This Thursday I finally met the ever present KAS Eupen player Diawandou Diagne. On a very wet lunch time in East Belgium, I managed to travel through Cologne and Aachen, down into the small town where amongst the residential areas stood a stadium that looked almost brand new. After a brief wait where every player not only exchanged pleasantries, they also introduced themselves before I even had the chance to say hello. With such manners from such a young squad, I could tell De Pandas coming through The Aspire Academy were being taught more than just football.
When I finally had the chance to sit with the defender/midfielder in a casual setting, the interview took place in a slightly noisy lunch room in the players lounge.
So Diawandou, how do you feel the season has gone?
Not bad. The season was good because our aim was to stay in the first division and we made it. Now we’re in the play offs. Our objective was to be first and play the final of the play offs, but that didn’t happen so our aim is to play and win and finish the season well. For me, the season was good.
After the last minute draw against Standard Liege I thought you may have been relegated. Did the team ever doubt themselves and think they’d go down?
We never gave up. Our aim was to stay in this division. That game was here and they equalised but the team never dropped their level because everybody was saying ‘we can do it’. We can be in the first division and we had to keep fighting. We need to deal with some mistakes we were creating because we were doing so many in the last minute, losing so many points in the last minute like Standard here and Lokeren here too. If we wanted to stay up we needed to stop doing this.
To be more discplined as a group?
We need to be more organised. At the start we did a lot of running for each other for the team, because that’s the most important thing.
Did you think age was a factor? With such a young squad, do you think that may have came into play?
That’s true, because we are the youngest team in Belgium. We have so many here with not much experience. Some day they come from the academy in Africa and then they’re playing in the first division. It is not easy for them because to deal with the climate, fans, teams, etc. It’s not easy because sometimes in the academy you play in tournaments, but here you’re playing for your family, your living and the club.
So do you see football more difficult now that it’s your job?
Yes because for me, professional football is not easy. It’s really difficult because 5 years ago you’re at the academy, living isn’t the same. Now you’re in your own house, eating here (at the club) and you have to deal with just yourself. In the academy everything was done for you. It’s not the same.
On a personal note, how do you think you’ve performed this season?
For me it was good because last season I played a little bit because of my shoulder. After that I had an operation and missed a lot of the season, but this season was good for me. I’ve played almost every game and I feel this year was a good season for me.
You’ve only kept four clean sheets in the league all season. Would you feel you need to work more on the defensive side?
For me the first target is to defend well. We are a team where nearly every game we score at least 1 goal, but after we score we concede. For me the manager will need to deal with it for next season. To prepare to defend very well because our problem is to defend because we concede a lot. Defence for me is when everyone defends!
Because of your versatility, where is your preferred position?
I prefer to play in midfield. But if the manager says play in the centre (of defence) or left back or right back, I need to play to help the team because of injury and you need to help the coach.
Is there anyone you tried to base your game on as a child?
No…When you are a kid you just play. At Aspire they played me in many positions.
Did Aspire play you in all different positions to see where you fit and performed well?
They were doing that. For me, every position was not difficult.
You have left here and come back a couple of times. Do you feel at home in Belgium?
Yeah I feel at home here. I was here for 2 years, then went to Spain, and then come back and I knew Belgium. I feel comfortable here. I feel at home here and with this club and the supporters it’s really good. I feel great here.
I think I counted 17 African players at Eupen. Does that make you feel more comfortable at the club and does your experience of being here help them settle here too?
Every African player here, you have to make them feel at home. You need to make them feel better the first year because Belgium is really really good. You need to adapt to the weather and the league and to life in Europe.
Because you’ve said it’s really good here, do you think the Pro League is under appreciated?
The thing with Belgium is that it’s a league where other leagues look at the players. It’s not a top, top, top league. It’s still good but not the level of England or Germany or France. You see from this year Anderlecht and Genk go far in the Europa League.
Are there many differences between the Pro League and Spanish football?
It‘s not the same level as in Spain it’s so high. Almost all the teams want the ball, whereas here, sometimes here they wait for a corner or a free kick because they have so much height in the team. It’s different between here and Spain.
You say that because I love that in England you have Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham who play one style. Then you have West Brom, Stoke City and Crystal Palace who play another way. Do you like a mixed league like here in Belgium?
I do like that. You have Manchester City and Tottenham who can play both and mix it up. For me, England has the best football in the world. You can’t compare it with anywhere else. Very tough, very strong. To be in England you have to work really hard.
How good is the Aspire Academy?
For me, Aspire is the best in the world because you learn more than just football. You go to school in the morning and the afternoon and work hard. They have great facilities to play football.
Because the club has a lot youngsters, do you feel the club could eventually achieve something now that you’ve stayed up and reached the Croky Cup semi final?
I think it’s possible. We got to the semi final of the cup and stayed up. We have the top scorer (at the time). It’s not easy coming from the second division. For me the manager will have to deal with a lot of what we’ve already said first.
You mentioned the top scorer, do you think Henry Onyekuru will be here next season?
No. I think he’ll go. Many clubs are looking at him and for me he has had a great season and deserves more.
Do you know where he may go?
No I don’t. Many clubs like him and only he will decide where to go. For me I wish him all the best for wherever he goes. He is a great player and a great person.
Do you think it’s a negative if he leaves Belgium? With Tielemans going and the better players leaving?
No. They have to go and progress. We have great players coming through in Africa and Qatar and they can come and make it.
Picking up only 2 yellows cards is impressive. What do you feel is your best attribute?
For me it’s tough not to get a yellow card in defensive midfield. But I need to keep working and improving for next season because now the clubs know more about us.
Who is the toughest player you have come up against this season?
Why was he so tough?
Its not that his good technically, but he’s very strong and in the air too. And Hans Vanaken is very, very good. He impressed me also.
Do you feel you’ve warranted more starts for Senegal?
Did you feel Senegal were unlucky in the AFCON this season?
I feel we are the best team in Africa!
Lastly I decided to take the opportunity to ask about Saido Mane for my friend who is a massive Liverpool fan!
How good is Saido Mane?
We talk a lot. He is a top player, best player for Senegal.
I think he is quality and Liverpool are worse without him. What do you think?
For me, he is the best player in the Premier League this season!
As the interview came to an end, we simply shook hands as I was grateful that not only the player took time out his day for a chat, but the club arranged the chance for me to talk to him in the first place. A club that looked like they were here to stay in the Pro League, progression certainly looks on the cards for everybody involved at Eupen!