“I don’t think I deserved any credit, but it’s important to talk about it.” Sol Bamba never wanted sympathy but he’s never been particularly shy: whether it’s to lambast a teammate for a mistake, or howl no-holes-barred at his manager on the touchline; so why wouldn’t he talk about having cancer?
Bamba’s world was thrown into tumult when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2021. He had overcome plenty in his career to that point, but this was a challenge that would have floored many.
His farewell as a Premier League player less than two years earlier had come on a stretcher after an ACL rupture at Wolves en route to relegation with Cardiff. Earlier in 2019, the club had been rocked by Emiliano Sala’s death, with no one closer to the new signing in-waiting than Bamba, who had exchanged messages in French with Sala before tragedy struck.
But Bamba, the former centre-back who Neil Warnock regularly described as a “colossus”, grappled with his cancer diagnosis in the same way he approached every other challenge in his career – head on. He was widely lauded for raising awareness of the disease, changing perceptions in a sport that simply didn’t want to mention the C-word.
“The way I went about it, people gave me praise … it was too much,” he says. “That’s just what I’m like. I understand some people prefer to shy away from it, but I’m different. I’m just being myself.
“Even clubs now are being careful now when they do medical checks, all the way from Premier League to League Two, which is massive. In our game we talk about injuries but you never think about cancer.”
Bamba got the all-clear in May 2021, although says he still has to be “careful” and pays regular visits to the doctor. “Unfortunately when you’ve had cancer once, you always have to double check and make sure it doesn’t come back. Is it behind me 100%? Well, I wish but you never know.”
That he returned to the pitch less than five months after his diagnosis, playing in a 1-1 draw with Rotherham on the final day of the season, was remarkable. He then sealed a move to join his old mentor Warnock at Middlesbrough for the 2021-22 campaign and won a special place in Boro folklore by striking the winning penalty at Manchester United in an FA Cup victory in February 2022. It was a much-cherished, well-deserved moment of bliss towards the end of his playing career.
But it was with Warnock at Cardiff where Bamba felt truly at home, helping them earn an unlikely promotion from the Championship in 2017-18, with the Ivorian one of the best players in the division that year. He still refers to Warnock as “the gaffer”.
“I never had that feeling in over 20 years in other teams,” says Bamba of his five years in south Wales. “The gaffer used to say in meetings: ‘What you’ve got is special, so enjoy it and make the most of it.’ It was definitely special. Everything just clicked at Cardiff, the fans, the media, everything. You need that to be successful; everyone has to be on the same page. I don’t think the club has been the same since.”
Bamba went back to Cardiff as a coach last season and sampled that for himself, helping to rescue the club from relegation to League One as assistant manager to Sabri Lamouchi, his former Ivory Coast manager.
“I was there the last six months and it was different, you could feel it from top to bottom. What I was disappointed with – and I said this to the board – is that the mentality of the team should never change. It’s like at Man City now, you know how they play and what the manager wants. But at Cardiff City you don’t know. At every club you need to know what the values are, and Cardiff lost that when that (Warnock) team broke up.”
Bamba and Lamouchi were let go by Cardiff, who turned to the Turkish manager Erol Bulut in the summer, leaving the former defender outside the game for the first time in two decades.
He’s using this period wisely, spending some long-awaited downtime with his wife, Chloe, and three children and living close to his childhood home in the outer boulevards of Paris, while completing the Uefa Pro licence with a view to his next job. “I’m making the most of it with everything I’ve been through,” he says.
That steely determination has never gone away. He is keen to get back in the game, whether as Lamouchi’s No 2 again or off his own bat as a manager.
“You enjoy it as much as you can for a few weeks, months. But then you definitely want to get back in. Football has always been part of my life. It’s all about opportunities.”
What about a reunion with Warnock? The veteran manager, 74, has not ruled out taking another job after leaving Huddersfield in September and would happily have his loyal lieutenant Bamba alongside him.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spoken to him,” says Bamba. “He wanted to help me out. I wouldn’t mind working under him. Everyone knows how much I value and love the man.”