It sounds like a movie: a young
soccer football player from Africa travels to Europe to make his fortune, but just isn’t good enough to play for anyone other than lower-tier and semi-pro clubs. So, he gets someone to call up a major English team pretending to be the World Footballer of the Year, recommending that his “cousin” get a tryout, and by the time the hoax is discovered the guy has actually made it onto the field during a crucial Premiership match.
…Ali Dia is famous in the Premier League for being the greatest conman in the history of the game and his name is one Graeme Souness would dearly love to forget. The year was 1996 and Souness was in charge of Southampton when he received a mysterious phone call from a man claiming to be George Weah, the former Fifa World Player of the Year and footballing superstar. Now any contact with a player that good is enough to get any manager excited, but instead of offering his own services to the Saints, Weah told Souness to check out his cousin, a PSG player who had won caps for Senegal.
In the days before YouTube, where a routine spot check would be enough to tell someone all they needed to know about a potential superstar, a personal recommendation from one of the game’s greats is surely enough to earn you a contract. After all, the scouts at the Dell didn’t want to lose out on a prodigious talent to their rivals, indeed only Matt Le Tissier came anywhere near the word ‘talent’ in a Southampton shirt at that time. To hoard off any interest from other clubs, the Saints offered Dia a one month contract with the club to prove his worth in the Premier League.
Unfortunately for Souness and Southampton, the phone call was a fake. Dia had never played for the Senegal, probably didn’t know who PSG were and his cousin was most certainly not George Weah. In fact Dia’s footballing career before that was no better than the average Sunday league player, he’d turned out for a few unheard-of French teams before unsuccessfully trialling at a number of lower English league clubs. He did however make one appearance for Blyth Spartans of the Northern Premier League where, by all accounts, he put in a remarkably forgettable performance.
So the fact that Dia pulled on a Southampton shirt during a Premier League game against Leeds United is one of the most bizarre happenings the game has ever witnessed. Saints legend Le Tissier has gone on record to say that Dia trained once with the first squad, showing as much skill in a five-a-side game as a man with his feet tied together. Not one member of the Southampton team thought Dia would ever be involved in a match day squad, so imagine their surprise when Souness named his new Senegalese superstar on the bench for the crunch match with Leeds.
After Le Tissier pulled a thigh muscle during the game, the number 33 went up on the fourth official’s board, signalling that Dia would be introduced for his debut…
If this were a movie, of course, the audacious young hero would score the winning goal. But it wasn’t a movie…
…What happened next was excruciatingly embarrassing for everyone that witnessed it. Dia ran around like Bambi on ice, unable to control the ball or keep any sort of position on the field. 53 minutes later and the substitute was substituted, as Souness realised his terrible, terrible mistake, hauling Dia off for Ken Monkou. Leeds won the game 2-0 and the most ambiguous of Premier League matches went down in the game’s folklore.
Dia never showed up at the Dell again, probably catching on to the fact that he’d be in for some serious questions from the Saints hierarchy, indeed the subject has haunted Graeme Souness to this day. Unbelievably that season, Dia turned up in the Conference, making eight appearances for Gateshead where he scored twice, including a goal on his debut against Bath City.
What probably ranks among Souness’ worst minutes as a manager, was probably Ali Dia’s greatest 22 minutes of his life. He was rubbish. He missed an open goal, along with another fairly decent chance. He wandered all over the place. He couldn’t control the ball. He was substituted after 53 minutes. In the words of Le Tissier,‘His performance was almost comical. He kind of took my place, but he didn’t really have a position. He was just wondering everywhere. I don’t think he realised what position he was supposed to be in. I don’t even know if he spoke English – I don’t think I ever said a word to him. In the end he got himself subbed because he was that bad.’
Most fans probably think this a bad thing. The most notorious player ever according to most in fact. Number 1 in several bad transfer lists. But I tell you now that Ali Dia is a legend. Most of us untalented footballers will never play for a premier league side, or even get close. Ali Dia managed it, with a massive amount of luck, but with balls and with persistence, and with the help of a friend who goes sadly unremembered. Ali Dia is the fan in the crowd supporting his beloved team who is suddenly called up to by his manager to get laced up, to take the field and play. And Ali Dia nearly scored. Twice.
Dreams are made of what Ali Dia built.
He disappeared into conference mediocrity immediatly after the game, to never be heard of again. But he can tell his kids that he played for a top, top side. He can pretend that he was that good. Hell, he could tell them the truth, and say he pulled the greatest hoax in history, and it would still be amazing. He was the worlds best streaker – he smashed every other mad fan running in every direction across the pitch by a mile. 23 minutes of running headless in every direction and the security guards never caught him.
So this is my dedication to Ali Dia, because one day there will be moves about him, possibly even a trilogy. And a paraphrasal of Mel Gibson/William Wallace shall be in there. Like this:
‘…dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here, and play twenty three minutes for Southampton as a striker!’
Yes, Ali Dia is that awesome. He is the football fan who fulfilled his dreams against all the odds, and in spite of everything you may have read, can hold his head high indeed.