atson Daka has just spent half an hour recounting the journey that led from school playing fields in Zambia to the spearhead of Red Bull Salzburg’s attack, so it seems cheap to follow up with the kind of question that speaks of football’s maddening impatience levels. But he is about to resume a season whose success can be measured by a strike rate of a goal every 74 minutes in Austria’s Bundesliga, so here goes: would it be fair to say he is the next Erling Braut Haaland?
There is laughter at one end of the line and some relief at the other. “I’m not the next anything,” Daka says. “There’ll only be one Haaland and there’ll only be one Patson. I just want to become the best vision of myself.”
The image is already a compelling one. Daka may have played second fiddle to Haaland before the Norwegian joined Borussia Dortmund in December but, certainly on a local level, not by much. When Salzburg resume their title chase against Rapid Vienna on Wednesday he will be seeking his 18th goal of the domestic campaign and, when a Champions League goal against Genk is thrown in, his 19th overall, he is now their leading man. At 21, he is also the latest player to the fore of a production line whose diversity is unmatched.
“Erling did his part to help and has left this opportunity for the rest of us, so now it’s time to elevate ourselves also,” he says. “There was always a kind of competition between the two of us where we wanted to improve each other. In football, and life, things happen quicker for some people and we don’t expect everything to move at the same pace for everyone. I think I’ve needed a bit more time to discover myself and develop more. We all just knew it was his time, his moment.”
Daka knows he had ground to make up. One of the few parallels with Haaland’s background was the presence of a footballing father. Growing up in Kafue, a town in central Zambia, his earliest memories were of watching his dad, Nathtali, cause havoc on the wings for Nitrogen Stars. Nathtali never needed an excuse to find a ball, or fashion one, and share his passion with his son. But he died before he could see the spectacular returns and Daka is spurred by determination to honour his memory.
“He didn’t have the opportunities I have today,” he says. “I feel I have achieved the dream he had for me, to see me play at a high level and come to Europe, and create my own legacy. It drives me every time because, wherever he is today, he is proud of me.”
The tale of Daka’s breakthrough involves a mite of good fortune but is primarily a modern success story of talent identification in previously-overlooked areas. In 2012 he was sitting an exam when Airtel Rising Stars – a pan-African grassroots initiative sponsored by the eponymous telecoms company – arrived to hold trials at the pitch behind his school.
“I’d just finished writing when one of my friends told me: ‘Some people have come to select players to represent the province, maybe we can go and you can try your luck.’ We went along and they were about to start. I knew one of the coaches and he told me to rush home for my training kit so I could be a part of it. I ran there and back. After playing for less then 10 minutes, they removed me from the pitch and said: ‘OK, wait for us here.’”
They had seen enough and Daka has not looked back. Given the national stardom he attained with seemingly unhealthy speed, along with the added pressure of supporting his widowed mother, his composure is striking. Within a year he was captaining a Zambia team picked from thousands who had attended Airtel’s trials; they were runners-up at a tournament in Nigeria, where he finished top scorer, and from there the pile-on could have proved stifling. He was called up to the senior national team at 16; by then he was a star at under-17 level and already coming under harsh scrutiny in the domestic top flight.
“I played one season, scored two goals and gave one assist,” he says of a barren campaign on loan from Kafue Celtics to Nchanga Rangers. “I moved again [to Power Dynamos], scored once in the first half of the season and the fans didn’t want me. At one point almost the whole country didn’t want to see my name in the national team. But then I started scoring in every game and came out top scorer for the club. That’s how things changed.”
The rewards would follow. In 2015 he was spotted by Frédéric Kanouté, the former West Ham striker, while playing at the Africa Under-17 Cup of Nations. Kanouté’s agency, 12 Management, works closely with Salzburg and within two years Daka was playing for their feeder club, FC Liefering.
“There’s no doubt, no second option,” he says when asked whether Salzburg, whose alumni include Sadio Mané and Naby Keita, have cultivated the perfect environment for an African player. “To see how they have made their names here gives me confidence and I feel like: ‘OK, this is the right place for me.’ It’s the number one team for every Zambian now; people are always asking me: ‘Can you talk to the Red Bull people and ask them to come to us?’”
Daka is not the only show in Mozart’s hometown. Six months after arriving in Austria he was joined by one of his closest friends. Enock Mwepu, a dynamic midfielder destined for the top, was another beneficiary of that Airtel scheme and when they first met as 13-year-olds the idea of a new life 4,500 miles from home would have been a fairytale.
“I pushed him so hard, tried to give him tips for what to do and what not to do, so he could also make it and we could be together,” Daka says of Mwepu’s initial arrival on trial, which came after the pair had won that year’s Under-20 Afcon together. “I was given almost everything I needed here but there’s just that feeling of missing home, so to be with someone who has been like family was some relief and another reason to focus. I did my best to make sure he could show his quality and stay. It had so much impact on me.”
They would make an attractive package for anyone with the money, although both signed new deals in December. Premier League clubs are understood to be watching Daka closely and would be getting a different kind of player to Haaland. He describes himself as “more the mobile striker who moves everywhere”, and believes those attributes complemented Haaland’s gifts as a target man when they were teammates.
One day he may well follow Haaland, Mané, Keita, Takumi Minamino and all the others. In the short term his focus is on retaining Salzburg’s title, a task made easier when the previous leaders, Lask Linz, were deducted six points for breaking Covid-19 training regulations. They have already won the cup, beating Austria Lustenau 5-0 in Friday’s final. The Salzburg centre-forward spot comes with raised expectations nowadays but Daka intends to meet them.
“I’ve always known pressure will be there, but I don’t have to let it define me,” he says. “It wasn’t easy to come from Africa and be exposed to a different kind of development. I never imagined myself making the kind of big step I have here.”