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      Ahamada: Training with Ronaldo and Premier League dreams


      Naouirou Ahamada’s C.V. reads like that of a player much his senior – bringing with it more challenges, but also opportunities, than your average 22-year-old might anticipate. One year into his time in south London, he revealed that he is not merely biding his time at Crystal Palace – but applying the benefit of his experiences…

      This article orginally appeared in the official matchday programme.

      Setting your sights on a new dawn abroad means bidding farewell to friends, family, and the home you’ve become accustomed to. You may have to learn a new language, acclimatise to a new culture or get a taste for a new cuisine. You essentially have to forge a new life – and, in football, with precious time afforded for you to do so.

      Imagine doing it all at the age of 15… then imagine doing it all three times before you’d even celebrated your 21st birthday. Even before we move onto reflecting on one year at Crystal Palace, Naouirou Ahamada has proven himself a deeply impressive young man.

      “Being a footballer is a challenge: you always have goals to achieve,” he explains. “You can never be happy with your performances. Even if you’ve played well, you have to do better next time.

      “That's my goal. That's what I like most about being a footballer – it's always a challenge.”

      Ahamada is clearly a man who enjoys rising to them. That’s lucky, in our case, as he remains dutifully patient – and in some cases, even helps out – with our somewhat ropey French language skills during the course of the interview.

      Indeed, halfway through, he stops us to point out that, if we preferred, we could pose the questions in English. Keen to articulate himself accurately, he used both languages: “My English is getting better – it is a difficult language! I can understand everything, but I need to improve speaking it with people… I am learning, though.”

      Learning, practising, improving – and, ultimately, making his mark. It’s a well-perfected cycle for the youngster who, just 15 months after moving to London – and who only celebrated his 22nd birthday at the end of March, lest we forget – remains less than 30 appearances into his Crystal Palace career.

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      I was scared to leave my family when I was just 15 – I’m very close to them.

      Naouirou Ahamada

      Ahamada arrived from VfB Stuttgart at the tail end of last year’s January transfer window, featuring regularly since as a second-half substitute. Under three different Palace managers so far, all have seen fit to give him valuable developmental minutes in matches.

      Equally important, though, is that Ahamada has been afforded time off it. “It’s been a positive first year,” he reflects. “I feel like I’ve grown on and off the pitch, and London is a beautiful city.

      “I’ve enjoyed life here. I have an apartment in the city centre with a lot of things to do around me – a lot of restaurants and shops, and when I feel good outside the pitch, I tend to feel good on it too.”

      We have to ask: the food? “It’s different!” he replies, initially straight-faced – before bursting into laughter. “But I am someone who adapts very quickly…”

      It’s true – Ahamada has been forced to. Signing for Palace as a 21-year-old last year, the Marseille-born midfielder’s experiences are vast for his age. Even before joining the Eagles, the midfielder had already played in three different countries – France, Italy and Germany; represented France at Under-18s level; and finished third at the 2019 FIFA Under-17s World Cup Finals in Brazil.

      Ahamada’s family reside in Marseille, and visit him often. He resolved to become a footballer from as early as 10-years-old – and was never shy of pursuing the road less travelled to make it happen.

      “I have always been used to change,” he explained. “I first went abroad when I was 15. I was playing for a local team, SC Air Bel, and during a game, I heard that Juventus were watching me.

      “At first, I was a bit scared. I was scared to leave my family when I was just 15 – I’m very close to them. That's not easy, but I knew what I wanted to do. I said to myself: ‘you have to find another pathway. We don't all have the same path.’ Mine was to leave – I knew I had to.

      “I visited the facilities and liked them a lot. I also liked Italy – it made me grow up. I was a baby, but moving to Italy forced me to become a man. It was a big step in my career.

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      I trained with some very good players. There was Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala… training wasn't easy!

      Naouirou Ahamada

      “I was based at the training centre – I was like an intern! I found Italian easy to learn – I understand the language and still speak it. Turin wasn’t bad, either. It’s a bit old, not like London or Stuttgart, but I liked living there.

      “I did a year with the Under-16s, and then moved up to the second team [Under-23s]. That’s when I started training with professionals… and that’s when I learned I had to be patient.”

      If you’re looking for role models to learn from, Ahamada’s options at Juventus were plentiful. Under the guidance of managers Massimiliano Allegri and, later, Maurizio Sarri, the requirements for reaching the top level were laid bare in front of him.

      “They were great coaches, who were always a pleasure to train under,” he recalls. “I trained with some very good players. There was Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala… training wasn't easy! There was Blaise Matuidi, too – he was like a big brother to me and was always there for me, giving me advice. Medhi Benatia helped me too.

      “I was young and I wasn't in a hurry. I learned you just had to play your football because, when you're good, when you work, the reward comes – a that's what happened.”

      For an 18-year-old Ahamada, it was in the form of a loan move to VfB Stuttgart in summer 2020. Starting out with the development squad, his first-team breakthrough – and a permanent transfer – arrived just half-a-season later, along with his first professional start.

      “It wasn't an easy decision because I knew I’d have to learn a lot about Germany – and the language!” Ahamada jokes. “But I wanted to get to know professional football quickly, and Stuttgart gave me that opportunity.

      “I'm a person who doesn't think about other things – when I get an opportunity in my head, I’ll go for it. Even if you send me to the North Pole to play there, that's where I’ll go to play!

      “When I got to Stuttgart, I didn't play at first. I had to train and prove myself. There was a lot of competition. Then, when I did play my first game, I got injured straight away.

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      It was my biggest dream to play in the Premier League, so when I heard [Palace] wanted me, I didn’t hesitate.

      Naouirou Ahamada

      “I'm a patient person, but there were times when my head couldn’t work. I would think: ‘when am I going to start playing?’ – but I knew to stay patient.”

      Ahamada would miss the remainder of his first season – but eventually found light at the end of the tunnel. “I worked. I trusted myself. I knew my qualities. I knew I could do it.

      “The injuries came and went, I worked and worked, and that’s when I started to get games. I felt very confident. It was my best period: I started my first game and I scored, then I played 18 games in a row.

      “Then, I heard about Crystal Palace’s interest in December [2022]. It was a huge source of pride for me – it was my biggest dream to play in the Premier League, so when I heard they wanted me, I didn’t hesitate, to be honest.”

      Among his wealth of experiences, then, Ahamada has already witnessed patience prove a profitable virtue. Although he still awaits his first Premier League start, the 22-year-old has already shown his willingness to work hard towards the moment that his time arrives.

      “It was like I was in France!” Ahamada recalls his first impression upon arriving at the club. “There's a lot of French-speaking people: Odsonne, JP, Jordan… it was like I hadn’t left!

      “I made my Palace debut at Old Trafford [against Manchester United] and it was amazing, because it's a stadium I’d only ever seen when I played FIFA! It was incredible to play at Selhurst Park for the first time, too. The fans are brilliant.

      “It’s different to Germany, playing here. In Germany, the stadiums are bigger, but not too full sometimes. But at Palace, from the outside it's not what you expect, but on the inside it's beautiful. It's full of fans who give their all, who watch the game with their hearts. That's what impresses me here.”

      As a man who adapts easily to change, what’s changed most about Naouirou Ahamada? “My intensity. I have the right intensity and the mentality, now. I’ve improved tactically and defensively.

      Quote Icons

      I made my Palace debut at Old Trafford and it was amazing, because it's a stadium I’d only ever seen when I played FIFA!

      Naouirou Ahamada

      “The Premier League is a bit similar to the Bundesliga because it's the same intensity, but in Germany you have more space. Here, it's tight, with lots of second balls… that's what you have to get used to.”

      If intensity is an asset of yours, then it is likely one appreciated by new manager Oliver Glasner. “He’s a very, very good manager,” is Ahamada’s assessment. “I played against him in Germany, when he was at Frankfurt.

      “His team used to play 3-4-3 – a very good team, with very good players. Their tactics let them press a lot. They won the ball high, played well with it, and got forwards very quickly.

      “For me, he's the kind of coach I've always known. His training is the same as in German football, so for me it's like I'm playing there again, except that I'm in London! I like this mentality a lot.”

      Ahamada is living proof that, to get the most out of life, change is not to be feared, but embraced.

      Opportunities to propel yourself forward often stem from fresh prospects – and Ahamada is prepared to wait, pushing hard in the background, for his chance. “My goals are to play, to train, to evolve, to progress.

      “To win a lot of games, you have to work and prove yourself in training, so that's what I do – I'll train hard to win my place.”