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Papa Bouba Diop heading for the top

last updated Tuesday 18th January 2005, 10:02 AM
Fulham midfielder Papa Bouba Diop
Fulham midfielder Papa Bouba Diop
Papa Bouba Diop Stories

Were it not for his overpoweringly immense frame, Papa Bouba Diop could do a passable impersonation of a wallflower. He carries himself gracefully, politely, quietly, and is not one of life's attention-seekers. Which makes it all the more remarkable to imagine how he copes with being a living legend to 10 million people in his homeland.

His life was transformed half an hour into the opening match of the 2002 World Cup. When El Hadji Diouf - at the time looking like a dynamic player Liverpool had done well to plunder for £11million - crossed into the box, Diop, who was sitting on the turf at the time, managed to hook the ball into the net. It was a goal steeped in symbolic value. With it Senegal beat France, the Africans beat their ex-colonists, the upstarts beat the reigning champions, the watching world took note of a country not familiar to the international stage.

When they returned home, a reception for Diop in his town, Rufisque, became so chaotic it was closed down early. In the confusion the main man had his bag stolen. He ended up two mobile phones and £300 lighter - although richer in spirit.

Life has never been quite the same for Diop, or indeed, for many of the team-mates who went loopy with him that famous night in Seoul. Aimé Jaquet, who had managed France to World Cup victory four years previously, made the astute observation that Senegal's players, in overcoming the country where all but two reserve keepers learned and earned their trade, effectively graduated from the French system that very night. He recognised they had outgrown Le Championnat and would soon be on their way to more famous and expensive leagues. He wasn't far wrong: almost half of the outfield players in Senegal's World Cup squad found their way to England.

In most cases it has not been an easy ride. Diouf, who has made more of an impact with his mouth than his feet, obviously presents the most disenchanting story. Others have also been less influential than they - or their clubs - might have hoped. Henri Camara was memorable for his orange boots, Ferdinand Coly for his fantastic dreadlocks, neither Salif Diao nor Aliou Cissé has established a regular spot, and poor Khaliou Fadiga has been sidelined by a heart scare.

Portsmouth strongman Amdy Faye has, however, proved a big success, and if his first season in England is anything to go by, Diop is emulating him at Fulham. 'I have no problems adapting,' he says calmly. 'Football is one language. It's about finding your confidence before you can provide performances which are top, top, top.' His adaptation was helped with stunning strikes against Chelsea and Manchester United. 'I felt I arrived with those goals,' he says happily.

The World Cup remains a touchstone. 'Yeah, it changed my life, it was something extraordinary. At our clubs in France everyone reckoned we would lose 3-0 or 4-0. But we said we were going there to represent Africa well. It changed my ambitions football-wise. I came back with more confidence, and with my eyes opened having seen many new things. Tactically and mentally we all became so much stronger.'

Moving to England was, he adds, a logical progression. 'A lot of us had played in France for a while and felt it was time for a change of life, and of footballing status. I like what the English Premiership demands: it's tough, but intelligent too. It's a step up and I think more of my countrymen will come here in the next few years.'

Since moving from Lens, the challenge at Fulham been sterner than expected because of his new club's debilitating list of long-term injuries to experienced players. Lee Clark, Ian Pearce, Claus Jensen and Alain Goma - all big misses - are finally on the mend and Chris Coleman should have a full squad at his disposal for the first time in a week or so.

'When they come back we will progress,' Diop says. 'Of course I am worried about the club's position in the table but it's not too bad. There are clubs in more difficulty than us and I think we should avoid the relegation problems.'

With spring comes another challenge, and the resumption of World Cup qualifiers. Senegal are locked in a tight group, and recent experiences prove that the group phase in Africa can be notoriously difficult to negotiate safely. Their most recent outing was in Liberia's war-torn capital, Monrovia. An estimated 50,000 crowd went wild when Henri Camara scored two late goals, hurling stones and bottles (some filled with urine), firing guns, and causing a 30-minute stoppage. Two were killed in riots after the match. 'We were scared but we had to stay calm,' Diop recalls. 'We finished the last few minutes of the game.' It takes something exceptional to knock this big man off his giant stride.

Source The Observer by Amy Lawrence
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