He was a player who left fans, teammates and managers as disgusted as they were fascinated, and for that we induct him into The Cult. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: Spittle Red Riding Hood
It is the 87th minute of a UEFA Cup tie at Parkhead, and Liverpool are being held by Celtic. The sides have scored a goal apiece, and the players seem inclined to see out the game and reconvene for the second leg. Though the fixture has inevitably been dubbed 'The Battle of Britain' by the press, it has been contested in a robust but fraternal spirit, with home and away fans uniting for a chorus of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' before kick-off and revelling in the orchestral atmosphere. With players like Steven Gerrard, Chris Sutton and Neil Lennon on the pitch, the game was always going to be a full-blooded affair, but there is little to suggest things are going to get nasty before the final whistle is blown.
It is in this moment, with the match winding downwards, that a lithe Senegalese striker in red tumbles over the hoardings after a tussle on the sidelines. After some of the usual argy-bargy one expects when a footballer goes barrelling into a group of fans, the man with the thin gauze of bleach blond hair hauls himself up and jogs back towards the pitch. Then, almost in slow motion – though he clearly intends it to be done stealthily – he turns back towards the fans in question and shoots them a venomous glare, simultaneously unleashing a thick globule of saliva like a spitting cobra aiming its poison. It must be stressed that this is not the clean, watery spittle of athletic endeavour, but the viscous mucus of a man who intends to gob on someone as a pointed show of hostility. This is the sort of hoicked-up slime that gets discharged into someone's eyes outside a regional nightclub, all because said someone has looked at the resident hard lads the wrong way.
If there is an incident that encapsulates the popular perception of El Hadji Diouf, it is surely his infamous decision to gob at those supporters at Parkhead in the spring of 2003. Just as he discharged that malicious sputum in the direction of those Celtic fans, so too did he hurtle spitting and hissing like a rabid kitten into the arms of the Premier League. Just as the Celtic fans he spat at took a moment to comprehend what had happened before leaping out of their seats in outrage, so too was English football temporarily stunned by Diouf's bilious behaviour upon his arrival. Soon enough, he would be one of the most widely disliked players of his generation, enraging managers, teammates and fans alike with his abrasive attitude and fondness for phlegm.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that, much like the act of spitting itself, Diouf inspired a reaction in some that was little short of visceral revulsion. He certainly disgusted Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, with whom he had a notoriously bad relationship from pretty much the moment he joined the club in 2002. Having been signed from RC Lens by Gerard Houllier on the recommendation of a former assistant – this despite the fact that he had already been marked out for his behavioural problems, including prior allegations of spitting and a conviction for driving without a license – Diouf was soon a target for criticism over his lacklustre performances and supposed nonchalance in training. In Gerrard's own words: "Diouf sealed his place at the top of the list of Liverpool signings I liked least… it seemed to me that [he] had no real interest in football, and that he cared nothing about Liverpool."
Jamie Carragher was similarly scathing, laying into Diouf in his 2008 autobiography Carra. His first impressions of Diouf's professional conduct went like so: "I arrived for pre-season training anticipating my first view of the players who'd turn us into title winners. I returned home the same evening in a state of depression. Do you remember being at school and picking sides for a game of football? Diouf was 'last pick' within a few weeks." Of course, Carragher and Gerrard were close throughout their careers, and their criticism could feasibly be dismissed as the gang mentality of a Merseyside clique. Diouf has gone further than that in the past, essentially accusing Gerrard of racism and claiming that "Liverpool are not a team that welcomes blacks unless they are British."
That said, the idea that Diouf has been unfairly slandered by his former teammates falls down somewhat on the evidence of his behaviour elsewhere. The spitting incident at Parkhead was certainly not Diouf's only controversy during his time in English football, and it had even been alleged that he had gobbed at West Ham fans the previous year. Having been farmed out to Sam Allardyce's Bolton ahead of the 2004-05 season – this after a second season at Liverpool in which he had failed to score a goal in 33 appearances, and picked up over a dozen yellow cards – he was investigated by police for spitting on an 11-year-old Middlesbrough fan. Not long afterwards, he was fined three weeks' wages by Bolton and banned for three matches for spitting in the face of Portsmouth defender Arjan de Zeeuw.
Having signed for Blackburn in 2009 after an unproductive stint at Sunderland, Diouf was once again involved in an acrimonious incident in which he swore at a ballboy during an away game at Everton, before accusing the home fans of racial incitement. There was no substantive evidence for his claim, and for many it established a pattern of Diouf frivolously appealing to cultural and racial prejudices to excuse his individual conduct. In a sport which, to this day, struggles with a legacy of racism on the terraces, Diouf's unevidenced accusations were only ever going to further obfuscate the issue and supply ammunition to habitual whitewashers. They became just another factor in his plummeting reputation, as opposed to helping his cause.
Then there was the incident in 2011 when, during an FA Cup match against Queens Park Rangers, Diouf caused a bust up by taunting Jamie Mackie while the QPR striker was receiving treatment for a broken leg. This famously led Neil Warnock to say: "I'd call him a sewer rat, but I don't think he's as good as that… that's insulting to sewer rats." It was no coincidence that, once again, Diouf was being described with the language of disgust and revulsion. Even by the standards of Neil Warnock's bombastic rhetoric, drawing an analogy between a footballer and a gutter-dwelling rodent was fairly strong.
The thing is, much like many of the things that are meant to disgust us, there is something enduringly fascinating about Diouf. There is a reason that, relative to the other terrible Liverpool signings of the era, he has such prominence in the autobiographies of his former teammates on Merseyside. There is a reason that, whenever he is excoriated in print, those excerpts are republished by almost all major outlets and pored over frantically on social media. Against all odds, considering his goalscoring record, Diouf remains a topic of interest to the media and fans alike.
Though some of this is doubtlessly down to our lucid memories of him gobbing on people, there is also more to it than that. More so than his comments on Diouf's lack of emotional investment in Liverpool, Gerrard gave insight into his former teammate when he wrote in his autobiography that Diouf was "an example of how it can all go wrong." Brought to the Premier League at the age of 21 for a then substantial fee of £10m, the Senegalese striker almost certainly struggled to adapt culturally to England, not that it remotely excuses his compulsive spitting. Like so many footballers, he may also have struggled to get his head around a life with enormous disposable income. His relationship with fame never seemed particularly healthy – as epitomised by his ludicrous array of chrome-plated cars and flamboyant fashion statements – and that may explain the constant need for attention that manifested itself in one controversy after another.
If Diouf is a case in point of how mind-boggling wealth can lead to a detrimental sense of entitlement, he is also an example of how a footballer's lifestyle can infantilise a man. In a 2015 article in The Independent, Ian Herbert revealed that one of the player-liaison staff at Bolton was essentially adopted by Diouf as, for want of a better term, his professional nanny. On reflection, Diouf seems not so much like a venomous cobra, rabid kitten or Warnockian sewer rodent, but rather like an overgrown child uniquely ill-equipped to face the world as an adult, let alone take ownership of his behaviour. That would explain the spitting, the petulance and the refractory tantrums, and so what it perhaps most interesting about Diouf is that he revolts so many, but is ultimately quite relatable to our universal inner child.
Entry Point: World's Greatest, Sort Of
Though Diouf was recommended to Gerard Houllier on account of a professional acquaintance, that was not the only reason that Liverpool were willing to stump up such a fee for him. At the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Diouf had spearheaded an unfancied Senegal side that reached the quarter-finals against the odds. In his first match of the tournament, he had been the standout performer as Les Lions de la Teranga defeated reigning champions France, overcoming a team that included the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Lilian Thuram and Marcel Desailly. Senegal went on to beat Sweden in the round of 16 before losing out to Turkey in the quarters, but Diouf's frenetic showings up front were enough to earn him a place in the World Cup All-Star team.
Bizarrely, considering the reputational damage he had incurred at that point, he was also included in the 'FIFA 100', a list of the greatest living footballers as chosen by Pelé in 2004. Sepp Blatter's FIFA were almost immediately criticised for making political capital of the list, with the tactful geographical spread of the players at odds with the inevitable European and South American slant of world football. Whether or not Diouf was included on merit is debatable, especially considering he was in the midst of a chronic goalscoring drought at the time, not to mention the fact that his career would never again reach the heights of that World Cup. Indeed, Diouf now seems like living proof of the imprudence of signing a player on the evidence of one tournament, with the motivation he felt to play for his country clearly never replicated with his clubs.
Still, the way in which Diouf captured the imagination at the World Cup is another reason he is a source of fascination. While he was never exactly prolific as a striker, at his best he was a scampering nuisance who could leave opposition defences scrambling in disarray. Again, there is a reason that – despite his "sewer rat" comments – Neil Warnock later signed Diouf for Leeds, changing his assessment of his former antagonist and labelling him "a matador" instead. Diouf was always a red flag to a bull, but sometimes that was just what was needed for his team to deliver a killer blow.
The Moment(s): North of the Border
It was surely fate that, having almost immediately fallen out with Steve Kean at Blackburn after his managerial putsch in the winter of 2010, Diouf ended up being loaned to Rangers in the January transfer window. He had unfinished business north of the border, and never was he more in his element as a matador than when he was baiting Celtic fans. Diouf was a thorn in Celtic's side that year and, despite only scoring two goals for Rangers, he helped his new club to win the league title on the final day of the season. He was also part of the side that beat Celtic in the 2011 Scottish League Cup final, though he was somewhat chastened in the Scottish Cup by a triumphant and iconic goal celebration from Scott Brown.
With an already combustible personality, Diouf and the Old Firm were always going to be an incendiary mix. Unsurprisingly, he and Brown did not get on, fighting a series of running battles on the pitch. There was a serious incident of racism in one match, in light of which one Celtic fan was given a three-month jail sentence. There was also the small matter of an apoplectic confrontation with Neil Lennon at Ibrox during a game in which Diouf was later sent off for dissent, one of three Rangers players to see red that day.
In terms of the matches that define his career, nothing quite rivals Diouf's Old Firm derbies. While his performances varied wildly, the games were without fail nasty, rancorous and splenetic. Likewise, they were all marked with incidences of characteristic childishness, whether they came from Diouf himself or his enraged opponents. If gobbing at Parkhead kicked things off for Diouf, then his spell at Rangers was an appropriate swansong.
"The way he spat a huge globule of gunky phlegm at a Celtic fan in [that] UEFA Cup match… summed up his contemptuous and spiteful demeanour."
– Steven Gerrard, writing in My Story about his feelings on El Hadji Diouf.