At the tail end of a harsh south Bohemian winter, the higher echelons of European football could hardly have seemed further away. Abdallah Sima was 18 when he arrived at FC Taborsko, then in the Czech Republic’s third tier, shortly before Covid-19 stopped play. Lodged in a rural apartment, there was little to do except train: so it was that Sima’s first two months were spent on a flattened patch of farmland, flanked by piles of chopped timber, kicking balls between cones with the former football coach who owned his accommodation.
On Thursday evening, though, Sima will step out at the Emirates Stadium as one of the most highly prized young forwards around. When Slavia Prague took him from Taborsko last July, he had yet to play a competitive match and the move was viewed as a punt: Sima would begin in the Czech champions’ B team and sink or swim from there, although his advisers were not shy in telling the Slavia hierarchy he would not require such a significant adaptation spell.
They were right. By September, Sima was making late appearances from the bench for Jindrich Trpisovsky’s impressive team; by November he was scoring a crucial Europa League goal against Nice on his first start; and by 25 February he was on target for the 15th time this season with a raking low drive against Leicester that confirmed Slavia’s surprise win in the last 32.
“His potential is unreal,” Trpisovsky said after watching Sima score against Opava five months ago. “It will skyrocket. I’m not even afraid it will go bad.” It has been a remarkable journey for Sima, who was playing local football in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, until he was 17. The French club Thonon Évian spotted him playing for the academy at amateur side FC Medina but there was little to suggest, at that point, that he would scorch such a rapid trail to the top.
Many African footballers succeed in Europe; many fail and find themselves discarded in backwaters. Sima’s enforced break in the farmland around Tabor did not bode well on the outside but his trajectory has been carefully planned. Évian, who briefly burned brightly in Ligue 1 but now bob around in France’s lower leagues, regard themselves as a finishing school and worked closely with Daniel Chrysostome, Sima’s agent. Chrysostome had long since identified the Czech Republic as a venue where promising young African players could offer something different at senior level, rather than risking being bogged down in the French system. He believed Sima could advance and Taborsko – who had already sold another of his clients, Cheick Conde, to top-flight club Fastav Zlin – were happy to take the chance.
Slavia’s scouts first took note of Sima when he ran the length of the pitch to score a solo goal against Viktoria Zizkov in a post-lockdown friendly. He then scored twice in a similar match against Slavia B and transfer discussions quickly gathered pace. When he departed, Sima had spent only six months at Taborsko.
Those with a close interest in Slavia wonder, like Trpisovsky, just how far Sima can go. He has plugged straight into a team who are unbeaten domestically in 13 months and have become one of the most interesting, dynamic sides in Europe. Sima can play across the front line and has most commonly been deployed on the right wing: his intelligence in pressing has turned heads internally but his range of finishing excites onlookers most. At 6ft 2in, with a prodigiously timed leap, he poses an aerial threat but his ability to find space, sniff out chances and convert them is the attribute those around believe will lead to quick progress from the Czech league.
“We know about offers for the summer,” the Slavia president, Jaroslav Tvrdik, told Czech media recently, and there are suggestions the club could seek about £25m. Premier League clubs are understood to be paying close attention; West Ham – who have already signed two Slavia players in Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal to good effect – have been linked but the Europa League quarter-final may also be a good time for Arsenal, who need to deal smartly in the coming months and could certainly make use of a versatile young forward, to cast their eyes at close quarters.
To the delight of his large family back in Dakar, Sima won his first two caps for Senegal in the recent international break. It has been a meteoric rise and, while the transfer speculation will hit fever pitch if he adds to Mikel Arteta’s headaches, there is an acknowledgement that Slavia make a good home. They have developed and sold well in recent years, West Ham’s Soucek the most high-profile example, and under Trpisovsky have become a vibrant, compelling presence on the continental stage.
“It would definitely be better for him to stay here,” Trpisovsky said in December. Slavia may ultimately receive an offer they cannot refuse; for now they hope Sima can help them to only their second semi-final appearance in Europe and, in the process, make those weeks toiling in the countryside seem an ever more distant memory.