plus ce coté là, mais après, la séléction, c’est arrivé plus tard après son départ de Montréal, puis c’est la que j’ai pris ma décision avec ma famille et mon entourage”
Est-ce qu’il était dur de déménager en Espagne?
“Les premiers mois, c’était pas facile, pas facile, parce que tu parles pas la langue, t’es tout seul sans la famille, tu dois t’adapter aussi à la nourriture, c’est pas la facile la température aussi, ce qui fait vraiment chaud, puis donc c’est ca, j’ai su gérer ça, j’ai fait venir la famille que je voyais de temps en temps, toujours proche avec la famille, et ca m’a aidé à rester fort mentalement, puis j’ai pris des cours d’espagnol aussi, puis mes coéquipiers, mes entraîneurs m’ont mis dans un bon cercle, ils m’ont aidé, ils m’ont cadrés, pour que je puisse m’exprimer, sur le terrain comme à l’extérieur, donc voilà c’est comme ca que mon expérience s’est passé”
Passer de Montréal à Barcelone, comment est ce que les joueurs comme Messi et Suarez t’ont influencés?
“Au début, ouais, c’est plus comme un rêve d’enfant, arriver à Barcelone, voir des grands joueurs, Messi, Neymar qui ont passé par là, donc au début c’était plus ce rêve là, mais après je me suis dit, je suis là, moi aussi je dois travailler fort, je dois m’impliquer, je suis un joueur du Barça, je dois apprendre, chaque jour j’apprenais, et voila, c’était le début, c’était un peu le rêve, c’était un nouveau monde, donc après j’ai pu rentrer dans ce rêve la, m’introduire dans ce rêve là, puis je le vis, et voilà c’est comme ça”
En janvier, Barcelone t’a prêté à Albacete, comment est ce que tu te sens là-bas?
“Ouais, on peut dire que pour l’instant, c’est pas encore comme je souhaitais, vu que j’ai eu encore des matchs affiliés et affiliés, sinon le club c’est un très bon club, puis il se prépare pour la remontée, on est classé 5ème ou 6ème, puis on fait des bons matchs, des bons résultats, puis voilà donc pour l’instant je suis là pour encore 4 mois, 4 ou 5 mois, jusqu’à la fin de l’année, et on verra qu’est ce qui se passera après”
Quelle sont tes buts pour le court terme?
“Monter en première division, faire les playoffs, gagner, et avec l’équipe nationale aller en CONCACAF, et essayer de gagner le plus de matchs”
Depuis les quelques mois que tu participes avec la sélection, comment est ce que te sens?
“Non, je suis tres content d’être avec ces joueurs là, des joueurs avec qui j’ai pu jouer, avec qui j’ai joué aussi en MLS, comme des Maxime Crépeau dont j’ai pu jouer avec, des Samuel Piette et autres, et voilà c’est des amis, c’est la famille, c’est bien donc je suis content”
Pour des personnes qui ont peut être pas eu la chance de te voir jouer, comment est ce que tu te décrirais?
“J’aime bien jouer à droite, comme à gauche aussi, en fait offensivement je suis bien, je peux pivoter, comme en point, 10, gauche, droite, et je me décris comme un joueur qui peut dribbler, qui peut pénétrer, qui peut faire une passe décisive, comme marquer aussi, mais beaucoup sur la passe décisive, j’aime ça faire la passe a mon coéquipier pour marquer, créer des occasions, et qui percule beaucoup aussi”