‘I am Salif, Liverpool’s warrior’

Had things gone as planned, Salif Diao would have trotted out in the green of Sedan last Saturday afternoon, side-stepping his side’s wild boar mascot on the touchline ahead of a grim relegation struggle at Montpellier. Instead he was on Teesside, a driving force within a Liverpool team still on top of the table despite losing to Middlesbrough. ”Not long ago I would not have thought any of this possible,” he smiled. ”Not that I am complaining.”

Diao’s rise to prominence over a few months — from the foot of the French first division, via a barnstorming World Cup, to the premiership’s pinnacle — has been staggering. Seven years ago he could only find a game in French non-league by duping doubtful administrators into believing he was a professional javelin thrower looking to maintain his fitness. Now, a £4,7-million player summoned six months earlier than initially anticipated to Anfield, he already seems pivotal to Liverpool’s future prospects.

”Looking around me, the atmosphere here is like that at Sedan Ardennes, even if this club is so much bigger,” said the 25-year-old, whose form in central midfield has been so eye-catching as to prompt Gérard Houllier to accommodate Steven Gerrard — whose fitness record sped Diao’s early arrival — and Danny Murphy around the Senegalese rather than at his expense. ”It’s like a family, everyone sharing the same ambition.

”We are desperate to win the title and, for me, to win it would be special. English football is real football. In France, if you so much as breathe near an opponent they show you a yellow card. That bored me. Here you can play hard, you can tackle and that suits me.”

His fierce on-field dynamism suits Liverpool, too. Houllier already refers to Diao as his ”warrior”, a Patrick Vieira clone, although if the midfielder shirks from anything, it is comparisons with the Senegal-born Arsenal man. ”Pat is a role model,” he said, ”but I am Salif.”

For others, Diao’s arrival in the big time will provide inspiration aplenty. At 14, he left home alone to attend a trial at the Aldo Gentina academy – financed by AS Monaco – in Dakar. ”My father thought I was kidding, but when he came down to breakfast next morning I’d left,” Diao said. ”I had money for my coach ticket, but the capital was 700km away from our home in Kédougou and the only person I knew there was my old French teacher. I had nothing, not even football boots.

”But if you want to achieve anything in Senegal you have to go to Dakar. I was the youngest in the academy so I had to grow up fast. It was hard and there was no guarantee Monaco would take me on. My friends were spotted, but I stayed at Gentina for five years with my time ticking away. If you don’t make your mark by the time you’re 20 your chance has gone.”

With Monaco unimpressed at the youth international’s progress, the academy president El Hadji Malick Csy recommended Diao to the French Second Division side Epinal, in Lorraine. ”It was my first time out of Africa and the temperature was minus 10C. That was unbearable, but the football passed me by, too.

”But they shoved me into the reserves and I found my feet and did well. Technically I wasn’t supposed to be playing at that level and Epinal weren’t too keen on that getting out, so they told any inquisitive scouts that I was a javelin thrower who’d been invited to training and was simply making up the numbers.

”By the beginning of the next season I was in the first team, marking [the Brazilian striker] Sonny Anderson out of the game in a friendly against Monaco. Their president was watching and asked where I’d come from. This time Epinal told him the truth: that I’d been at his club’s academy in Dakar but had slipped through the net.” A week later heads had rolled in Dakar, but Diao was a Monaco player.

It may have been a circuitous route but the youngster made up for lost time, helping Jean Tigana’s side defeat Newcastle 1-0 at St James’ Park on his debut, though then came injuries, a fall-out with the new manager Claude Puel and, ultimately, Roy Keane-esque disillusion.

”People in Monaco started accusing the Africans of playing well only during the summer, but it was down to exhaustion,” he said. ”I was young and went flat out all the time. [His then team-mate] Ali Bernabia would tell me to take things easier, but I thought I knew better. It would take me a week to recover from a game. Then I wasn’t picked at all.

”At Monaco, if you were playing well, everyone loved you, but if you were struggling you were ignored. I saw how some of the players didn’t care, how they cheated the team. How it was all about money. It opened my eyes. Marseille wanted me, but I opted for Sedan initially thinking it was somewhere nice and hot on the south coast, not up north. They say it rains twice a year there – once for six months, then once for six more months – but I would have played for free after Monaco.”

The mental toughness is obvious, as is his grounding in French football. There is more to Diao’s game than energy and rugged tackling, with glimpses of creation amid the power. This, after all, is the man who finished off the best team goal at the summer’s World Cup finals – against Denmark – even if he did blot his performance in Daegu by conceding an early penalty and later seeing red for a crude two-foot assault on Rene Henriksen.

The dismissal cost him a two-game ban, limiting his contribution to the second- round win over Sweden to celebratory drumming back at the hotel. Yet, alongside the effervescence of his Liverpool team-mate El Hadji Diouf, his displays helped transform Senegal from wide-eyed outsiders into the tournament’s most endearing contenders, South Korea aside.

”We were proud of what we achieved,” he said. ”The set-up had always been so unprofessional – I’d have to buy balls whenever I went home because there was no money for training gear. It had been an utter waste of time, but [the French coach] Bruno Metsu changed all that. People thought African football was a joke, but we put Senegal on the map.

”We had a special atmosphere within our squad, a fearlessness and hunger. I can sense something similar here at Liverpool, a raw ambition. Let people talk about Arsenal and Manchester United; we are not shouting from the rooftops, but we are desperate to succeed.” —

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