Leeds United striker El Hadji Diouf: 'You can hate me but still love my football'
Leeds' El Hadji Diouf, who was once described by his current manager as a 'sewer rat', loves being booed – because it shows people are paying attention, he tells Glenn Moore
When El Hadji Diouf gets on the ball at Elland Road tomorrow tonight and runs at the Southampton defence he will not just expect to be booed by the opposing fans, he will relish the prospect.
"I like being booed," he says with a gold-toothed smile. "When people boo me I always want to show them I am the best – I know they hate me but I want to say, 'You can hate me but you can love my football.' Everyone wants to beats Leeds because they know it is a big team, and there is a big character on the team: myself."
For the Senegalese to be ignored is far worse than being disliked. There is a touch of Oscar Wilde when he says of himself: "My reputation is not me, but it is good to have a reputation. People talking good or bad about you is only publicity."
It was not always thus. Having come to prominence in the 2002 World Cup Diouf had an indifferent spell at Liverpool, attracting unsavoury publicity, including a conviction for spitting. By the time he was playing for Bolton Wanderers the constant baiting by opposition fans was beginning to wear him down. Then came an intervention from the late Gary Speed, Wanderers' senior pro.
"One day I was asking, 'Why do people boo me every time? I don't understand.' He came to see me, took my hand and said, 'People never boo a bad player. They boo you because you are good and they try and wind you up.' When he said that I understood. Coming from him it was good."
Diouf now plays for Leeds United, where Speed is still revered for his role in their last title success, in 1992, and we are talking in the office of manager Neil Warnock. The same Warnock who, in January 2010, described Diouf as "lower than a sewer rat" after Diouf had accused Jamie Mackie of QPR, then managed by Warnock, of faking his agony as Mackie lay stricken at Ewood Park with a broken leg. The subsequent union of Warnock and the player he calls his "matador" raised many eyebrows.
"Me and the gaffer, it is in the past," said Diouf. "Lots of people say there are things between us, but the most important thing today is he enjoys working with me and I enjoy working with him. What I like of him we have the same temperament, we want to always win. He is a bad loser and a good gaffer. We are the misunderstood, a lot of people do not know us, but they judge us.
"Friends who play with him before, like Adel Taarabt and Armand Traoré, they tell me he is a good gaffer, he loves joking and working hard. So I say to him, 'Why not I come and play for Leeds?' I know he thought it was a joke at first but that joke came true. People can hate you, but recognise your talent. He recognised my talent."
Diouf was poised to go to Saudi Arabia when Warnock, searching for players within a limited budget, decided to see if Diouf was serious. The money on offer was a fraction of that available in the desert, and Diouf would have to start on a week-to-week trial basis.
"I said, 'Why not?' The big challenge today is to be in Leeds. I remember playing here with Liverpool [Diouf's fifth start in England, Liverpool winning in front of more than 40,000]. The atmosphere was unbelievable. I say to the lads: 'We can do it. We can be part of the story of Leeds United. People talk about Lucas Radebe, Eric Cantona, why not us?' To go up with Leeds would be massive, the biggest thing in my career.
"Elland Road has the same atmosphere as Anfield. A lot of teams in the Premier League do not have as exciting a stadium as we have. Leeds has a Premier League stadium and Premier League fans in the wrong division, we have to change that. I think we can do it this season, We just need to believe in ourselves, he [Warnock] won promotion with Sheffield United and QPR, why not here?"
A lack of funds is the most likely reason, with takeover negotiations with various parties now having taken more than six months. Having reached the play-off places early on this season Leeds have dipped, with two points from their last three matches, but the 2-1 home victory over Everton in the last round of the Capital One Cup showed what was possible.
Diouf was outstanding in that match and has generally been in excellent form. His current contract, however, expires in January and while Leeds have offered him a new one with a significant pay rise he will only say, when asked if he will stay, "We'll see." It may depend on whether Warnock will by then have the cash required to give Leeds a realistic chance of going up. "Me and the gaffer have the same ambition: to go into the Premier League," said Diouf.
There he would face again Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, former Liverpool team-mates who both criticised Diouf in their autobiographies, prompting withering replies, articulated again in L'Equipe earlier this month.
"I don't want to waste any more time talking about them," says Diouf. "Liverpool is a great club but for me it is in the past, I am looking to the future. When I was at Liverpool we had good players, but we did not make a team. We had a lot of problems there between foreign players and the rest, but I think that goes for many teams."
It was at Liverpool that Diouf was involved in the first of several spitting controversies. "I regret what I did in the past," he said. "I was young, I don't do it any more. I apologise to all people I have hurt. It was a result of my background."
Diouf's upbringing was a difficult one, living in poverty with his grandparents after his father left when he was eight, then moving to France to make his way as a footballer at 14. "It made me independent. I was always looking after myself, then after all my family too. I'm proud about that, and about the charity I have, helping a lot of people in Senegal."
Despite the animosity he attracts, Diouf enjoys playing in England, having spent the last 11 seasons here excepting a brief spell at Rangers. "I have had offers to go to Spain, back to France or Italy, but it is more exciting here. If you play 15 years in football and you don't play in England it is a big miss."
In the long-term Diouf expresses an interest in coaching and managing, which could be interesting, and there is a book on the horizon: the title … "Misunderstood".
He said: "People think they know me, then after meeting in a restaurant, or out somewhere, they talk for five minutes and say, 'I'm sorry I thought bad things about you before.' Even my wife. I went to talk to her and she didn't want to be with me because of what she had read about me in the papers in Senegal and what people say about me, but I am a different person. My reputation is not me."
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