This article originally featured on taleoftwohalves.uk on May 1st, 2018
What can you say about El Hadji Diouf? The Senegalese forward is synonymous with controversy, something that is disappointing to say of a players legacy. Diouf will never be remembered for scoring “that goal” or winning “that trophy”. No, Diouf will be remembered for the nightclub fights, the racial abuse of a child, the driving misdemeanours and the spitting. The vile, shameless spitting. A man that starred for his country during a famous World Cup campaign in Korea/Japan 2002 and who signed for Liverpool that same year should have gone on to strut his stuff at the top level for a decade or more. His talent was lost in a career of controversies and senseless acts of lashing out. But was he all bad? Not according Neil Warnock, a man who himself enjoys flirting with controversy.
Diouf moved to France from his native Senegal at a young age, signing firstly for Sochaux, then Rennes. From there he joined Lens where he added a goal-scoring element to his all-round play, notching eight in his first season and ten in his second. His first season saw Lens finish midtable, though remarkably they finished second in 2002. They finished only two points behind Lyon, who went on to win seven consecutive league titles. His career in France was impressive on the field, but off it there were problems. Diouf was convicted of driving without a licence, later being involved in a car crash. These transgressions never amounted to much, but with the benefit of hindsight, the red flags were there. The warning signs were ignored by Gérard Houllier who forked out £10 million for Diouf at the end of the 2001/02 season, prior to the World Cup.
£10 million may have seemed like a large amount for a young prospect from Ligue 1 back in 2002, but after a very successful World Cup campaign for Senegal that transfer fee looked to be an absolute bargain! While El Hadji Diouf failed to score or assist at the World Cup, his tenacity and movement proved pivotal in creating space for his teammates. This lead to him playing every single minute in Senegal’s remarkable journey to the quarter-finals. In the opening match against France, Diouf was awarded a man of the match. He was instrumental in setting up the game’s only goal and stretched the ageing French defence all game long. The 2002 World Cup was the Diouf that the world wanted to see. He worked tirelessly, was a team player and, despite his lack of goals, was a menace in the box. Liverpool fans were quite rightly excited at the prospect of their new signing, so what happened over the course of his Anfield stint was nothing short of a nightmare.
Despite a positive start where he notched a double against Southampton, his time at Liverpool was overshadowed by his saliva. In March 2003, in a UEFA Cup match against Celtic, Diouf cut a frustrated figure. Late on, the game tied at 1-1, he fell into the crowd at Parkhead. He received horrid abuse and had one fan rub his hand on his head. Rather than shrugging it off, Diouf turned his head back to the crowd when jogging away and spat in their direction. It was a gross gesture and one which, though not punished on the field, saw him given a two-game UEFA ban, a £5,000 fine and an assault charge. Gérard Houllier slammed him after the match, saying that this would follow him throughout his career. Houllier was spot on.
Diouf only ever scored six goals at Liverpool, all in his first season. His second season was goalless, making him the only Liverpool #9 to have failed to score in a season. He became a hate figure from the fans after the spitting incident. Years later and his hatred by all at Anfield intensified when he got into a string of verbal spats with club legends Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. He claimed that Carragher is a nobody and that Gerrard has done nothing on the biggest international stage. With Gerrard he claims over and over that he respects him as a player, but as a person he cannot stand him. His most bizarre statement being “I am Mr El Hadji Diouf, Mr Senegal but he is Mr Liverpool and Senegal is bigger than Liverpool and he has to know that.” His comments about Jamie Carragher had less of a footballing theme and rather some mad rant. He claimed Carragher was a “fucking loser” and that the difference between the two was that he was world-class while Carragher “is a shit”. Charming…
These aren’t the sort of comments that endear you to people, but then again, crowd-pleasing has never been Diouf’s game. He riles people up. By the end of the 2003/04 season, the Liverpool hierarchy were thoroughly unimpressed and sanctioned a loan to Sam Allardyce’s Bolton. After a successful loan, the move was made permanent and he remained at the Reebok Stadium until 2008. His time at Bolton was mixed. He scored Bolton’s first-ever goal in Europe against Bulgarian outfit Lokomotiv Plovdiv. In Bolton’s epic UEFA Cup run in the 2007/08 season, he scored the decisive goal against Atletico Madrid (the fortunes of these two teams has progressed a lot in the last decade!) The match turned when a young Sergio Aguero was shown red for spitting. Ironic. Bolton made it to the final 16 where they were narrowly beaten by Sporting Lisbon of Portugal.
He became a fan favourite at Bolton, he was playing like the El Hadji Diouf of the 2002 World Cup, though anyone who thinks wistfully back to his Bolton days as purely happy memories of UEFA Cup runs are sorely misguided. Of course, he contributed greatly to these runs and enjoyed some of the best football of his career at the Trotters, but it was also here where he continued his legacy of bastardry. In a match against Middlesbrough, he spat at an eleven-year-old boy. This was a case of a headline being worse than the story. The player was subbed off, drank from a water bottle and spat it out at the back of the dugout. Being away from home, the player (allegedly) had no idea the Perspex dugout had holes in it. The discharge went through the hole and onto the young fan. It was obviously an accident, but after the Celtic spit incident in 2003, a bigger deal was made.
While the Middlesbrough incident was (probably) accidental, there was no denying the intention of his spitting incident against former Portsmouth captain Arjan De Zeeuw. Diouf felt aggrieved to have been denied a penalty, his fervent protests seeing him confronting De Zeeuw and spitting in his face. He was slammed by everyone with a platform to voice an opinion, and in the days before social media was prominent, was condemned publicly by the Match of the Day team. Alan Shearer claimed: “to spit in someone’s face is the lowest you can ever do to a professional footballer.” De Zeeuw claimed he’d have rather been punched in the face than spat on.
After four topsy-turvy years at the Reebok Stadium, Diouf signed for Roy Keane’s Sunderland for just shy of £3 million. As a player, Keane was, with all due respect, a dirty bastard. He was a sublimely talented player but was not afraid to get stuck in. He was looking for that calibre of player, someone to inspire his team and who will give the club an identity. He made sixteen appearances across all competitions, failing to score once for the Black Cats. Despite signing a four-year deal, Diouf left the Stadium of Light after only six months, rejoining Sam Allardyce at Blackburn in January 2009.
His time at Blackburn will be remembered more for his antics than his on-field performances, as he managed only four goals in 62 games. A couple of years after allegedly spitting at a child, Diouf was hammered by the FA for racially abusing a ball boy in a match against Everton. The way the ball boy threw the ball to Diouf led the player to scream “fuck off white-boy!” The police interviewed him after the game but found no evidence to support the claim. It was a remarkable claim for a child to make, leading the neutral to believe that something untoward had certainly occurred.
Controversy continued at Blackburn for Diouf, and in a match against a QPR team managed by Neil Warnock, tensions flared. In a hard-fought FA Cup match, Gaël Givet and Jamie Mackie contested a loose ball, with the Scotland forward coming off worse. He was laid upon the turf with a double leg fracture, while El Hadji Diouf stood over him, taunting him, allegedly shouting “fuck you and fuck your leg!” Diouf was under the impression that Mackie was feigning injury. Train wreck manager Steve Kean tired of Diouf after this situation and looked to sell him, managing to offload him to Glasgow Rangers on the final day of the January transfer window in 2011. Neil Warnock infamously branded Diouf as “lower than a sewer rat” off the basis of this incident.
While Diouf certainly ruffles the feathers of, well, everyone, this is perhaps the right time to look at his redeeming qualities. Life is not black and white. There is rarely a good or evil. Diouf has done some truly shocking things in his career, the Mackie incident being a particular lowlight. While his time at Ewood Park was far from the most prosperous period of his career, he did showcase his class – when he wasn’t spitting, taunting and race hating. Ronnie Dog Media writer @CharlieTangoFM was a season ticket holder at Blackburn towards the turn of the 2000s, and whilst he does not defend Diouf’s behaviour, he does mention his redeeming features. Diouf would regularly come over the fans, win, lose or draw, and give them applause, and appreciation, some small gesture that he is thankful for their support in what was quite a testing time. Somewhere inside Diouf is a shred of decency and compassion.
The king of controversy signed for Rangers in January 2011. While Scotland does not have the greatest football reputation in the world, the Old Firm is undeniably a huge attraction. His time in Glasgow was tumultuous. He scored a European goal against Sporting Lisbon, as well as winning the League Cup and Scottish Premier League title in his short stint at Ibrox. He came to Scotland with a big reputation, and within a couple of days started the Old Firm match against Celtic in the cup. Celtic captain Scott Brown scored a curling effort from outside the box early on, turning round to face Diouf and raising his arms aloft in bragging celebration. This sparked a rivalry between the two which Diouf did not win. In a future Old Firm game, Rangers lost, seeing Diouf sent off after the final whistle. In this game he sparked a fight between himself and Celtic boss Neil Lennon, causing a mass brawl between coaches and players on the touchline.
After an up and down spell at Ibrox, Diouf’s Blackburn contract expired. He was handed a trial by Sam Allardyce at West Ham, but fan reaction saw the deal collapse – Diouf evidently not fitting into the “West Ham way” ideology. He ended up spending a season at Doncaster. He managed six goals that season as the Yorkshire club were relegate down to League 1. Another year of despicable shenanigans ensued. On the pitch, he once again fired his spit at an opposition player, Blackpool’s Matt Gilks. Off the pitch, he was arrested after being part of a brawl in a nightclub. He ended up facing no charges for the incident, but it was another black mark against his name. The season finished in relegation and Diouf left Doncaster, with few fans sad to see the back of him.
In an extraordinary turn of events, Diouf’s next move saw him team up with Neil Warnock at Leeds. Just two years after Warnock stated Diouf was “lower than a sewer rat”, he was his manager. So why would Warnock sign Diouf? And why would Diouf want to play for Warnock? The reasons for this unlikely pairing is explained in Warnock’s book.
He claimed that former Doncaster coach Mickey Walker had recommended Diouf to him, stating that he was an excellent influence in training and that his work with the kids was commendable. To further this point, Warnock was also approached by referee Eddie Wolstenhome. He mentioned to Warnock that he had once been at a function for disabled children and that Diouf had also been present. Wolstenhome said that Diouf arrived before everybody else and stayed longer too. He took the time to speak to each and every person there individually. Diouf has a nasty streak in him, but he does have a kind side to him.
The two finally met. Warnock claims to have been very upfront and frank in the meeting, asking Diouf “some of the things you do, the spitting, the behaviour on the pitch, what you said to Jamie (Mackie). Why do you do them? You have so much ability you don’t need to do them.” Diouf responded in a refreshingly honest way. He claimed that where he was from, spitting wasn’t a big deal. He said that growing up he didn’t think of the consequences to his behaviour, and he apologised about the Mackie situation, claiming that he had no idea the player had broken a leg. This honesty impressed Warnock, who stated his desire to sign Diouf. Diouf said he would love to sign for Leeds, that he wasn’t motivated by money, to which Warnock quipped “that’s good because we haven’t got any.”
Diouf’s time with Leeds was incredibly mixed. He scored six goals in 44 appearances during his first season at Elland Road as Leeds finished 13th. He was involved in a couple of race incidents during that season. On New Year’s Day 2013 a young primary school child caused a storm by dressing up as his favourite player, Diouf. He wore a full Leeds strip, applied makeup to his face to “black up” and dawned a white mohawk. The bulk of the Leeds squad, Neil Warnock and El Hadji Diouf himself all took pictures outside the stadium with the fan, all of whom saw the funny side. This incident was a young fan misguidedly trying to show his appreciation. Later on, in the season, a much more severe racial incident occurred as Millwall fans showered him with racial abuse. Regardless of your thoughts towards Diouf, no person deserves this pathetic treatment.
His second season at Leeds saw him play only once, before being released at the end of the season. He opted to sign for Malaysian second-tier side Sabah FA, signing a one year deal which saw him become club captain. Diouf was stripped of the captaincy for stating his desire to play for a rival on a TV interview, praising their set up and his plan to set up an academy for the club back in Senegal. He ended up playing only four times for Sabah, scoring three times.
I started this article by saying “What can you say about El Hadji Diouf?” and approximately 3000 words later, I am still at a loss. A genius on his day, a liability far too often. In a career that saw him play over 500 career games, scoring just shy of 100 goals, he is rarely thought of with regards to his football. It is his controversies that stick in the mind. He appeared to thrive off the hatred vented towards him from the fans, often earning cult status amongst his own fans. Even the clubs he chose to play for seemed to inspire his controversial acts. Liverpool. Leeds. Rangers. All clubs with a huge support base, all clubs that are thoroughly disliked by many.
As I said earlier in this article, life is rarely black and white. Diouf has done some deplorable things. Spitting at players, abusing ball boys, the nightclub brawls and the driving misdemeanours. He is a bad man. You simply cannot deny it. But he has done some good. He acknowledges the fans, something many players fail to do. He has gone above and beyond to help out at charity functions for disabled children. He is currently back in Dakar, Senegal, working as a government goodwill ambassador and is the advisory on sport, reporting to President Macky Sall. He is Mr Senegal. He claims to have put them on the map, based on his 2002 endeavours, and this is hard to argue. It is just a shame that to fans of UK football, his legacy isn’t that 2002 World Cup run, but rather a career blighted by controversies. The Senegalese spitter is arguably the most loathsome player to have graced British football, although whether you love the man or hate him, the world of football has certainly been a more interesting place because of him!