Papiss Cisse gives exclusive interview to The Journal

THERE is a reason that Papiss Cisse is always on the brink of bursting into a broad smile, and it strikes right at the core of what makes him so exceptional.

Newcastle United's Papiss Cisse
Newcastle United's Papiss Cisse

THERE is a reason that Papiss Cisse is always on the brink of bursting into a broad smile, and it strikes right at the core of what makes him so exceptional.Papiss Cisse Factfile

It is not because Newcastle United’s number nine has recently rediscovered his sure touch in front of goal or the thing that sets him apart from his rivals: that deadly capacity to imagine finishing touches that rival strikers might consider too improbable to attempt.

Neither is it because he is recalling how "every day", without fail, his best friend Cheick Tiote rises from his 5pm siesta to ask him to cook Senegalese rice for the pair.

It is not even when he asks that Newcastle fans continue to approach him in the streets for autographs or pictures, which he sees as a chance to spread the joy that he feels about playing at St James’ Park.

The reason that Cisse is smiling is that for a boy who "came from nothing", the chance to play Premier League football in front of thousands of adoring fans still feels like some sort of "beautiful dream". And he doesn’t want to wake up any time soon.

First, a few Cisse facts gleaned from our hour-long chat that aren’t quite as well-known as his remarkable goal-scoring record in black and white.

His first job, at the age of 15, was as an ambulance driver in the remote southern area of Senegal called Sedhiou. It was there that he first witnessed the injustice of life for the underprivileged, when a patient passed away as they attempted to get them to Dakar for emergency medical treatment.

The motivation to play football was partly because he wanted to make a difference to communities like his and partly down to the influence of his "hard-working" family, who told him never to lose sight of his roots. He sends a sizeable proportion of his wages back to Sedhiou but his family still work – and his uncle Ousmain Tandien Cisse drives the President of Senegal around for a living.

Finally, Cisse is digging into his own pockets to fund a mosque and an education centre back home – as well as kitting out the hospital he once worked at for free with an ambulance, an X-ray machine and other essentials to ensure no one else suffers the same fate as those he once helped in their hour of need.

"To be able to do all this is something absolutely incredible," he said.

"It is the reason why I don’t have a big head, because I have come from nowhere and now I am here. I feel well loved by so many people and it is one of the great things about the job, to feel so well loved just for doing your job.

"My home town is small place called Sedhiou in Senegal. It is more of a community than a town, to be honest.

"All of my family are still there and when I get the chance to go on holiday - or we are given time off – I will try to go there for as much of it as possible. I will go there. That’s where my family and friends are and I do not want to forget it, even after all that has happened to me in Newcastle and in football.

"The area was not wealthy. My family weren’t necessarily a poor family, they did everything for me to have a good life and now I’m really happy because when I get my salary here, I can send it to them.

"I like to say thank you to the area that brought me up. It taught me a lot and I want to say thank you to my family because they are the reason why I do not get a big head.

"For this reason I am in the middle of launching a couple of projects at the moment. I want to give something back.

"I am the only professional footballer from that community so I feel that I should help out. I am involved in a health information centre that is opening up and I am building a mosque there.

"But my biggest hope is that I can help the hospital that is there. I have bought an ambulance for them because they need it, and they also don’t have an X-ray machine.

"The hospital is lacking in materials and resources. For some emergencies, people need to go to a bigger city which is four or five hours away by road. I was one of the people that took people from my home town to the city as an ambulance driver.

"When I was 15, I did this for a couple of years. It is how I learned to drive, which was a very happy thing for me. But I also saw the other side of it: sometimes when we were driving to Dakar for treatment we would lose our patient on the way.

"That is something that really touched me. Why should people die because of that? It made me determined to change things as soon as I was in a position to be able to do it.

"Once you have seen that, you do not forget and I hope that I can help now that I am in a position to do that. I know that you can not do everything."

Cisse’s parents should be proud. He is polite to a fault and generous with his time, right up until the point where our interview begins to encroach on the period set aside for Friday prayers.

Neither has wealth changed him much. A giant pool table with a personalised crest sits in the front room of his spaciously appointed house on the outskirts of Newcastle, but it is a rare indulgence considering the wealth he has accrued since his Premier League career took off 12 months ago.

The rest of his tastes are more prosaic. He likes a trip to restaurant chain Nandos because the spiced chicken reminds him of African food while his favourite haunt in Newcastle is a small cafe near the station where he pops in to talk to the owner Mohammed about their shared faith and drinks coffee.

Nights in with Tiote usually end in impromptu pool competitions that, Cisse insists, he always wins.

"My best friend in the team is Cheick and because of him, my day is always the same," he jokes. "After training, Tiote wakes up from his siesta at 5pm, he calls me and says he wants some Senegalese rice. That means I have to go out and do some shopping to get the ingredients and ask him what time he is coming over.

"We have the same style, we like to laugh together. Cheick is a completely different person on and off the pitch – he seems crazy on the pitch but off it, he is different but we like the same things. I love playing pool, that is my game. We play all the time and I always destroy Tiote!"

Beneath the smile, there lurks an intensity and determination that has enabled the boy who came from nothing to become a Newcastle number nine to rival the very best that have pulled on that famous shirt.

He has needed it this season, when it has not always been easy for him to replicate the incredible form of last season.

"It’s been very different this season, for sure," he admits.

"It was a bit complicated at the beginning. There was some waiting around to score and defenders always seemed to be there; they always seemed to be present in the box.

"My job is now to bring something new and I am working on that. I have some surprises for defences this season.

"I can’t say what they are! It’s a secret, something that I’m working on with the coach. It is a pleasure to work with this coach, he is such a great influence."

Life changed when he started scoring for Newcastle. It first hit him when people started approaching him in the streets after he scored on his debut, and when he was mobbed when he went for a haircut in town. But despite the scrutiny he hasn’t tired of the adulation, and enjoys being asked for autographs or photos.

He said: "It’s almost like living a dream. The people who live here are so nice and the supporters really need to be thanked for being behind me all the time. The players are nothing without the supporters so I really want to thank them.

"I always smile. I’m not ill, I have good health, I do my job and people love me.

"I don’t see why I should pull a face about it?"

:: Papiss Demba Cisse, born June 3, 1985, in Senegal.

:: Joined Bundesliga club, Freiburg, in January 2010.

:: Cisse joined Newcastle United from Freiburg in January 2012, for £9m.

:: Scored 15 goals for United so far – 13 of which came between February and May.

:: His 13 goals in 12 games bettered Alan Shearer’s Blackburn tally of 12 goals in 12 games, and equalled Micky Quinn’s top-flight record.

:: During this goal-scoring run, Cisse bagged nine goals across six consecutive games.

:: Cisse has scored twice this season, but neither of these have come in the Premier League – the first against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup, and the second against Bordeaux in the Europa League.

:: He has also never scored a hat-trick for either Freiburg or Newcastle.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer