Skip to navigationSkip to content

How Pape Diouf helped change the fortunes of African players in European football

REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier
Former Olympique Marseille president Pape Diouf attends a news conference in Marseille, Nov. 20, 2014.

Pape Diouf, the journalist from Senegal who became the first black president of a major European club: Olympique de Marseille in 2005, died on Tuesday Mar. 31 at 68, in his home country Senegal, after contracting the coronavirus.

Marseille paid their tribute on Twitter  and said “Pape will remain in the hearts of Marseillais forever, as one of the great architects in the club’s history.”

Diouf, who was born Mababa Diouf in the town of Abeche in Chad where his father was a government official, moved to Senegal with his family as a child. At 19, he was sent for studies in France but soon after abandoning a military course at the Institute of Political Studies in France’s city of Aix-en-Provence, he became a freelance journalist. He later went on to become a sports reporter in Marseille through the 1980s.

It was here his professional affair with the southern France city began.

African footballers were well-regarded as athletes but didn’t achieve superstar status like European teammates—Pape Diouf helped change that.

In 1984 he met Joseph Antione Bell, the legendary Cameroonian goalkeeper at the African Cup of Nations in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, who became a close friend. He initially worked for the local paper La Marseillaise before moving to a new publication called Le Sport a short-lived rival to L’Equipe. Diouf established a good relationship with Bell, who signed for Marseille in 1985 and frequently gave the former’s office number to African players who had problems with their clubs in France. When Le Sport started folding around 1987, Diouf signaled to Bell he would like to switch his career. “So I told him why don’t you become an agent? Of course the question he asked was, “Who is going to hire me? Who is going to trust me? Nobody knows me.””

“At that time nobody trusted black agents, even black players,” says Bell.

African footballers were well-regarded as athletes in European football in the 1980s but few achieved the kind of superstar status with which comes the accolades and generous remuneration their European colleagues received. One of the reasons was many players were not being prioritized by their agents or managers. Diouf had an early role in changing that. Today, African-born and second generation African players are some of the biggest and most influential players in Europe across the major leagues.

But getting there wasn’t easy.

REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier
As Olympique Marseille chairman Pape Diouf in 2007.

When his friend Bell moved to third-tier French club Sporting Club Toulon, Diouf developed contacts with some African players as he organized annual celebrations for Cameroonian great Roger Milla and Senegal’s Boubacar Sarr, including Portuguese legend Eusébio da Silva Ferreira.

But perhaps the turning point in his pursuit to be a player agent came in 1989 was when he agreed to help in Bell’s move to Bordeaux, another club.“When we finished the contract-signing, came out, journalists were there: radio and everything. He was in the picture,” says the former Cameroon keeper.

Diouf’s next big signing was France international Marcel Desailly whom he convinced to move to Marseille in 1989, where he made 137 appearances and was a key part of the World Cup winning side of 1998.

Cameroonian forward François Omam-Biyik followed, with Samir Nasri, the French footballer of Algerian descent, whom Diouf spotted in Marseille at the age of 13. He worked with signing Basile Boli, Bernard Lama, Sylvain Armand, William Gallas and Grégory Coupet among others.

His tenacity in the business also got Didier Drogba on board. The Ivorian superstar signed for Marseille under Diouf and scored 19 goals in 35 games that season as the club finished fifth in the 2004/2005 Ligue Un season. Drogba went on to join English Premier League club Chelsea and win several titles.

In 2004, Diouf was recruited by Marseille as their general manager in charge of sports affairs and moved on to become the chairman of the club in the same year. Diouf later took over as president of Marseille in 2005 when French businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus became the biggest shareholder of the side.

Between 2005 and 2009 when he ruled, the French side finished twice in second position in the Ligue Un.

The French football league, Ligue de Football Professionnel described Diouf after he passed on this week “as a charismatic, endearing and passionate leader…who worked all his life in the service of football.”

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox 

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.