While cult African strikers in the Premier League are nothing out of the ordinary, it is almost unheard of for a club to have two at the same time, especially when they come from the same country. That is exactly what happened at Newcastle United in 2012 when Senegal international strikers Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse linked up to form one of the most feared strike partnerships in the country.
Despite being born over 5,000 kilometres apart, Ba and Cisse had similar routes to Newcastle. Demba Ba was born in Sevres, France, making his way up the lower leagues before moving to Mouscron in Belgium and subsequently heading to Germany with Hoffenheim. At Hoffenheim, Ba was part of the team that got promoted to the top flight for the first time in their history, where he struck up a telepathic connection with Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic. Hoffenheim were a revelation in German football, finding themselves top of the Bundesliga deep into the 2008/09 season until Ibisevic got injured where they eventually fizzled out to finish 7th. Ba’s form earned him a move to West Ham United in 2011, where he was the shining light in a team that failed to beat the drop, however he impressed enough to remain in the top flight which is how he moved to Newcastle.
While it took Ba a few games to find his feet at the Toon, he quickly established himself as one of the best goalscorers in the league with two hat tricks in the early stages of the season against Blackburn and Fulham. Along with the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Jonas Gutierrez, and Leon Best, Newcastle were the surprise package of the Premier League by going unbeaten in the first 11 games of the season. Ba Played a big part in that streak, with seven goals in that time. By the time it got to January, Newcastle were dreaming of securing European football as their Senegalese talisman had 14 goals and they were picking up impressive wins such as a famous 3-0 over Manchester United.
In order to take their team to the next level, Newcastle looked for attacking reinforcements in the mould of their new star. It just so happened that there was another Senegal international who had risen through the ranks in France before establishing himself as a top Bundesliga striker, this time in the form of Papiss Cisse of Freiburg. The comparisons to Demba Ba were obvious, not helped by Cisse’s middle name being Demba, however there were differences to their games. Ba was more of a classic striker, with a big physical frame and more orthodox technique where he had no clear shortcomings as a good all-round player, whereas Cisse was more idiosyncratic as you could tell what player he was from a first glance. Cisse also had an eye for a volley, a skill for which he would become revered for as his time at Newcastle went on.
With the rest of England figuring out how to stop Demba Ba, Newcastle appeared to have added another Ba to their ranks. Cisse hit the ground running, as once the duo returned from Africa Cup of Nations duty with Senegal, he scored on his debut against Aston Villa. After a few tricky games, Cisse went on a remarkable scoring run where he found the net nine times in six games, giving Newcastle a slender chance of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League.
While this was going on however, Demba Ba had seemingly forgotten how to find the net again. With the emergence of Cisse, Ba appeared to be doing everything the same as before but he failed to maintain the numbers that he was putting up in the first half of the season, eventually finishing on a still impressive total of 16 Premier League goals.
Despite Ba’s woes, Cisse went on to produce the defining moment of his time in England, and possibly the best Premier League goal of the decade. In a match at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, who became European champions that season, Cisse attempted an outrageous half volley from the corner of the box which defied all science and logic to swerve and loop over Petr Cech and find the corner of the net. At that moment, a star was born, with even Chelsea’s poster boy Didier Drogba looking on in awe at what he had just witnessed. Newcastle went on to win the game 2-0, however it proved to be their last points of the season as they disappointingly finished 5th.
Despite having nothing more than a Europa League qualification to show for their efforts, Newcastle captured the imagination of the country that year by playing some of the most exciting football around. It is possible that the Magpies were helped by a large bulk of the team speaking French, including Hatem Ben Arfa and the late Cheick Tiote as well as Ba and Cisse themselves. Regardless, Alan Pardew had pieced together a special team that year and the two Senegalese strikers were the faces of it.
One of the defining features of the pair was how down to earth they were. Cisse gave a particularly touching interview, where he explained that he is always so happy because he has seen the quality of life that some people such as the disabled suffer, and that he is thankful to God every day for the life that he gave him. While Ba was less direct, he always came across as being extremely friendly and appeared to develop great relationships with many players, which can still be seen today on social media.
After the 2011/12 season, Newcastle never received the same fortunes. The Ba-Cisse partnership would only last for another half season as Ba moved to Chelsea in January 2013, before which he had found his goalscoring form again by scoring 13 times in 22 games. Cisse, on the other hand, would only go on to score 13 goals in all competitions across the whole season, as Newcastle narrowly avoided relegation despite a strong performance in the Europa League.
Cisse’s next most defining moment was perhaps how he stood up to Newcastle against their decision to appoint Wonga, a loan shark company, as their shirt sponsor due to his Muslim beliefs. There was a tug of war between Cisse and the club as whether he would be willing to wear a shirt with Wonga’s logo across it, and while Cisse eventually backed down, it raised a lot of awareness against this type of company. With matters more on the pitch, Ba went on to be involved in one of the most famous moments in Premier League history as he latched onto Steven Gerrard’s slip to score the goal which ultimately prevented Liverpool from winning the league. Overall, Ba was a success for Chelsea despite never being seen as their main striker.
The pair have since been against each other as opponents in two different leagues. With age taking its toll on them, they both moved to China where Cisse’s Shandong Luneng faced Ba’s Shanghai Shenhua on several occasions. At the time of writing, they are still in competition with each other in the Turkish League, with Cisse finding a second wind in his career with Alanyaspor where he is one of the top scorers in the division while Ba leads the line for Istanbul Basaksehir, who have become perennial title contenders.
Almost a decade on from that famous partnership at Newcastle, it has become hard to believe that they were only together for a year. The memories that they created at St James Park have stood the test of time up to now, and as they enter the swansongs of their careers we can only hope they have some more memories to make.