THE HEART AND SOUL OF KHALILOU FADIGA

THE HEART AND SOUL OF KHALILOU FADIGA
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‘Bouba Diop is there!’ …

There is a short but telling pause. John Motson, one does sense, must have been comfortable in the knowledge that nothing would shock him on the pitch that day, that in the world of football he had simply seen too much. And yet the commentator older than time itself, and whose trademark sheepskin coat is probably even older than that, is lost for words. He is forced to repeat himself, this time louder, certainly, but somehow more hesitant, more noticeably taken aback.

… ‘Bouba Diop is there!’

Again, momentary silence.

Papa Bouba Diop was there on May 31, 2002; ‘there’ of course being the edge of France’s six-yard box in the opening game of that year’s World Cup. But he was not the only one to star in Seoul that day.

There was El-Hadji Diouf, way back when he was known by the title of African Footballer of the Year rather than simply ‘Sewer Rat’; there was Aliou Cissé, whose shackling of Thierry Henry made him the instant envy of dozens of Premier League defenders; and there was coach Bruno Metsu, whose counter-attacking tactics proved a perfect fit for his talented, high-octane squad. But there was also Khalilou Fadiga.

Fadiga started his career, like the vast majority of his compatriots, in the land of his country’s old colonial masters, France. Initially picked up by Paris Saint Germain, he was let go soon afterwards, then joining their city neighbours Red Star 93. A move to Belgium quickly followed, Fadiga playing regular football for the first time in his fledgling career. RFC Liège and then Lommel came calling, until, at the age of 23, he established himself as Club Brugge’s star winger. Helping them to the Belgian title in his first season, Fadiga developed a taste for the UEFA Cup and Champions League; though an infrequent goal-getter, he shone on the left side and was rewarded with a first international call-up in the year 2000. (Initially, Fadiga had enquired about the possibility of representing Belgium at international level (he held a Belgian passport by virtue of his wife), but was told that the chances for inclusion were slim.)

Khali’s European adventures continued into the next decade. He earned a move to AJ Auxerre, returning to the country to which he had first moved aged six. Striking up a more than fruitful partnership with Djibril Cisse, the Senegalese further bolstered his reputation as a powerful, rangy winger with the canny knack of being able to create something out of nothing. The caps kept coming for his country, meanwhile, Fadiga becoming a lynchpin of the side that, in the same year as that Bouba Diop goal, reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations (they lost 3-2 on penalties, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon proving that the Lions of Teranga still had at least some way to go).

But it was in Korea and Japan that the career of Khalilou Fadiga really took off although things didn’t start so well. Before any football had been played, before the first match had even kicked off, Fadiga had stolen—as a ‘prank’—a necklace worth £170 from a jewellers in Korea; it was only by the good grace of the shopkeeper, a Mr Lee Seung-Yol, that he was not prosecuted, instead receiving from Mr Lee a letter of forgiveness and a golden pig (which is, I’m reliably informed by the BBC report, ‘a traditional good-luck token in South Korea’).

Jewel theft aside, however, his World Cup performances were outstanding. In the famous win over France, colonised overcoming colonisers, the winger was a constant outlet, a constant threat. Metsu ordered his midfield to press the opposition hard from the outset, and press they did; it was Omar Daf robbing Youri Djorkaeff which led to Diop’s goal, but such was the effort of the Senegalese that it could have been any one of them. Later in the game, Fadiga would flummox Chelsea’s Franck LeBoeuf (admittedly France’s weak link), driving into the penalty box before sending him one way, and then the other, and eventually rattling a fierce shot against the crossbar of Fabien Barthez. Against Denmark, the winger set up Salif Diao for what was arguably the goal of the tournament: a scintillating counter-attacking move to level things up at 1-1. And against Uruguay, Fadiga coolly stroked home a penalty, sending the helpless Fabián Carini the wrong way in what ended a thrilling 3-3 draw. Suspended against Sweden, he returned for their quarter final clash with Turkey, only to see his side beaten by an extra time Ilhan goal. Nevertheless, in a stand out team, Khali was himself a stand out.

With Arsenal, Liverpool, Bordeaux and Inter all sniffing around, just part of a plethora of potential suitors, Fadiga seemed destined to move onto bigger and better things. Preferring Italy, for now, to England or another French club, he joined Italian giants Inter in 2003 (though not before he had helped Auxerre to the Coupe de France that same year, overcoming his former youth club PSG in the final); it is worth noting that of all the 2002 Senegalese alumni, it was only Diouf and Salif Diao who had moved to clubs with anywhere near the Nerazzurri’s level of prestige, both being snapped up by Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool. Fadiga upon his arrival at the San Siro called the switch ‘beautiful’ and told the Inter fans that ‘I cannot wait to start this adventure.’ The scene was set for Serie A’s new African star.

And then, without warning, it struck. Disaster. ‘Honestly, I can’t understand what is happening,’ the Senegalese told La Gazzetta dello Sport. ‘I have nothing to hide.’ Fadiga was speaking about concerns raised by Inter’s medical staff about the state of his heart. In the examination carried out before the transfer, doctors had found that the winger was suffering from an irregular heartbeat; Inter pushed ahead with the signature regardless—an indication of the player’s quality—with cardiologist Pedro Brugada concluding that there was ‘nothing to prevent him playing football.’ This was what Fadiga believed. As far as he was concerned: ‘Everything is fine, apart from a bit of stress and a problem with my right knee which I've had for ages and didn't stop me playing more than 60 games for Auxerre and Senegal last season.’

But Brugada’s diagnosis was wrong. Worryingly, more accurate was the assessment of Bruno Caru, a heart consultant working closely with the club. He told the Italian media that ‘Fadiga’s life is at risk… He has a problem that could cause cardiac arrest… and it’s surprising how he’s managed to play up until now.’ His time at Inter was over almost before it began: in a year with the Nerazzurri, Fadiga did not appear in a single competitive game; indeed, it was doubtful if he would ever play again. He underwent major heart surgery to correct the defect and was released from his contract, his future uncertain, his talent wasted, and most of all, his health still in danger.

Next stop: Bolton Wanderers. Still Fadiga did not give up on the game he loved; when Sam Allardyce took the risk on offering the winger a one-year contract, he relished the opportunity. It was a step down, to be sure, but he didn’t care—he just wanted to play football again. ‘We like it here at Bolton, Dioufy and me,’ he explained. ‘I don’t like the weather or it being so grey, but the people are so friendly.’

But then, another setback, a major setback. In October 2004 Fadiga was named on the bench for Bolton’s Carling Cup tie at home to Tottenham Hotspur. As the teams were warming up, however, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Bodies swarmed round a collapsed white-shirted player. Kevin Davies and Henrik Pedersen ran like madmen, seeking any medical help they could find. Fadiga had again collapsed, his unconscious body taken to the Reebok Stadium’s medical room, from whence an ambulance picked the player up and drove him to a local hospital. He was not yet 30 years old.

But still he did not give up.

Fadiga was taken in for surgery once more, this time being fitted with a defibrillator. Professor Marcello Chimienti, who claimed to have first diagnosed Fadiga at Inter, strongly urged him to retire: ‘Fadiga should live his life quietly and give up playing football,’ he said. ‘It is extremely dangerous for him to want to continue playing while wearing a defibrillator. It is a device that can stop just as easily as it can work. The machine is so delicate, if it gets hit by a ball during a match or if the player falls on to his shoulder or takes a kick from an opponent, it will stop functioning - and this will lead to his instant death.’ The winger’s response was bullish—some would say foolish. ‘What this man… does not seem to appreciate,’ he asserted, ‘is that the defibrillator is not by my shoulder but behind my ribs.’ And with that he brushed off all talk of retirement. ‘I just want to play football. It’s as simple as that.’

Unbelievably, Khali did continue to play football, defibrillator and all. He returned for Bolton against Ipswich in the Cup and impressed—especially so given that this was his first senior start for more than a year and a half. He even grew impatient at his lack of game time! ‘They tell me ‘just be patient’ but I can’t. I have waited so long. I want it now. I am ready now.’ And, yet again, ‘I just want to play football.’

Fadiga was sent out to Derby County on loan at the start of the next season. He made only four uneventful appearances. A return to Bolton saw some more game time, including a return to European club competition in the UEFA cup. But Fadiga never returned to his often-dazzling peak. Allardyce released the player in 2006 before he was picked up on a short-term contract by Coventry. He soldiered on but failed to impress.

Again released, Fadiga returned to Belgium—his former stomping ground and home of his wife—with Gent and later Beerschot and KSV Temse. Appearances for these clubs were few and far between, but his love for football still shone through. One particularly memorable occasion springs to mind: having said that he would pack up his sandals and ride his bicycle from Belgium to Senegal should he be recalled to the national squad, one fan—named Samba Gningue—actually did cycle the length of Senegal to meet his hero; upon arriving in Dakar and meeting the squad, Fadiga was so touched by the fan’s gesture that he provided him with full use of his 5* accommodation for the night. The fan, president of the city of Tambacounda’s ‘Fadiga Fan Club’, explained: ‘He recently said that if he had to cycle from his home in Belgium to Senegal to make it back into the national side, he would… I love Khali anyway, he is my hero because he is always so proud to play for Senegal.’

In 2011, and in his mid-30s, Khali retired from football. But what next for the man who just wouldn’t give up? Bruno Metsu, his former coach, has tipped him for a managerial role with Senegal: ‘I really think Khali would be a winner [in that role].Since retirement, though, he has mainly been working as an agent and pundit. With everything he’s been through, I’m willing to bet he’s a tad more insightful in that latter role than, say, Alan Shearer. But I digress. To borrow the terminology of another sport (one, I suspect, not so popular in Senegal), it was, against the odds, a long and successful innings.

When Papa Bouba Diop scuffed and scrambled the ball past Barthez, and thus Senegal past France, in 2002, no one knew what was in store for those Senegalese players. As it turns out, the majority have had successful if unremarkable careers at the top level (but not the very top) in England and France. Khalilou Fadiga could have been different; the innings was long and successful, but it could have been so much better, so much more. Still, his heart may have failed him in a literal sense; but in a way, it was his very heart, his soul, that kept Khalilou Fadiga fighting for so long.

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