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Iliman Ndiaye’s extraordinary rise from Sunday League football to Qatar World Cup

Four years ago, three men in their early twenties in Brendon Shabani, Jamie Politt and Eni Shabani built a grassroots football team from scratch. Their mission: to help young talent who lost their way find a route back into professional football.

Little did they envisage that four years later, one of those players, in Iliman Ndiaye, would have made his debut in the Premier League and travelling to Qatar to play in the World Cup.

But things weren’t always straightforward.

Ndiaye first travelled down to Rising Ballers, the club founded by the Shabani brothers and Politt, after a member of the team had spotted him while playing five-aside football in Hammersmith.

“He was the talk of the town,” Mahrez Bettache, the club’s head coach, remembers.

Elusive on the ball, and mesmerising with his feet, Ndiaye impressed straight away, but having been at the fringes of Boreham Wood’s first team, he was reticent to step-down a level and play in grassroots football.

“He wasn’t sure the club was for him,” Bettache says.

“But then I remember the first time I met him I had a conversation with him. I spoke to him about what my vision was and what I wanted from him. I told him I wanted him to be our star man, who we really focused on. Not just on the pitch but off it too in terms of the media side of things. In the end, he came on board.”

With Rising Ballers’ audience on social media reaching millions of people, the club not only offered a platform for him to develop and hone his skills, but also an opportunity to showcase his talent and gain exposure on a level previously unprecedented.







Ndiaye has been named in the Senegal World Cup squad following his rapid rise
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Ndiaye quickly stood out in the team as one of the club’s best talents. Highlight reels of his time at Rising Ballers include mazy runs, and excellent finishes, not too different from the highlight reels he is now producing in the Championship at Sheffield United.

“You can tell a footballer by the way he runs. He just fit the profile. He was very silky with the ball,” Bettache recalls. “Iliman is probably the best freestyler slash footballer I know to this day. The things he does with the ball are just incredible.”

As well as his skills, Ndiaye also demonstrated a hunger for the ball. At Sheffield United, he has developed a reputation for his work-ethic off the ball harassing and hustling his opponents from the front, and it was the same at Rising Ballers.

“That’s the kind of player he is,” Bettache says. “He is a very hard-working and honest player. He’s always battling in midfield or you know defending set pieces, he isn’t just a fancy attacker.”

But for Bettache, it wasn’t just the traits on the pitch that stood out. A young coach himself, then just 25 years old, he formed a strong bond with Iliman off the pitch that has now spanned several years.

“He just lets his feet do the talking,” Bettache explains. “He is a very humble guy off the pitch. At Rising Ballers, we became like family. Even to this day, we keep in touch with one another.”







Ndiaye’s career with Rising Ballers caught the attention of scouts
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Kieran McManus/REX/Shutterstock)

Born in France to a Senegalese father and a French mother, Ndiaye first caught the eye with FC Rouen, where he developed a reputation as freestyle footballer.

He appeared in newspaper magazines dubbing him ‘the Next Messi’ and a television show as a ten-year-old in which he professed his dreams of one day playing in the World Cup.

A brief spell in Marseille’s renowned academy followed before the family moved to Senegal.

There, Ndiaye would hone his skills, playing on the beaches with his father, who was integral in instilling his love for the game.

“His dad is a big part of his footballing career,” continues Bettache.

“He showed me videos of how they used to train in the woods. He has a unique sort of style, which you don’t normally see in the modern game, and a lot of that comes from the way he was brought up.”

When Ndiaye turned 14, the family uprooted again. This time, Ndiaye arrived in England.

“When he came to England, he didn’t speak English that well,” Bettache explains. “Then he got into a college programme at Boreham Wood.”

It was in Boreham that Ndiaye first made waves in England. In 2018, Boreham Wood’s PASE college programme was invited to take part in a practise match at St George’s Park designed to help Premier League referees practise VAR procedures which were set to be inducted into English football the following year.







Ndiaye made his breakthrough at Boreham Wood
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Ndiaye made the moment his own, mesmerising Boreham Wood’s opponents and catching the eye of many scouts at the time with a waltzing run from the half-way line ending up in a spectacular goal reminiscent of Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona.

But it wasn’t until the following year after he had made waves at Rising Ballers that he finally got the opportunity to trial at Sheffield United.

“When he first came to us, he was very talented, but he was very raw as well,” Bettache says.

“He needed coaching. No one could get him off the ball, but we really had to hone down on his actual game, and what he could deliver, which you can see now at Sheffield United.”

Bettache and Ndiaye worked together for several months to help him prepare for the next step and to get himself in a peak condition for the challenge ahead.

“We worked on basic stuff like in game information. I would send him videos or clips of players that I would like to imitate in his game. Players like Zidane, cultured and creative players who can make a difference.

“It was just down to showing him how to utilise the skills that he has because at the time he was doing too much unnecessary work.”

Ndiaye spent a week trial at Sheffield United where he played in an U23s game and was even involved in a first team’s training session, impressing his teammates, who were playing in the Premier League at the time. The club didn’t hesitate and offered him a contract which would see him join the club’s U23 side.

In the new year, Ndiaye then went on loan to Hyde FC in the Northern Premier League, but that spell was cut-short when the Covid-19 pandemic temporarily halted football across the country. Ndiaye came back to Sheffield and went through a difficult period, as Bettache recalls.

“I remember that was around the time when it was 50-50 on whether he would get a new contract at the club. We were having light conversations on WhatsApp, and we told him he needed to crack on. He really listened, doing extra gym work, doing extra work on the pitch after training rather than going home for lunch, and just focusing on football.”

That hard work prevailed, the following season Ndiaye dominated at U23 level and even earned a debut in the Premier League coming on as a late substitute against Leicester City.







Ndiaye is a key player for Sheffield United in the Championship
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“His journey has been very quick,” Bettache says.

Ndiaye went a step further last season. Benefitting from the mass changes in the squad following relegation into the Championship, he established himself as a regular in the side.

His performances did not go unnoticed. Towards the end of the season, Ndiaye earned a call-up to Senegal’s national team and made his debut for his country this summer.

“I didn’t think it would be that soon. I remember him sending me Snapchats and just being in awe of being around the likes of Sadio Mané. But he also knows he belongs there, and he deserves his place.”

After elevating his game further with nine goals and two assists in 21 Championship games, Ndiaye has the joint most goal contributions in England’s second flight heading into the World Cup break. A break where the 22-year-old will not be sitting idle but rather competing in the tournament himself with the AFCON champions.

“The journey through a college programme and a grassroots team to the World Cup, I don’t think many players can do that. We are now talking about maybe the one per cent; he is part of that. Many players fall at various hurdles but he’s really grasped his opportunities and made them count.”

While it has been a remarkable rise from playing in parks to playing in front of millions in Qatar, Bettache is adamant this is not the end of Ndiaye’s journey. It’s the beginning.

“I think he is just getting started,” Bettache says.

“A few of the goals he scored this season when he is dribbling through, I saw that about a hundred times in training and in Sunday League. There is no ceiling for him. Even if he is a fringe player at this World Cup, to even get into the squad is a huge achievement. But he knows there are still a lot of things to do.







Senegal boss Aliou Cisse has named Ndiaye in his squad for Qatar
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“You can never be comfortable as a footballer, and that’s the good thing about Iliman. He is always looking for the next step. I spoke to him three or four days ago, and we are always challenging each other and setting goals for him to reach. He’s got aspirations to play in the Champions League one day.”

Among the 832 players going to Qatar, no one has had to climb as many ladders as Ndiaye to get to football’s ultimate stage, and if his last three years are anything to go by, it is proof anything is possible in the coming years ahead.

For Rising Ballers, Ndiaye is proof of the mission they set out to accomplish.

“That’s always been our goal,” Bettache says. “To bring in players like Iliman with bundles of talent who, for some reason, have slipped through the net and to work together to get them a professional contract.”

Ndiaye may be the most notable graduate from the club’s programme, but Rising Ballers have helped countless others to be discovered by professional clubs as well, like Darius Johnson (FC Volendam) and Youssef Chentouf (Wigan FC).

It’s a platform that continues to support the increasingly challenging environment of youth football in Britain and players like Ndiaye are a testament to its success.

The hope is that his example will set a model for others to follow, and for less and less talent to fall through the cracks.



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