It is difficult to write about the importance of one man at the time of untold tragedy. Paying particular attention to one person who has died after contracting coronavirus may seem arbitrary, almost cruel, or even myopic while tens of thousands are dying. Yet, the life of Pape Diouf is one that deserves recognition.
Born in Chad to Senegalese parents, Diouf moved to Marseille at the age of 18, ostensibly to become a soldier, but he was eager to forge his own path and make the most of the opportunities that could be found in France. To his parents’ chagrin, he started working in a post office, abandoning his studies for a position that was more immediately lucrative. His journey helped form his tough and even blunt approach. When he became a football agent, it made him not only an influential figure but one who was also infinitely relatable.
Diouf worked for years as a journalist in the south of France, covering Marseille for La Marseillaise, first as a freelancer and then as the paper’s lead reporter, before joining the ill-fated national daily Le Sport. After Le Sport went bankrupt, Diouf used his connections with Marseille players to begin work as an agent. He would go on to become a revolutionary figure in the world of sports, a true groundbreaker at a time when agents were not nearly as powerful as they are now.
Basile Boli and Joseph-Antoine Bell, both of whom played for Marseille at the time, were his first clients. The club were on the cusp of both their greatest success, winning the Champions League in 1993, and their greatest ignominy, when they were stripped of their league title that season, having bribed Valenciennes FC to throw a league match in the buildup to the final. Boli had been the hero of that European final win against Milan and his own story, having come from the Ivory Coast at a young age to find success in France, made Diouf seem like a father figure to the defender. “I can’t even speak,” said Boli when he heard that Diouf had died. “He’s not a friend – he was a big brother to me. All my children, my father and my mother knew him, loved him.”
With the success of his clients at Marseille – the title that was taken from them in 1993 would have been their third in a row – Diouf’s star quickly rose. Grégory Coupet, Marcel Desailly and Bernard Lama soon appointed him as their agent. Diouf’s intelligence and charisma helped him grow in standing among France’s power brokers. He understood that the game was becoming global and, with players such as Didier Drogba, Laurent Robert and Desailly impressing abroad, his reach extended, especially to England, where he and Arsène Wenger did much to bring French talent to a wider audience.
The Marseille owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus hired Diouf to work as the club’s sporting director in 2004, as much for his connections as his recruiting ability. When manager José Anigo resigned later that year, Diouf was appointed president, replacing the embattled Christophe Bouchet. With his own client, Drogba, having been sold to Chelsea in the summer of 2004, Marseille were always going to struggle for goals, but it was a particularly difficult time for the club. Lyon’s hegemony made Marseille’s underperformance especially galling. Despite their struggles, Diouf took things in his stride, even as the club cycled through three managers that season.
The next season, 2005-06, offered hope. The results were not much better – the club finished fifth for a second campaign running – but the arrivals of Franck Ribéry and Mamadou Niang, as well as the emergence of Samir Nasri (another of Diouf’s clients) augured well for the future. Diouf’s other signings during his tenure included Steve Mandanda and Hilton, showing his lasting influence on the game in France even today. But there were also missteps in the form of flair players such as Karim Ziani and Bakari Koné.
He also made headlines that season with the “Match of the Minots” at the Parc des Princes. Marseille and PSG have one of France’s most fiercely contested rivalries and on the occasion, Diouf, who was at odds with France’s governing body, the LFP, over security at the match and the number of places away fans would be afforded, sent a reserve side, who famously earned a scoreless draw. He did not endear himself to the powers that be in France in that episode, but he became a near-immediate legend at Marseille.
However, pressure continued to mount as the seasons passed without a trophy and the club chose to cut ties with Diouf in the summer of 2009, even though he had helped steer them to second place – just three points short of the title – that season. Despite his own lack of success, there is no denying that Diouf put the foundations in place for Marseille’s title the following year and their stirring run to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2012. He was later indicted (and acquitted) for improper dealings regarding player transfers, but there is no doubting the long shadow he cast over France’s most popular club.
Mathieu Valbuena, who won the league with Marseille in 2010, was impressed by Diouf’s immense aura. “He had an incredible presence,” said Valbuena. “He had broad shoulders. For me, he is the best president in Marseille’s recent history. When he left in 2009, he left the club in a very good state. He was close to the players, the employees. He knew how to get his messages across, to be sharp.”
After leaving Marseille, Diouf worked at a journalism college in Marseille and stood for an election in the city as well. His massive personality and outspoken approach did him no favours in either of these endeavours as he continued to show the world that, even away from football, he could be as brazen as the young man who had dared to disobey his parents’ wishes for him to be a soldier.
Again, his death is one of many in the world at the moment, but for a man for whom race, class, or social standing were no obstacle, and for whom no opponent seemed too big, it is only fitting that we note the passing of Pape Diouf by honouring him for what he was: a principled, fearless and forthright individual whose ambitions and influence on the game knew no limit.