He was considered the most provocative, if not the most controversial, figure in football during his playing days. The European media labelled him a serial troublemaker and a rebel without a cause following an incident in which he spat in the face of Portsmouth’s Arjan de Zeeuw.
In faraway Libreville at an indoor arena this week, the former Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf, cruelly dubbed the Spitting Cobra, was in his element, tormenting defenders during a seven-a-side friendly kick-about in a team that included former Cameroon internationals Geremi Njitap, Roger Milla and Bill Tchato.
And, with sweat cascading down his face at the end of a 6-3 victory against a Gabonese side led by former national captain Daniel Cousin, in which he contributed a hat-trick, Diouf painfully denied that he was a dirty player. In his view, he was portrayed by the British media as a villain — they refused to acknowledge his obvious talents because of his African roots.
“I really do not want to talk about the past but wish to concentrate on the Senegalese team, which is through to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations,” said Diouf. “We [Senegal] have a difficult game against Cameroon on Saturday. But we are confident we can beat them.”
Senegal have looked the part as they sailed effortlessly through Group B, which they topped with seven points following identical 2-0 victories over Zimbabwe and Tunisia as well as a 2-2 draw against Algeria to set up a quarterfinal showdown against Cameroon.
Tunisia were slow to get out of the blocks and raised doubts about their quality after Senegal nailed them 2-0, but recovered quickly enough to beat Algeria 2-1 and put Zimbabwe to the sword in a match they won 4-2 for a haul of six points, which enabled them to remain in Libreville, where they tackle Burkina Faso.
Now a newspaper publisher and owner in his hometown Dakar, Diouf revealed that he is special adviser to Senegal football association president Augustin Senghor. Although many people have expressed their admiration for the Senegalese team, he said their current form is the fruit of three years of hard work.
“We have been building and will not get overconfident. The whole country is behind this ‘dream team’. Their performance has made everybody happy and proud. Cameroon is, of course, a big team but against them we just have to be smart and display our mental strength as well as a genuine desire to win.”
Besides Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, coach Aliou Cissé has certainly assembled the finest generation of players, among them Pape Seydou Ndiaye, Mame Biram Diouf (no relation to El Hadji), Moussa Sow and Keita Baldé Diao, players blessed with the ability to dictate the game and who know when to slow down the pace and when to accelerate and add pressure.
“They are lucky to have an exceptionally knowledgeable coach like Cissé, who has played at the highest level and is also a student of the game. They can learn so much from him, but they must just do what they have to do against Cameroon in order to progress in the tournament,” said Diouf.
Cameroon legend Njitap admitted that it has taken more than will-power to get his country to where they are. He conceded that Cameroon only just squeezed through the group stages, but Saturday is when the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations really gets under way.
Now an executive committee member of the Cameroon Football Federation as well as president of the players’ union, Njitap said the country was building a team that would be competing for honours when they host the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
“That, however, does not imply we will roll over for Senegal — no, sir,” said Njitap. “When the majority of our senior players refused to honour national call-ups, it was a blessing in disguise. It allowed coach Hugo Henry Broos to throw in a lot of young players that he would have otherwise only blooded gradually had the seniors been available.
“You can see it is the first time that they are taking part in such a major competition. They struggled during the group stages but now they know what is expected of them. To their credit, they have done what few previous Cameroon teams have achieved — qualifying for the knockout stage — since 2006.
“We could have easily been eliminated by Gabon had they been more clinical. But we did what was necessary against a difficult opponent and we are now through to the knockout. We are going to throw away the quarter and simply consider this game the final.”
Broos hinted at the start of the tournament that he wished to avoid Senegal. But, after sneaking past Gabon, for which he can thank his lucky stars, he has accepted that his team will have to play to their full potential.
Cameroon’s defence has looked vulnerable and very brittle throughout the group stages and, although Vincent Aboubakar is a proven goal-scorer, the Indomitable Lions could come a cropper against Senegal, who have a more settled team as well as a much more potent strike force.
The Arab Spring has played havoc with Egyptian football — the domestic championship has been periodically suspended because of political instability. This has affected the national team, which has failed to qualify for the continental and World Cup competitions since 2008.
But the Pharaohs signalled their intention to get out of their tomb with a dominating display to top Group D with seven points and will now face neighbours Morocco in a traditional North African derby on Sunday.
In a clinical, business-like performance, they dispatched a hesitant Ghana, who appeared to be playing it safe to avoid meeting Morocco in the quarters. Mohamed Salah’s lone strike gave Egypt a slender 1-0 victory and their exuberant celebration at the end of the match was understandable, as they have missed out on the premier continental competition for almost a decade.
It is difficult to predict the outcome of a derby and the Egypt-Morocco clash has pundits scratching their heads as experts drool at the prospect of a fierce, no-holds-barred encounter, where the more physical and compact team in defence will take home the spoils.
Ghana’s Black Stars have suffered from serious injuries to key players. Skipper Asamoah Gyan limped off after the team had also lost left-back Baba Rahman to injury in their opening match. These two stalwarts could leave Ghana exposed against the sharp-shooting Democratic Republic of Congo.
Firmin Ndombe Mubele has become the leading goal-scorer for the DR Congo with three strikes at the halfway stage, and he and Junior Kabananga have been scoring with gay abandon for the men from Kinshasa. Mind you, their leading marksman, Dieumerci Mbokani, has not even warmed up yet in three matches, which could spell trouble for Ghana.
“It cannot be that Africa should always look to Europe for trainers,” said Diouf. “Out of the 16 teams participating in Gabon, only three — Senegal, Zimbabwe and DR Congo — are managed by indigenous coaches and they have done exceptionally well,” he said.
“We cannot continue to pick somebody with old-school ideas from Europe and give him thousands of dollars to manage our teams. Yet you never find Europeans coming to Africa to recruit coaches and so, when I look at coaches like Cissé [Senegal] and Florent Ibenge [DR Congo], it would fill me with great pride if one day an African coach could win the World Cup.”
Ibenge is fast proving to be a master tactician and, after winning the African Nations Championship, a tournament for players based in Africa, with his native DR Congo, he is now leading the revival of the country previously known as Zaire. They topped a tough Group C to set up an intriguing last-eight tie with Group D runners-up Ghana.
The last time the DR Congo climbed the podium was back in 1974, a year in which they won the Africa Cup of Nations and became the first sub-Saharan country to qualify for the World Cup finals in Germany. They are certainly rank outsiders but Ibenge has infused his troops with a fighting spirit and they believe they can cause an upset.