May has been a strange month at the end of a controversial season for Mbaye Diagne. But the Senegal striker says unhappy recent experiences will make him even more effective on the pitch whenever, and wherever, he is allowed to play again.
“I am so hungry,” says the 28-year-old from his home in Dakar, where he has been since last Thursday, the day before Club Brugge were confirmed as Belgian champions but snubbed him in their online celebrations, prompting the player to republish a mocked-up team photo with his own head transposed on to that of the manager, Philippe Clement.
Other notable events from May include him hinting publicly at a transfer to Nottingham Forest – “unintentionally,” he says as part of a rather cryptic explanation to which we will return – buying sheep for disadvantaged families in the Dakar neighbourhood he grew up in, and having to call in lawyers to avoid being made homeless with his wife and two children after the tenancy of their Belgium home expired but they were unable to move owing to the coronavirus lockdown. That was a suitably fraught end to a short sojourn in Bruges, where Diagne, once among the most prolific scorers in Europe, was effectively declared persona non grata by Clement after a costly mistake in the Champions League six months ago.
Diagne’s worst season came immediately after his best. He went to Club Brugge on loan from Galatasaray, who had bought him seven months earlier from Kasimpasa: his combined tally for 2018-19 made him the top scorer in the Turkish league with 30 goals, 13 more than the second on the list. He then went to the Africa Cup of Nations and, though he did not score, made five appearances as Senegal finished runners-up. He got back to Turkey to find Galatasaray putting him up for loan to make way for Radamel Falcao. He says Newcastle, Everton and Crystal Palace expressed interest in him during his time in Turkey but Club Brugge got a deal done and he was excited about playing for them in the Champions League. That experience soon turned sour.
His six domestic appearances for Brugge included only one start but he struck four goals in 178 minutes of action. “They told me they were saving me for the Champions League,” he says. He was left on the bench for November’s home tie with Paris Saint-Germain until, in the 67th minute, he was cast on with his side 1-0 down. “The manager said: ‘This is what we signed you for, to save us in the Champions League, now go out there and do it,’” says Diagne.
Nine minutes after his introduction he was tripped in the box by Thiago Silva as he was about to shoot. Hans Vanaken was supposed to take the penalty but Diagne refused to give him the ball. Clement raged on the sidelines. Keylor Navas stopped Diagne’s spot-kick. Brugge lost 1-0. Diagne and the manager had a furious row in the dressing room. He has not played since.
Diagne admits he was in the wrong but says his punishment has been excessive. “I shouldn’t have taken the penalty,” he says. “But I was so fired up to help the team when I went on that, when I won it, I thought I had to take it to get the goal I had been asked to get. It was just the adrenaline and the determination to help.”
Clement told the press that Diagne would be fined heavily but the player says that never happened; instead he was given the cold shoulder. “I apologised to the players and the manager but I was banished,” he says. “I came in and trained my hardest every day but was never called for the matchday squads. He was picking players ahead of me whom I respected but who, honestly, weren’t at the same level as me.
“After a while I went to the manager and asked what was going on and he just said: ‘I make the decisions, I’m the boss.’ After that he just ignored me. For my last three months at Brugge he didn’t say a word to me, not so much as a ‘hello’. I think he never wanted me in the first place. It was other people at the club who had persuaded me to go there. I think he took advantage of my penalty miss to make a point.”
After finally leaving Belgium, a player whose career began in earnest at Juventus and has included spells in France, Hungary and China is preparing to return to Turkey, the country he has enjoyed most. But he does not know Galatasaray’s plans. “I’m very happy to play for them but I don’t know if they intend keeping me. I haven’t spoken to them yet. Some people say they need to get some big earners off the payroll but I don’t know who that means. If they decide they need to sell me, then I’m sure I’ll find somewhere that suits my style.”
Such as Forest? After Turkish media reported this month that the Championship side were close to agreeing a transfer for him, he published on Instagram a photo of himself and the Forest crest, along with a message about destiny, truth and a lion never dying. Forest fans got excited but what did it mean? “I posted it but I didn’t realise what was on it, and it certainly wasn’t anything official,” he says. “But once it was done, it was done. It wasn’t intentional.”
So have Forest been in touch? “Not with me,” he says. “Any negotiations would have to go through Galatasaray and I don’t know if anyone has been in touch with them.”
Diagne says the only England-based people who have been in contact with him recently are friends who play in the Premier League and tell him it would suit him perfectly. Aston Villa’s Trézéguet, for instance, supplied many of Diagne’s goals at Kasimpasa. “We talk regularly and he keeps saying I would thrive in England. I’m big and strong, I can hold up the ball and lay it off, I’m good in the air and I’m a finisher. All I know is that, whether at Galatasaray or somewhere else, I am eager to get back playing and scoring again.”