Smiling serial killer
Before he’d even kicked a ball in international football, El Hadji Diouf received his first standing ovation. It came in Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor stadium when his public rose to acclaim him with a “Senegalese Wave” in the warm-up of his debut—a World Cup qualifier against Benin in April 2000.
Once the game had actually kicked off, the striker’s touch was so perfect, his ball-juggling so flamboyant, the normally lethargic Dakar crowd summoned up a roar of approval that rolled around the stadium.
When Diouf followed it up with eight goals in five games to propel his country to its first World Cup finals, it seemed a shooting star to rival the likes of David Trezeguet and Christian Vieri had been found. Liverpool’s Gérard Houllier certainly thought that and has signed a deal to bring the 21-year-old African player of the year from French club Lens to Anfield.
Liverpool fans expecting a flood of goals from their new recruit, however, should take note: in six African Nations Cup games, the “Serial Killer”, as he is known, scored just once and failed to find the net in South Korea and Japan, where Senegal’s run finally ended in golden-goal defeat against Turkey. Your average attacker purchased for £12-million would normally be expected to pitch in with a goal on a regular basis but Diouf is anything but average.
“Liverpool fans are expecting 20 goals a season from him?” asks Lions team-mate Sylvain Ndiaye. “They won’t get them—he’s not a goalscorer. He certainly didn’t score that many in France last season.”
His league total was 10, meaning that in almost four seasons of league football he has hit the back of the net less than 20 times. So why have Liverpool shelled out so much money?
Anyone who watched Diouf toy with the Swedish defence at the World Cup will be left in no doubt that in terms of pure talent Houllier has made a wise investment and Aston Villa’s Olof Mellberg, for one, will not forget him in a hurry. “That big lad at right-back, Diouf just kept on nutmegging him,” Senegal’s assistant coach Abdoulaye Sarr said. “He just couldn’t cope with El Hadji.”
In one smart move a couple of minutes after Henri Camara scored the equaliser, Diouf gave a shorthand version of what his game is all about. Approaching the left-hand side of the penalty area, he appeared trapped by the solid frames of Mellberg and Johan Mjallby. A little touch with his right foot pushed the ball towards Mellberg and just as it looked as if he would take possession, a fast left-right double connection edged the ball towards Mjallby and then through the minuscule gap between the two defenders for a shooting chance.
The fact that he twisted the Swedes inside out from an unusual position out on the left wing shows a versatility that will be essential to his success in England. “Houllier told me I would play on the left, on the right or through the middle, but probably behind Heskey and Owen,” Diouf says.
Despite his versatility and talent—he was a goalkeeper for his neighbourhood team in Senegal—not everyone believes he is suited to the English premier league, as along with his exceptional technique he has a penchant for diving and tends to go for the spectacular over the efficient—on more than one occasion against Sweden, he opted to dribble past Mellberg when a simple pass would have been better.
“He should have gone to another league, England is not for him,” said one of his team-mates, while the man himself is unrepentant: “I play to enjoy myself and to give pleasure to the fans.”
He is certainly popular with the latter and cannot walk the streets in Dakar without being mobbed—it is like being with one of the Beatles says an Anglophile Senegal insider. He is also warmly regarded at his former clubs Sochaux and Rennes, despite a low scoring record and diverse disciplinary problems.
One reason is his on-field showmanship, another his readiness to sign autographs and spend time chatting with supporters. “He likes to be surrounded, solicited,” Senegal coach Bruno Metsu says. “I know very few people with so much kindness and patience as he has.” Whether he will be the same under the constant glare of the Premiership, however, remains to be seen.
His popularity also comes from his willingness to talk to the media, who in turn reinforce his star status. Even when the Senegalese press (most of the other Lions have long since boycotted them) turned up at his hotel after writing about alleged marital problems between him and his wife Valerie, he spoke to them claiming, “It is my job to talk to you.”
Lasting popularity, though, is dependant on on-field success, which stems from off-field stability and more than one coach has found Diouf a handful.
The former Senegal manager Peter Schnittger found his 30 years’ experience of coaching in Africa was not enough to get to grips with Diouf’s unorthodox approach to life. On one occasion the striker took the six-hour flight from France to Senegal for national-team duty, only then to not join the team on the short hop to Togo for the actual match. “They never called me,” was all the peroxide-blond said afterwards.
Even the Lens coach Joel Muller, a man who has handled the prodigy better than most, lost his services for more than a week after the African Nations Cup earlier this year, when Diouf preferred to lap up Senegalese adulation in Dakar rather than knuckle down for a mundane French league game. More serious was an incident during his time at Rennes that ended with him receiving a criminal record after he crashed a team-mate’s car when driving without a licence.
“It’s true, I used to be a bit of a bad boy,” he says. “But that has never stopped me succeeding wherever I have been. In any case, I change my character for nobody.”
Not the most reassuring of words for Liverpool fans but for those who question whether he has the mental strength to prosper Ndiaye believes he is young enough to adapt. “He will mature in England,” he says. “He will have to learn, have to adapt.”
There is no doubt Diouf has grown up over the past few years, on and off the field. “We were always getting into trouble,” says Balla Diop, a childhood friend who flew to the African Nations Cup to keep Diouf company. “And since El Hadji fought every time he lost a football game he was always fighting!”
These days Diouf keeps his on-pitch fighting metaphorical while his off-field antics have been toned down, if not eliminated.
“I don’t go out that much and people accept me for who I am, so why shouldn’t they accept him for what he is?” asks team-mate Amdy Faye. “What he does off the pitch doesn’t stop him playing brilliantly on it.” Diouf agrees. “If I go out, party and still score goals on the pitch, no one will be able to write bad things about me,” he says. The tabloids lie in wait.
That said, it will be interesting to see what the Liverpool management make of his reputation as a party animal and one of the keys to his English adventure will be how Houllier and Phil Thompson handle him. They should have a decent idea of what is required, since Liverpool’s former assistant coach Patrice Bergues is director of football at Lens, and aside from playing a role in the transfer he will certainly have shared a few tips on how to deal with the striker.
The Lions captain Aliou Cissé is another offering advice. “You mustn’t be constantly on his back, telling him to do this or do that. If that happens we won’t see the Diouf Liverpool saw and Liverpool bought. You have to leave him alone.”
It is by giving him the freedom to be himself that Metsu has been able to get the best out of his key player. It is when he is, as Cissé; says, “free in his head”, that Diouf plays as he can and the force of his character becomes an asset.
“What people don’t understand about El Hadji is that he is a winner,” Metsu says. “Even in training he hates losing and he is someone who loves football, loves being on the pitch, and if you leave him to get on with that, he is brilliant.”
“In those circumstances,” confirms Cissé, “his character is his strength, and he should never try and change it.”
That will to win is coupled with an intense desire to succeed in England. He describes his chance to play in England as “a childhood dream”. Despite an initial preference for Arsenal, where his friends Thierry Henry and role model Sylvain Wiltord hold court, Diouf is genuinely delighted to be going to Anfield.
In all the time I have known him I have never seen him so euphoric as in the days following his discussions with the representatives of Liverpool who flew to the World Cup to talk with him.
With all that in mind, can we believe Diouf will be a huge smash at Anfield? The “Beatle” is returning to Liverpool, after all, and he is not the type to buckle under the strain of new surroundings.
“The pressure won’t scare him,” says Faye. “I’m not just saying this because I am Senegalese, but we can play anywhere. There is nothing harder than leaving your country at a young age, as we all have, and then succeeding in France.
“Anyway, Diouf is a phenomenon. I don’t know if he will score much, but he will give a lot of pleasure to the English fans. He loves life, and he loves football.”—