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The Finalists: Ballou Tabla

He chose us, despite that fact that we had just finished bottom of the table after the worst 28 game season this league had ever seen. As he said in The Athletic , “I fell in love with the project.”

They said he had an ego. They said he had an attitude problem. They said he was going to be a flop. They said his career was over.

They were wrong as hell.

In an interview with Joshua Kloke of The Athletic earlier this week about his potential Puskas nominee bicycle kick goal (yes, I did just type that sentence), Ballou Tabla admitted that he does not have a twitter account.

When informed of the attention his recent goal was getting, his response was a nervous “oh, really?” Even in his description of the goal itself, outlining the thought process objectively as if it were a normal thing to attempt, brushing off a word like “audacity” and replacing it with “instinct”, he remained awe-inspiringly humble and grounded.

His thoughts at half-time when any other mere mortal would be lost in a mental cloud of ego and ecstasy? “We had to finish the job.” They would go on to do just that, thanks in no small part to an intense press and run by Tabla followed by an unselfish layoff to help setup the winning goal.

Whatever “they” were saying when we signed this guy, I just wasn’t seeing it.

Tabla is far and away the most high-profile player to ever come to the CPL.

At 17 he was already training and playing pre-season games with Didier Drogba. Look at any given matchday squad while he was at Barcelona B and you’ll see names like Marc Cucurella. Carles Aleñá. Riqui Puig. Not since Francisco Acuña has a player signing made us sit back and say “wait, why… why are you here?”

With this high of a profile comes other issues. A lot has been written about Tabla throughout his career. Like, a lot. Particularly in the past couple years. And I don’t care about any of it. How could I, after all he’s done for us this season?

I care about the fact that, when asked for three words to describe our rain-soaked 2-0 win over FC Edmonton (in which he netted both goals) his reply was “only one word: the Fans.”

I care about how, in a club media article about his recent golazo, he spends most of his quotes talking about the supportive family nature of the team and praising the winning mentality of the coach.

I care about the fact that, in a world where diva players demand shirt numbers in contract clauses, he has worn 3 different ones as a result of suspect kit managing and hasn’t complained about it once (ok, that one is more funny than anything).

Most of all I care about the fact that if I didn’t know any better, I might think that all the nonsense that has been written about him in the past was written about an entirely different person. When I look at Ballou Tabla this season, I see arguably the most naturally talented player in the league sweating and bleeding week in and week out for the success of his team, end of.

To quote Erik Dornhelm in Goal!: “The name on the front of the shirt is more important than the name on the back” (and Tabla didn’t even have his name on his back during on of those aforementioned kit managing gaffs, but I digress…).

Tabla has exemplified this idea in spades this season, his combination of stoic perseverance (that Canadians love so much in their athletes) and a certain Jogo Bonito (that they almost don’t) resulting in a cocktail of pure individual brilliance harnessed directly for the cause.

All of this to say, his stats are also impeccable, sometimes incredible. With 6 goals and 4 assists (second-highest and highest on the team, respectively) Tabla leads the team for goal contributions with 10 (tied with Ollie Bassett). He also leads for Shots per 90 with 5. He also leads for successful dribbles per 90 with 2.9 (!) behind only Tobias Warschewski in the league (for context, our next highest on the team for that stat is Keven Alemán with 1). Despite all of this, you constantly get the impression that Tabla is nowhere near his final form.

With a team-leading 5 missed big chances this season, it’s crazy to think that there is still room for improvement. It’s clear that he feels the same way; every game, every dribble, every touch a chance to prove the doubters wrong.

He has the kind of frightening level of ambition that you only see in the elite athletes of this world. Might I remind you that we have him locked in for another 2 seasons after this one?

Tabla could have walked into every starting XI in the league. He chose us, despite that fact that we had just finished bottom of the table after the worst 28 game season this league had ever seen. As he said in The Athletic article mentioned earlier in this piece, “I fell in love with the project.”

Well, we’ve fallen in love with him.

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