A career as a globetrotting professional soccer player, bouncing from country to country in pursuit of paychecks in a short window of peak ability, can be exhausting. So much so that sometimes you just want to walk away from it all to get some snacks.
In the case of former New York Red Bulls attacker Muhamed Keita, this dream was a reality. Keita, a Gambia-born former Norway youth international who signed with RBNY in summer 2017, reportedly left the bench without permission during a preseason friendly in Florida the following winter to walk to a nearby convenience store. Keita was released by the club later on that preseason following the addition of Marc Rzatkowski on loan, sending an already quixotic career along to further chapters.
Keita’s path to New York had run through Bob Bradley, the MetroStars manager from 2003 to 2005 and a longtime mentor to future Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch. Bradley (now managing Los Angeles FC) had first met Keita while managing Stabæk, the Norwegian league minnows who offered Keita an escape valve from a lucrative but uncomfortable period with Polish giants Lech Poznań where he claimed to have experienced racism from his own team’s fans. After achieving an unlikely Europa League-placing finish under Bradley at Stabæk in the 2015 season, Keita proceeded on a string of more loans to Norwegian teams (including a brief return to Stabæk) to avoid a return to Poland.
After the summer 2017 expiration of his contract in Poznań, Keita landed in New Jersey with optimism, stating that he was excited to sign with RBNY as soon as he heard that Marsch and the club’s staff were friends of Bob Bradley. Red Bulls fans expectations were high as well, seeing some of the stunning goals in Keita’s highlight reels as just the tonic for a team that had stuttered through 2017 with an increasingly static attack.
However, outside of combining with Amir Murillo for a mesmerizing team goal against DC United in the final match at RFK Stadium, Keita’s time in Harrison was short and uneventful. By the time he was cut over the course of that strange preseason, the marquee signing (the fifth-highest paid player in the squad during his short tenure) had been with the club for only three months of active duty and made only seven appearances.
Following his release Keita remained listed for over a year on the payroll database published by the MLS players union, unattached to a team. Keita claimed to have received an offer shortly after leaving Red Bulls to play in China, but stated that his continued payment by MLS following the abrupt cancellation of his contract in New York meant he did not have to rush to find new employment.
During this time Keita offered his services for free to hometown club Strømsgodset, where his former youth coach Bjørn Petter Ingebretsen had been promoted to manager. The club politely declined his offer due to registration limits but allowed Keita to train and regain fitness at the club’s facilities before finally offering him a new professional contract in April 2019. However Keita’s return to playing in front of his childhood city of Drammen was not a productive one, with Keita being left out of the squad entirely for the last several matches of the season after scoring only three times in sixteen appearances.
So now, like Bugsy Siegel and Anthony Precourt before him, Keita has gone to the desert to seek his fortune. In January 2020 he signed with Saudi Arabian second division side Ohod Club for what he described as a “friendly financial agreement...what else?”
In comments to Norwegian media following his arrival in the Middle East, Keita remarked that he had expected to struggle in his comeback season with Strømsgodset given his time away from the game and that “it’s a shame that Norway won’t see me” as he rounded into full form this year. Keita was scoreless in four appearances for Ohod prior to suspension of play due to the covid-19 pandemic.
Reports at the time of Keita’s signing stated that the deal was on a short term basis to end in the summer, and there is little to indicate his contract with Ohod will be renewed. At a certain point, itinerant pros like Keita in their late 20s and early 30s begin to weigh whether keeping the journey going is worth the financial and personal price. He and his cohorts in the middle wage bracket of the globalized football economy - often talented players from small countries who are forced to take risk after risk in foreign leagues to maximize their earnings - are likely to be hit harder than most in the football world by the covid-19 pandemic as budgets tighten and travel is restricted.
While debates rage over the pay cuts faced by the millionaire stars of the Premier League and other high profile competitions, it will hopefully also be noticed in the months and years to come that many accomplished players on the outskirts of the professional scene like Muhamed Keita may end up walking away from the game for good.