Papa Bouba Diop’s interview in today’s Sunday Times is brilliant. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it in full below:
As a boy in Senegal, Papa Bouba Diop dreamt of playing against teams like Manchester United. He’ll get that chance tomorrow.
The area that doubles as a classroom and meeting room at Motspur Park, Fulham’s youth academy, is dominated by a photograph of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston taunting the fallen former world champion in 1965. “Talent,” reads a slogan on the opposite wall, “is no substitute for hard work.”
This room with messages writ large is where future players are taught anything from computing to life sciences. But standing before us on Friday, so tall you could use a step ladder to look him in the eye, is a Fulham player whose game and character were developed on the streets of Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
Papa Bouba Diop will tomorrow commit his 6ft 4in and fighting weight of 14st-plus against the likes of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. He knows them, admires them and has wanted to compete against them since they were television images to him. “Growing up in my neighbourhood of Rufisque,” he says, “you dream of playing Manchester United. My strength, my position, is defensive midfield — winning back the ball, recommencing the attack.”
He pauses, considers the big names — Keane, Steven Gerrard and Patrick Vieira, who plays for France but comes from the same Senegalese city as Diop. “Great, great players,” he says. “They work hard for their teams. I cannot compare myself to Patrick yet. I am here in my first season to learn.” The relevant word is “yet”.
“Bouba”, as Fulham players know him, is an enforcer on the pitch, a God-fearing man off it. His eagerness to please, his quietness, his smile, shield, you imagine, the street fighter inside who is prepared to do what it takes to impress.
Keane will probably not choose to kick Diop off the Craven Cottage pitch tomorrow. Vieira knows at first hand that it does not pay to rile the African. Diop could, as they say, do someone serious damage if he chose to. In the opening match of the 2002 World Cup, he stretched in the goalmouth to score the only goal that shocked France, the mother country to Senegal, and sent out a thrilling message that no team is too big to lose, nor any too small to dare.
Against Chelsea last month, Diop showed from 30 yards that he can strike a right-foot volley to stun the best defence, with arguably the finest goalkeeper, in the Premiership.
And though he lowers his head just a shade at the mention of it, against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, he was so prepared to fight for the right to play that he was sent off for cuffing Darren Purse, an Englishman who thought he could walk all over him.
“I’m not proud of that,” he says. “No, no, no. It’s not good that I did it. England is a physical League, no? It has never been a problem for me. But the player stood on my foot, and lashing out was my quick reaction.
“It hurt me a lot because it is not the impression I like to give and because I missed three matches. I don’t like to be in the stands. I am here to play and to learn to be focused the entire game.”
He re-emphasises that the intensity of British play, the physical contest, is what attracted him. He understands more about the English and our language with every lesson he takes, almost every day. But it is a Welshman, Chris Coleman, the youngest manager in the league, who took a £2m chance on Diop, and who defended his raw recruit at West Brom.
“The club might fine him but I won’t,” said Coleman. “I can’t fine a man for showing character!” The board did fine Diop.
Going nowhere — at least not unless his consistency rises to a level that tempts Ferguson, Arsène Wenger or, should Gerrard leave Liverpool, Rafael Benitez — is Diop. He will be 26 this January, and is trying to bed down, to impress.
In Senegal, he cannot walk the streets now because he has become a cult figure.
The World Cup goal against France, and two more against Uruguay, liberated a euphoria the like of which the west African nation of 11m people had never experienced before.
After Diop scored against Fabien Barthez, he tore off his shirt and danced around a corner flag. Fashions change, because Fifa warmly approved of that celebration then, and orders referees to crack down on it now. But on that June day, when Papa Diop danced in Seoul, so did the youngsters in the streets of Senegal.
When he scored against Chelsea, it came with breathtaking improvisation. The ball from John Terry’s defensive header came knee-high — even to Diop — but, balanced on his left foot, he reached up with the right instep to volley it into the top right-hand corner of Petr Cech’s net.
There was a balletic quality to the goal, yet Diop is a gangling figure. Did instinct tell him to strike it? A huge grin spreads on Diop’s face. He prefers to speak his native French, and Carmelo Mifsud, a willing soul around Fulham, translates.
“Oui,” says Diop, “je frappe direct.” He hit it direct, indeed. He was aware that he was far out, he remembered a similar chance at West Bromwich where he’d attempted to take a touch to control the ball and then mishit. Next time, he told himself, it would be direct, no extra touch.
His mention of West Brom brings us back to the red card, the fluctuating temperament, the inconsistency of Fulham. Was the hand in the face of Purse just rash impulse, or also something of his “next time” philosophy? Diop laughs and says nothing. His manager claimed that Purse had 10 minutes earlier fouled the big man with an atrocious tackle that could break a leg.
Slowly, we are finding out about Papa Bouba Diop. In Senegal, in Switzerland and in France, where he played league football, his instinct to play and to fight for possession is established. Here he has a bachelor pad in Wimbledon and mostly eats alone because the evenings are consumed with trying to learn the language, the culture, the adjustments to English life.
As he rises to leave, his height once more reaches the level of the Ali photograph. The lesson of character, of fighting for respect, comes to mind. But you rather feel that the words Ali used then — “Get up and fight, you bum!” — are a mite too arrogant for this affable newcomer down Fulham way. “He’s strong, he’s tall,” sing the fans. “He comes from Senegal.”