Salif Diao has become a byword for the excesses and failures of Gerard Houllier’s reign as Liverpool boss, but the Senegal midfielder’s performances during the 2002 World Cup ensure set him apart among Africa’s finest midfielders.
Indeed, later in his career, the Lion of Teranga overcame injury and adversity to prove that he could cut it in the English game.
Six foot Diao was a classic dynamic African defensive midfielder; atheletic, capable of winning possession in midfield and launching attacks by tearing forward with the ball at his feet.
He was useful in the air—a quality that came in handy during his time with Tony Pulis’s physical Stoke City side—and he also demonstrated his ability to keep the ball, slow down the tempo of a match, and help the Potters dictate the temp.
At Liverpool, where Houllier had dubbed him ‘the new Patrick Vieira’, he rarely got the opportunity to prove his class in the centre of midfield—where a potential partnership with Steven Gerrard promised so much—with the coach preferring Dietmar Hamann or Danny Murphy in the heart of the park.
Rafael Benitez’s decision to sign Xabi Alonso and later Momo Sissoko pushed Diao further down the pecking order, which won’t have come as any disappointment for Gerrard or Jamie Carragher.
During 37 league appearances over five years, however, he regularly demonstrated his versatility with stints in the centre of the Reds’ defence or at full-back.
Despite his struggles with Liverpool, Diao was part of the squad that won the League Cup in 2003, while he also clinched the Ligue 1 title and the French Super Cup with AS Monaco in 2000 and 1997 respectively.
Later in his career, with Stoke, he helped the Potters up to the Premier League for the first time in over two decades after finishing second in the Championship.
Diao’s greatest achievement in the game came with Senegal in 2002 when he was part of the side that stunned reigning champions France in the opener before equalling the record for Africa’s greatest World Cup performance by reaching the quarter-finals.
In truth, however, despite this success, the Lions never truly built on the promise of that excellent team, at least not in an African context.
Diao was a member of the side that reached the final of the 2002 Nations Cup, playing for the entirety of the final as Senegal were defeated by Cameroon.
The talented squad flopped at the 2004 Afcon, where they were defeated by Tunisia in the quarter-finals, and injuries prevented Diao from making another continental showpiece.
His international career ended in disappointment when Senegal failed to reach the 2010 World Cup which, coupled with failure in 2006, prompted fan riots in Dakar.
There haven’t been too many African performances at the World Cup that were greater than Diao’s showing against Denmark in 2002.
The midfielder scored one of the greatest goals scored by an African on the grandest stage of them all—of not the greatest—when he instigated a remarkable, searing counterattacking move, galloped through the centre of the pitch and finished with aplomb past Thomas Sorensen to rescue a point for the West Africans.
Diao was later dismissed for a second yellow card, but returned for the quarter-final defeat by Turkey.
"He is a monster. I call him the extraterrestrial one. Salif is a player who makes matches complete. There was no doubt he would be one of the Senegal players to move on to a big club.' — Ex-Senegal coach Bruno Metsu
"With Salif, I knew after a week of training that he wasn't going to be good enough.” — Steven Gerrard
“If [El-Hadji] Diouf was a disappointment, Diao was a catastrophe. He couldn’t pass, was a liability when he tackled, and never looked capable of scoring a goal. And they were his good qualifies.” — Jamie Carragher