Aussie teen wants to replace Arsenal gun after ‘surreal’ debut – but he could choose another country

Mohamed Toure left Adelaide United for Stade de Reims at the start of the season and the 18-year-old sensation has since broken into the club’s Ligue 1 first team. Working with Will Still and learning from Flo Balogun, the A-Leagues graduate speaks to KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani about his rise from Australia to France, and what is next.

From the outside, it is always about the destination and never the journey, which in this case is a talented Australian youngster’s rise from the A-Leagues to Ligue 1 in France.

Mohamed Toure is part of an exclusive club of Australians to feature in the French top flight, following in the footsteps of Denis Genreau, Mile Sterjovski, Robbie Slater, Ned Zelic, Frank Farina, Eddie Krncevic, Zlatko Arambasic, Nick Carle and Ross Aloisi.

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But there are so many hurdles to get to that point. As an 18-year-old at the time moving abroad, Mohamed Toure went from a star for Adelaide United to just another player for Stade de Reims’ second team. It was a “humbling” experience.

That is before you get to navigating the language barrier and cultural change.

“In the A-Leagues you play in stadiums and you’re professional,” Toure, who has three Ligue 1 appearances to his name so far, told KEEPUP. “Then when you come here, reality hits you.

“You’re no longer a superstar or A-Leagues star, you’re back to working hard and trying to work your way up and then you become a second-team player. But it was a good experience. A humbling experience.

“When we play in Australia, we get treated like stars but when you come to Europe, you get humbled real quick because it’s a different ball game out here. You just have to work your way back up.”

What has prepared Toure for this moment in his career is the Isuzu UTE A-League, and a couple of experienced Reds stars.

He made his debut for Adelaide in 2020 – becoming the third youngest debutant in the history of the competition aged 15 years and 320 days. He also remains the youngest scorer in Isuzu UTE A-League history.

“Football is a physical game and getting chucked in the A-League pretty young, it’s helped me because I’ve played with players like Craig Goodwin, Ben Halloran, Javi Lopez, Juande… I could go on and on,” said Toure, who watches the majority of Adelaide and Macarthur FC games thanks to his brothers Musa and Al Hassan being on the books at each club, respectively.

“They’ve been in Europe and know what it’s like. Just the physical side of the game, preparing me to come to France. Things get physical down here man, and the pace.”

Fortunately, Toure was not alone when he swapped Australia for France at the start of the 2022-23 season.

He was joined by Adelaide teammate Yaya Dukuly at Reims; the Reds received a transfer fee for the Guinea-born pair.

“It’s made it a lot easier because you see a familiar face everyday, especially because we share an apartment,” the 19-year-old said of his compatriot.

“Apart from French, we speak two other languages together – English and our native language. So I feel like I’m at home when I’m with him. He helped me a lot.”

First time training with the first team

Toure signed a four-year contract with Reims at the start of the season as he linked up with their second side.

Every day, he’d walk past the first-team pitch to train – watching and dreaming. Then, his moment came.

“It was very surreal,” he said.

“You see these players, then you see them on TV. Even when you’re in Australia and hear you’re going to come here the next season, you watch them. Then all of a sudden you’re in the same drill as them. It was so good.”

Listening to Toure explain the intensity of that first training session provides a clear picture of the mental and physical demands for a young player coming through.

“It’s hard to keep your heart rate down when you’re nervous. All of that plays a part. Your heart rate is high, you’re already nervous, you’ve already put pressure on yourself,” he recalled.

“Just without the intensity of the other boys, you already put so much tension on yourself and plus the intensity is very high. The first time for me I was dead. It was crazy. I was like wow.”

Making his Ligue 1 debut

From training with the first team to getting an opportunity on the biggest stage in France The evolution has been natural for Toure.

He was rewarded by Will Still, having scored eight goals in 14 games for Reims II.

That reward came against four-time Ligue 1 champions and 2020-21 winners Lille on May 7 (AEST).

In the 85th minute, the board went up and Toure replaced Arsenal loanee Folarin Balogun.

“When I got told I’d be in the squad, things were still normal,” Toure said. “I was trying my hardest to play it cool.

“We played Lille, which was a big home game for us so it was almost a full stadium. I was still on the bench and still trying to play it cool. But then when you’re warming up and you see the minutes ticking on and it’s getting late, you know it’s maybe it’s about time you’re going to get called.

“Then when you get called, it’s a rush of adrenalin when you see the stadium and the noise. Especially playing against a team like Lille, you play against familiar faces you grew up watching.

“It felt like a surreal moment, like a video game almost.”

It was a memorable night for Toure and Reims, who upstaged Lille 1-0.

The Adelaide product was able to share the field with Euro 2016 winner Jose Fonte, in-demand Canadian star Jonathan David and former Manchester United youngster Angel Gomes.

“Making my debut in Ligue 1 was special to me full stop. I don’t think the opponents have a big influence on that, but playing against a team like Lille, it was just a bit cooler,” he added.

“The Portuguese legend Fonte… When you come on and you’re on the same pitch as these guys, ‘you’re like wow I’m actually playing these guys’.”

Working with Will Still

Toure has a head coach who has made headlines for various reasons this season, including a 17-match unbeaten run in Ligue 1.

Firstly, the Belgium-born boss – who was brought up by British parents – is only 30 years of age. He took charge of Reims in October.

Until recently, the French club were forking out a £22,000 fine each time he took charge of a match. Why? Because Still did not have a UEFA Pro License but he is now undertaking a course, so the sanctions no longer apply.

There was also the whole “Football Manager thing”. He was seen as a gaming nerd who had made it lucky in Ligue 1. However, he has been working his way through the ranks for 10 years.

Toure has caught the eye of the former Lierse and Beerschot coach this season.

“Will is pretty cool. He is a good guy. He is young, so he bonds well with the players,” he said of Still.

“He is a coach but also like a friend. You can talk to him about anything. He has good banter.

“Technically and tactically he is very good. There is no better coach to make your Ligue 1 debut with. He just gives you confidence.”

Learning from Flo & the future

A standout for Reims this season has been Folarin Balogun – the 21-year-old striking sensation has has dazzled on loan from Premier League giants Arsenal.

The England youth international, who has nominated to represent the country of his birth the United States, has taken Ligue 1 by storm with 20 goals. It is a tally only bettered by Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe (28), Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette (26) and David of Lille (22).

Watching ‘Flo’ up close and personal has been a priceless experience for Toure.

“It’s pretty cool. I’ve watched him all season. Of course if you’re playing at a club with Balogun and you’re a striker, you have to watch him,” he said.

“He scored so many goals this season. I’ve learnt a lot off him without him telling me anything. Just watching him play. He sets the standard.”

It has been an unforgettable breakout season for Balogun, who has been linked with the likes of RB Leipzig and AC Milan.

With his loan deal set to expire at the end of the season, it leaves a void at Reims.

“It’s crazy to see you just need belief and focus. Put your head down and anything is possible. He (Balogun) showed us that,” Toure said.

“He’s come and scored 20 goals and competing with the greats like Kylian Mbappe and Alexandre Lacazette. For him to come do that now, and set the tone.

“Me coming through the ranks, I’m sure with the help of God inshallah, when I get my opportunity to start playing consistently, I’ll try to fill his shoes.”

Toure has big goals, like playing for the elite in Europe, but at this moment in time he is solely focused on forcing his way into Reims’ starting XI.

“Next season or the season after to start being their regular no.9, scoring goals, winning trophies. We are in the French cup, maybe qualifying for Europe,” insisted Toure.

“We were very good this year, we went on a really good run. If we can start the season like that next season, maybe we can qualify for Europe.”

Toure also has a significant call to make when it comes to his international future – Guinea or Australia?

He was born in a refugee camp in Guinea after his Liberian parents were displaced by the civil war before moving to Adelaide as an eight-month-old.

“I want to represent a national team soon. I’ve never played for a national team in my career – not Australia or Guinea at any level,” Toure said.

“Sometimes I miss out when I’m injured, so just my luck that I’ve never ever represented any country.

“Still contemplating where I want to play. I love Australia but I also love Guinea. It could be either.”

That priceless reaction to seeing snow… for the first time

Growing up in South Australia, Toure and Dukuly had never seen snow before they arrived in France.

Earlier this season, they got their first taste and the reaction was priceless.

“It was pretty cool,” Toure recalled. “We came here in the summer and did pre-season and the boys were warning us about the winter, saying it’s not a joke.

“Winter kicks in and we’re like where is the snow… every morning waking up and no snow. One day we were doing activation in the gym and they yelled, they went and got the cameraman and they were like ‘record these boys, they’ve wanted to see snow for so long’.

“We went outside and there was snow. I yelled to Yaya. It was crazy. I’d never seen snow. You watch all these Christmas movies and stuff, so I really wanted to touch it. A real reaction.”

Irankunda & Adelaide

Toure still keeps an eye on Australian matters, with Nestory Irankunda and Adelaide United firmly on the agenda.

Irankunda and Toure played together briefly at Adelaide, before the latter was prised away by Reims.

Since then, Irankunda has become the face of the competition with his breath-taking substitute appearances. The 17-year-old also broke the record for the most goals in an A-League Men season before the age of 18, eclipsing Toure with eight goals.

Toure has continued to keep a close eye on the Reds young gun, who has been linked with Bayern Munich, Liverpool, AC Milan and Inter.

“My boy, he is on smoke this season for real! He is very good,” he said.

Adelaide’s production line has been in the spotlight in this season after the likes of Irankunda Panashe Madanha, Luka Jovanovic and Jonny Yull followed in the footsteps of Toure and Dukuly.

“(There’s) nothing in the water, we just play matches we’re not supposed to,” Toure joked.

“When you play for Adelaide, you’re not supposed to train at the park with your friends, but we do anyway. That’s the benefit though, that’s what you get.

“When Nestor goes to the park with myself, Yaya, we just go do shooting for three hours, that’s what you get. Even though we weren’t meant to.”