VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 11: Seydou Keita scored the goal that sealed La Liga 2011 for Barcelona in a 1-1 draw against Levante. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
It caught us all a bit by surprise, as less than a month ago Seydou Keita declared, "I want to continue; this is my desire. I would like to retire at Barcelona, so I hope that can be the case." Just days ago, Barca's sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said, "We want him on the team. We’ve told him as much and we hope he says yes."
And yet here we are, with Keita turning down a new contract and signing with Chinese team Dalian Aerbin. It's too early to tell just what happened after it seemed both parties were interested in resigning. Keita had received limited playing time for the Blaugrana last season, despite appearing often as a substitute. This activated a clause in his contract that created the possibility of his exit.
Keita did not feature as much as he was away on international duty at times and injured at others. Thiago began to take some of his minutes in midfield as well, to the point Keita began playing in defensive midfield (which is not his preferred position) almost exclusively. The departure of his good friend Pep Guardiola as manager may have also played a part in his exit.
The truth, hopefully, will come to light soon. For the moment, we will take a minute to remember Keita and say our goodbye.
He eventually made his way to FC Lorient, where he helped Les Merlus get promoted from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1. The next season he helped FCL win their first and so far only Coupe de France. In 2002, he joined RC Lens, where he became a prominent goalscorer and team captain as Les Sang et Or achieved fifth place in Ligue 1 and the last sixteen in the UEFA Cup.
This caught the attention of Sevilla, who secured his transfer and made him first choice. He debuted in a Super Cup win as Los Rojiblancos defeated Real Madrid. Another notable moment came against Madrid again, when he caught a bouncing ball well outside the area, and blasted it into Iker Casillas's net as Sevilla went on to win 2-0.
It was just over four years ago when Barcelona paid €14 million to secure Keita's services. It was new manager Pep Guardiola's second transfer after signing Jose Manuel Pinto as a backup goalkeeper. Keita was an integral part of the team that would rewrite record books, including winning a sextuple.
In 2009, he scored his first career hat trick, against Real Zaragoza. He opened the scoring with his head from a Leo Messi cross, scored another with his feet, and closed the scoring with a powerful long-range header. He also put in a superb assist for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to convert. He was the only player besides Messi to score a hat trick for the Blaugrana in the past three seasons.
In the 2010-11 season, he led the team in appearances, around half as a sub, as Barcelona won the supercup, league, and the Champions League. His best moment came against Levante, where he scored with his head a goal that would seal the league for Barcelona.
His last season at the club was complicated due to playing in the African Cup of Nations for Mali, injury problems, and the emergence of Thiago. Though he lost playing time, he still made 42 appearances, including 22 starts. That's more appearances than Alexis Sanchez or Gerard Pique had. Undoubtedly his best moment came against Sporting Gijon: with the game tied, a 10 man Barcelona had to win to keep their title hopes alive. Keita thumped a ball from outside the box with perfect placement for a beautiful goal and Barcelona went on to win 3-1.
Keita leaves having won 14 trophies with Los Cules, while scoring 22 goals and assisting others 11 times. A faithful servant to the club and a favorite of Pep Guardiola, the Malian was willing to play out of position or for limited amounts of time, never letting it affect him. He always trained hard and was a calming influence in the dressing room, where he was respected and well-liked.
Cristian Tello described him as an important player on and off the pitch. Marc Bartra called him "a very loved and respected player in the squad." Pique said Keita was "an example on and off the pitch." Javier Mascherano said it had been "a pleasure sharing two wonderful years" together with Keita.
Guardiola famously said that as long as he was manager, Keita would remain in the squad. This was the faith one of the best coaches in history had in him. Now, that is a reality, and we move forward into the Tito Vilanova era. There will be other great players to take Keita's place, but for now we say goodbye and good luck to a very dedicated player.