The Benetton front-rower, who can pack down on both sides of the scrum, talks to Mark Palmer about what inspires him
Italy prop Cherif Traoré: “I want to be one of the best front-rows in Europe”
Cherif Traoré has some very clear objectives. “I want to be a reference point in the teams I play for,” explains the 26-year-old Benetton and Italy prop, now recovered from the facial injury that kept him out of the Autumn Nations Cup.
“My goal is to become one of the best front-rows not just in this country but in Europe. I don’t say this out of egotism – it has always been my aim.”
Sidiki Conde had big plans too. Like Traoré, his family had moved to Italy from Guinea when he was a child, in search of a better life. Like Traoré, he had found fun, friends and purpose at Viadana rugby club, where he was a rising star of the U14s.
The two families were close. Sidiki would mine Traoré for information on the game. The bigger lad was already part of the FIR academy near Pisa, and Sidiki had every intention of following in his footsteps.
“His dream was to become a professional player,” says Traoré. “He was always asking me for advice and tips. He was my little friend and I loved spending time in his company.”
One night in May 2013, everything changed. Sidiki was round at the Traoré family home in Boretto, a village half an hour’s drive north-east of Parma. The 13-year-old would often come over to battle Mohamed Lamine and Abdoulaye, Traoré’s brothers, on the PlayStation. That night Sidiki seemed out of sorts and while waiting for his turn, suddenly announced he was heading home.
“He went down the stairs, opened the front door and went out,” begins Traoré, with evident emotion in his voice. “He collapsed in front of our building. There’s a bar there where lots of people from the village go. The owner came and rang our doorbell, my brother came down the stairs, took the kid in his arms and put some covers on him.
“He was shouting at him to stay with us, giving him little slaps on the face to keep him going while the ambulance arrived. My brother remembers him smiling at him, but he passed away in his arms.”
Sidiki had been treated for breathing difficulties, and there was a thought that his sudden collapse may have been due to a pulmonary embolism. Whatever the explanation, his death provoked shock, not least in the local African community of which the Traoré clan is a central plank.
“He had a very close bond with my family, he was pretty much part of it. He was always at our house, basically a brother to us. Me, my brothers and sister, my mum and dad, we all loved him. I just couldn’t believe it could happen; that a great, young guy could be taken away from us like that.
“I was at the academy when it happened and when I got a train back the next morning, my brothers were all over the place. It was such a terrible thing.”
Every year an U14 tournament is held in Sidiki’s honour in Viadana, and Traoré is always there to hand out the medals and remember his friend. He now lives in Treviso, where he’s been part of the Benetton set-up since 2015, but Boretto remains his bolthole.
In pre-Covid times, he would be back there every weekend, meeting his childhood friends to talk rugby, surfing and hip hop. Traoré is proud of his Guinean roots but this is home, and has been since he arrived as a French-speaking seven-year-old with next to no knowledge of the country, the culture or the language.
“My father was already here in Europe and because he missed his wife and children so much, he decided to move us all over. I didn’t understand anything about Italy to begin with, but I soon made some great schoolfriends who really helped me.
“They invited me to their houses, which was a great way to get to know people and how things work. I’ve never had any real difficulties – I’ve got great friends. We cook and go surfing together.”
Maxime Mbandà, another black Italy international, was the victim of racist abuse from a fellow driver on the roads of Milan in 2019, but Traoré says he’s “never” had any issues in a country where even internal animosity between regions is never far from the surface.
“I’m quite a laid-back person and fortunately I’ve never had these kinds of problems. Maybe behind my back people call me names, but nobody has ever said something like that to my face. Maybe people are scared by my size!”
Both of Traoré’s brothers played football for Parma, Mohamed Lamine in the first team and Abdoulaye in the youths. His own sporting journey also started out with calcio, but as a “really nasty defender”, the yellow and red cards began to mount up and his dad suggested he switch horses.
Viadana, in so many senses, was the making of him. He speaks warmly of the influence of Franco Bernini, the former Italy age-grade coach who oversaw Viadana’s first and so far only league title before focusing his efforts on the youth section where Traoré was making his way.
“He really stuck his neck out on me and backed me. He said I would become the first black prop to play for Italy and I have. He is so happy for me. Any time I’m in Parma, I go and see him and it’s like looking at the sun: he’s so happy for me. He was so good at setting me an example of how to be, on and off the park, and it’s those same ideas that I still have in my head to guide me now.
“I’d come home from school and the club minibus would be waiting there to take me to training. I’d quickly get some food down me and head to see Franco in the gym. He’d stick me on the running machine and keep turning up the speed. If I ever stopped, even for just a second, he’d be shouting at me! He saw that I had potential and he wanted to make sure I didn’t waste it.”
There is a certain irony in Traoré now being an established figure with Benetton. The Treviso outfit and Viadana were huge rivals in the days when a young Traoré was a fixture on the terraces of the Stadio Luigi Zaffanella for first-team games. There wasn’t much love lost in any direction.
“I was Viadana’s number one fan. It always seemed to be Viadana-Benetton in the Super Ten final and Benetton always won! I hated them! Now that I’m playing for them, I realise it’s not good to hate teams, because you never know what’s going to happen in the future.”
Traoré played at No 8, in the centres and once on the wing before settling in the front row when he reached U18 level. At 5ft 11in and just over 18st, he is far from the biggest prop, but boasts the throwback gift of being able to play on both sides.
While the likes of Giosuè Zilocchi, Simone Ferrari and especially Danilo Fischetti all impressed in the autumn, it is Traoré who will start at loosehead in the opening game of the 2021 Six Nations against France.
“It’s difficult to cover both sides of the scrum, so hopefully it can be an advantage for me. I’m officially a loosehead but I also like playing on the other side. If one of my team-mates is in trouble or injured, I can move there. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do – be able to support others.
“At loosehead, it’s fundamental to work hand in hand with the hooker. You must learn how to use your arm, and always keep your back and hips low. That can help the hooker, and your tighthead, make the scrum go forward. At tighthead, you’re working on your own. You need to get really low and put pressure with your neck on the opposing prop.
“There are lots of good Italian props at the moment, in the national team and both franchises. I’ll do everything to show my worth. I need my determination to be as big as my dreams, and the Six Nations is one of my biggest ones.
“Singing the anthem, especially in the Olimpico in Rome, is something that gives me a super charge to go out and fight for my country. It’s not often I cry, but that’s one of the few things that makes me want to do it. I just love pulling on that blue shirt, for my family, my friends and the whole country.
“We all know and understand Franco’s objectives and what he likes: players who are super fit, who want to stand up and fight to win games. These are things I expect from myself, and have done since I was a young kid starting out.”
Religion underpins Traoré’s approach to life. His family are all practising Muslims, and he has recently found a new prayer companion in Monty Ioane, his Benetton and Italy team-mate.
“I know many people in Italy who have converted from Christianity to Islam. Italy is a very Catholic country but there are mosques in a lot of places now. I always thought of myself as the only Muslim on the team, but now I have Monty too. We often go to the mosque together, and when we are away with the team we go to each other’s rooms to pray.”
Cherif Traoré knows what he wants – and he also knows what’s important.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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