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Should El Hadji Diouf be considered an African great?

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The ex-Senegal star was arguably the most talented of the Teranga Lions’ golden generation, but where does he rank among the continent’s best?

There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and both are often mixed up. Swagger is a good thing, so far you can back it up with action. 

Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even retired Cameroon icon Samuel Eto’o have, over the years, spoken or acted in ways that have rubbed people the wrong way, with many giving them stick for being overly self-important. 

As far as walking the talk goes, the aforementioned trio have the records and honours to back it up, so their statements aren’t met with as much scorn.

Others, like El Hadji Diouf, aren’t quite as lucky. 

The ex-Senegal star was admonished by Eto’o recently after claiming to be the best footballer Africa’s ever seen. The three-time Champions League winner even quipped that the former Liverpool man may have spoken out of turn having had a bit too much to drink.

So, how good was Diouf at his prime? The short answer: very.

The two-time African Footballer of the Year’s career began remarkably, with a promising 2001/2002 campaign at RC Lens preceding an incredible World Cup with Senegal. 

The then 21-year-old attacker netted 10 times in 26 Ligue 1 appearances which brought Sang et Or to the brink of their second top flight crown. An agonising last-day 3-1 defeat by fellow challengers Olympique Lyonnais saw them surrender top spot when a point would have sufficed to claim the title. Instead, they lost it by two points. 

Having missed a month of action between January and February due to the Africa Cup of Nations, he still finished a goal behind Lens’ top scorer Daniel Moreira, despite playing five games fewer. Success would have been against all odds given the 97/98 champions finished 2000/01 in 14th, only three points above the drop zone. 

At the time, it seemed like Diouf was irreversibly star-crossed, having lost the Afcon 2002 final against Cameroon, where he missed in the shootout defeat by the Indomitable Lions, who didn’t concede a goal throughout the finals.

Undaunted by the setbacks, the prancing Diouf was central to the Teranga Lions’ World Cup feats in Asia. He didn’t score at the finals, but he didn’t need the goals to prove his undoubted ability at the global showpiece. 

The lively frontman, having left Marcel Desailly on his backside in the opening minutes, was involved in probably Senegal’s greatest international moment in history, similarly skipping past Frank Leboeuf as he’d done in the sixth-minute to set up Papa Bouba Diop for the African nation’s first-ever strike of the finals. 

They held on to defeat the reigning world champions 1-0, and people began to notice the debutants.

Two more goal involvements followed – he won a penalty in the rip-roaring 3-3 draw with Uruguay and set-up Henri Camara in the Round of 16 2-1 comeback win over Sweden – which saw Bruno Metsu’s fearless troops reach the quarter-finals. 

This was notable because, on only their first appearance, the Teranga Lions matched Cameroon’s 1990 group as Africa’s best performers at the World Cup. 

An extra-time defeat against Turkey prevented them from facing Brazil in the final four…the Lions will surely have relished another shot at a giant-killing!

Diouf, for his part, was named in the All-Star Team of the Tournament, alongside great World Cup frontmen Ronaldo and Miroslav Klose, and legendary Brazilian pair Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. 

To put his achievement in perspective, Jay-Jay Okocha only made the six-man reserve list in 1998 after an outstanding showing in France, but here was this fervent 21-year-old with the world at his feet…or so critics thought. 

Unfortunately for Diouf, that turned out to be the pinnacle of his career. Even though he retained his African POTY crown the following year, a spate of controversies early on at Liverpool meant the really big sides didn’t fancy someone so radioactive. 

There was a spitting incident against Celtic in March 2003 and that shocking action prompted a deterioration in his relationship with fans at Anfield. 

His poor attitude and lack of goals didn’t help either, and a loan move to an improving, ambitious Bolton Wanderers team in 2004/05 came through. The 2002 World Cup star joined Sam Allardyce’s team permanently a year later. 

Upon signing in 2002, Gerard Houllier had earmarked Diouf as the final piece of the puzzle to wrest the Premier League title from reigning champions Arsenal. However, the Senegal man proved to be nothing more than a caricature of the gem they’d seen at Lens and with Senegal with billions around the world watching.

More ugly incidents followed: a double-spitting episode at Bolton, abuse of referee Ali Bujsaim on international duty, alleged threatening of teammates including Anton Ferdinand and a reported racist slur aimed at a white ball boy, to name a few

What if Diouf wasn’t so contemptible, but rather did his talking on the pitch rather than play the villain after Liverpool switch? Could he have gone down as one of Africa’s great exports rather than being constantly stigmatised?

His two African Footballer of the Year wins came before Eto’o’s first of four eventual wins, level with Didier Drogba’s tally of two and more than Okocha who was never named the continent’s best. In fairness, the latter’s lack of success was strange as he was unjustly overlooked in 1998 due to Nigeria’s absence at the Afcon. 

The Senegalese’s tally may match Drogba’s, but the Ivory Coast legend made the final three a staggering nine times. Eto’o’s quartet of triumphs came from the eight occasions he made the podium. 

A shorter prime compared to those two and a list of honours that pale in comparison leaves the former Lens man probably thinking what might have been if he had built on his early promise.

Diouf will ultimately go down as a guy who, as talented as he was, had a rap sheet so overwhelmingly long that his ability early doors takes a backseat for what he’s truly remembered for…courting controversy. 

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