Kamal Bafounta arrived at BVB’s U17s from Nantes in the summer of 2018, loaded with talent and full of hope. After damaging his meniscus and being forced off the pitch for 18 months, he’s working on his comeback and fighting back towards his dream. He’s fought every day for over a year; but he has always maintained nimble feet and a clear head. The 19-year-old says: “It’s always good to have a goal in mind, even as a footballer.”
The sun has just broken through the fog and the pitch looks stunning. The warm yellow has flooded the luscious green and you can see the groundsmen doing their rounds, working tirelessly on their mowers. You can even smell the freshly cut grass through the FFP2-masks. It’s a wonderful morning at the Hohenbuschei training ground.
This morning’s view holds a lot of meaning for Kamal Bafounta and provides some true optimism. The 19-year-old is now standing with both feet on the turf, something he hasn’t been able to do for 18 long months between February 2019 to the end of September 2020. It was complicated meniscus damage in his right knee that put him out of action, but after an operation by specialist Prof. Dr. Peter Angele in Bad Griesheim, it has unfortunately been more of a marathon back to the pitch than the sprint everyone had hoped for. After a further number of setbacks, he had another operation in March 2020, and then came Corona.
After arriving at BVB’s U17s from FC Nantes in the summer of 2018 with bags of talent and high hopes, Kamal Bafounta was left stranded. He was virtually trapped at the academy and put through the mill, stuck with rehab and – because of the pandemic – travel and contact restrictions.
It was only six months later that the towering 1.92m Frenchman could participate in small sections of training with the U19s. Yet importantly, rehab coach Heiko Bias worked with Bafounta almost daily during this time. “With Kamal, it was about providing stability. He first had to feel comfortable with his knee again in order to trust it. We worked with small goals, a so-called return-to-algorithm,” said Bias, explaining: “That’s how we worked. That way, the player felt a sense of achievement when he passed a level. That gives you a big motivational boost.” Motivation was necessary, patience too.
Another year later, at the end of August 2021, Kamal Bafounta stood in the sun’s hopeful rays. “It feels good to be back on the pitch again. It was a big challenge. I just hope I can stay fit now.” The midfielder however, who now trains under the U23s’ coach Enrico Maaßen as a number 6 centre-half, isn’t quite back at 100% of his capabilities. “They say you need as long as you were out for,” and he feels good in that respect. Nevertheless, he explained in detail how he still lacks stamina and some aspects of game understanding. “I can tell that it’s all coming back, but I still have to keep working on it and earn my place in the team first.”
Since the beginning of July, Bafounta has been playing for the U23s where, since spring, he had already been training selectively, continuously upping the scope. “The fact that he is adapting so quickly after such a long break shows how hard he has worked. He has fully accepted the challenge,” said Enrico Maaßen. “Kamal is making progress, but he certainly still needs time.” Yet there are things that will help him: “Kamal has an outstanding character, he is very willing to learn, he’s empathetic, and he has the intrinsic motivation to want to work on himself. We lovingly call him Killer after he injured Tobi Raschl for eight days in his second training session with us. He’s a great lad who speaks perfect German after only three years in Dortmund. That highlights his strong identity.”
This step from the U19s into the 3rd division isn’t a small one for Bafounta. “You can tell immediately that it’s a different level. All of the players here have quality, the U23s is pretty much a professional team. The good thing is you get used to it quickly.”
Fast – that feels good. He has had to endure the opposite for too long. Even as a young man, which is what a young footballer is first and foremost, this time away has tested his patience. In hindsight however, Kamal Bafounta sees things remarkably clear: “My goal was always to become a professional footballer, so it was immediately clear that I have to overcome this injury to achieve that.” He has scaled the mountain caused by his diagnosis in small steps.
"Kamal first had to feel comfortable with his knee again
Rehab trainer Heiko Bias
“I always compare myself to where I was a week ago. The difference motivated me.” Working with Heiko Bias, Bafounta started to recover physically. “We did a few challenges and increased the workload gradually. That helped a lot.”
He found distraction working mentally at first when he couldn’t work physically. Kamal Bafounta built on his French high school qualifications from Germany and passed all of his exams in May 2019. That was crucial for him. “My mother and father always told me that school is important.
It’s always good to have a goal in mind, even as a footballer. I wanted to achieve the best I could. In the end, it’s great because I have good qualifications.” He meant this not necessarily in terms of grades, which was a difficult aspect for him, but in terms of the subjects, namely Mathematics, English and Philosophy. This was something he studied for extensively.
Kamal had also skipped a year in his earlier school days in France. Matthias Röben, pedagogical director for youth football, describes how “Kamal focused on his exams brilliantly and delivered impressive proof that it is sometimes worth leaving the beaten track of the education system. It was an outstanding achievement.” After all, the young Frenchman had to adequately prepare for the exams whilst living in Dortmund. When he received the WhatsApp after Kamal’s oral exam in Mathematics, Röben said he had goosebumps.
"He has fully accepted the challenge"
U23 coach Enrico Maaßen
Kamal Bafounta said: “The mental worked helped me to not only think about football.” However, he was also put to the test mentally many times after his exams. “The most difficult time was when I was alone at the boarding house. That happened two or three times: in summer during rehab and then when I couldn’t go home over winter during Corona.” Bafounta’s parents both fell ill with Corona in December 2020, so he couldn’t return to France. Since the academy was also temporarily closed due to the pandemic, the then 18-year-old was the only one left behind. “That was hard. I was alone, and I could only contact my family over the phone.” And then came Christmas, an emotional and exceptional situation. Eddy Boekamp, who he had spent Christmas Eve with, and the Röben family, who he had been with over the holidays, picked him up.
Julia Porath deserves a lot of appreciation too. The academy director spent a lot of time with Kamal Bafounta, even when all of the other younger players were at home. She said: “Kamal is a funny guy. But he’s not shallow, he’s quite the opposite. He reflects a lot, he’s inquisitive and he’s very willing to learn. He doesn’t whine, he’s patient and he’s easy to get on with. That’s what distinguishes him. We both had a good time.” Another thing they did together was cook! And if you were wondering whether the Lyon-born youngster, who comes from the same city as the famous cook Paul Bocuse, had learnt anything: “I didn’t know anything beforehand. So yes, definitely. I can now survive when I’m by myself.”
If a 19-year-old footballer talks like that, it says everything you need to know.
"Kamal was a bit like the mayor"
Matthias Röben, pedagogical director
With his transition from the U19s to the U23s, Kamal Bafounta moved into his own four walls. But on this August morning he briefly returned to the academy, where it doesn’t smell like mowed grass, but fresh paint. Painters are going about their business and various things are being repaired. The 19-year-old insists however that he is not responsible for this becoming necessary.
You would like to believe him. “Kamal was something like the mayor in his time. His word carried weight with the boys at the academy,” said Matthias Röben, with Bafounta grinning at the statement. “I was rather the quiet representative, but sometimes serious. Sometimes I said something to the younger players and obviously they paid attention.”
The Frenchman lived at the academy for three years, where his favourite place was actually the kitchen. Why, you may ask? “Because I’m always hungry,” he said first, only to then add something a little more profound: “We have amazing cooks, who are also great listeners.” The kitchen in the academy is an important social space.
People there take their time, they listen to others, and they also keep what is discussed to themselves. It’s a place of trust, a refuge for the smaller and larger concerns of the younger players. “That’s the way it is,” said Kamal. He himself has always had a great relationship with the kitchen staff. “It’s always good to speak with older people, or with those who don’t play any football.” Going to the kitchen is like getting out of the football bubble to talk about normal life. “You gain perspectives that you didn’t previously have – as well as a sense of what privileges you have, what luck. Talking to people that have a normal job is good for the head.”
Author: Nils Hotze
Photos: Jens Volke