After jail, a 2nd chance to rebuild football dream
Mara Kante saw his football dreams crushed when he was convicted of carrying a weapon during riots outside Paris in 2007.
Now the young Frenchman who trained with clubs in England and Italy is getting a second chance.
The powerful left back is trying to rebuild his career, playing with fourth-division club Louhans-Cuiseaux for next to nothing. He hasn't given up hope of playing for one of the world's great leagues.
''Wherever will be my chance, I will go,'' the 23-year-old Kante said. ''Whether it's New York, Birmingham, Hoffenheim or Arsenal. I will play where my fate is.''
Kante was among several men accused of shooting at and wounding police officers during riots that left burned cars and buildings in the town of Villiers-le-Bel in November 2007.
The riots broke out after two teenage boys on a motorbike died in a crash with a police car and rumors rapidly spread that they had been killed by police.
The Villiers-le-Bel riots north of Paris highlighted simmering anger in poor housing projects where many Arabs, blacks and other minorities live, isolated from mainstream French society.
Kante - a French citizen of Malian and Senegalese descent - insisted on his innocence throughout the trial. He was cleared of the attempted murder of police officers, but was convicted of carrying a weapon and sentenced to prison.
''Justice is silly and hidebound,'' Kante said. ''Nobody saw me fire a shotgun. And I was arrested three months after the events after somebody accused me to get a reduced sentence. Justice is not the same for all. I'm black, I didn't graduate, I come from the suburbs. When people look at me, they can't avoid to think with cliches.''
Kante's imprisonment began with an 11 month stay in an isolation building.
''In prison, I was forced to quickly strengthen my mental resources,'' said Kante, a practicing Muslim. ''I didn't care about bodybuilding. I opened books and started to read the works of Malcolm X, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. During the 29 months I spent in jail, I learned a lot about people and I've also grown up. I understood that I was capable to aim for big things.''
The first thing Kante did when he was released was to go see his mother in the hospital.
''She was expecting her latest baby,'' said Kante, one of 13 children.
Two months later, he learned from a friend that Louhans-Cuiseaux was looking for a left back.
''At the time I was not thinking about football. I had spent almost three years without playing a ball,'' he said.
But Kante traveled to the small town in the Burgundy region and worked out for manager Jean Acedo and assistant coach Aliou Cisse, a former Paris Saint-Germain player.
''I signed and went on to win a regular starter position in the team. They offered me 1,500 euros ($2,000) a month, but the club is struggling and I'm not paid. They pay for my hotel room and my food. But after what I went through, I can't complain.''
At the club, Kante lives in a peaceful environment that contrasts sharply with the violent suburbs where he grew up.
''Besides football, there is not much to do,'' Kante said. ''But I'm not here for fun.''
Before the riots, Kante had played with several regional clubs around Paris and had training sessions with English and Italian clubs.
After spells at Cesena and Udinese in Italy, which didn't lead to a deal, he also went to Sarajevo, where a first-division club offered him more than $500 a month. He turned the offer down.
Acedo believes Kante will improve gradually and eventually reach his former level.
''After three years without playing, he had to find back the rhythm at training, but he is making great efforts. It's like if he was coming back from a very serious injury,'' Acedo said. ''He lost 13 kilograms (29 pounds) in four months and I'm not worrying about him, both physically and mentally. He is hungry, he wants to find his level back. He is getting better and there is big room for improvement. As many left-footed players, he's got a good strike and can deliver precise crosses. With hard work, he could quickly become a good third-division player.''
Kante dreams of an even brighter future a la Frank Ribery, who blossomed late and shined at the 2006 World Cup before becoming a France stalwart.
''The next France left back? Why not,'' Kante said. ''God is always testing his children - and all big men suffered before they accomplished big things.''