x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Dhafra striker Makhete Diop stays rooted to his humble beginnings

Senegalese forward credits his father, a former player and coach, for his work ethic with Al Dhafra, writes Amith Passela.

After he learnt to play in his native Senegal, Al Dhafra striker Makhete Diop, right, came to the UAE, where he is the league’s fifth-leading scorer and has amassed 27 goals in all competitions this year. Christopher Pike / The National
After he learnt to play in his native Senegal, Al Dhafra striker Makhete Diop, right, came to the UAE, where he is the league’s fifth-leading scorer and has amassed 27 goals in all competitions this year. Christopher Pike / The National

The image of groups of African children playing football barefoot on dusty unmarked pitches using whatever they can find for goalposts may seem like a cliche. But it is a reality you will see across a continent that is in love with the Beautiful Game.

This was Makhete Diop's experience growing up in Louga, Senegal – he joined his friends every day for a game of football wherever they could find space for a pitch, no matter how dangerous the terrain.

"Like most kids in the country I started playing the game in the streets," says the 24-year-old forward who plays for Al Dhafra.

"It is a very hard journey for young aspiring footballers in Africa, should anyone decide to pursue in a career as a player. The competition is very tough and the survival tougher.

"To compete in such tough environment makes you combative and stronger, both mentally and physically.

"I know a lot of youngsters want to follow in the path of those who made it to the top-flight clubs in Europe. Not many do even at the top flight in the local clubs.

"But there is no shortage of those who try however hard it may be because they know if they can make it their future will be comfortable."

Diop was fortunate because he had his father Alioune, a former player and later coach at a local club, to guide him through his pursuit of a career in football.

"My father asked me what I want to be when I grow up and my answer was to play football," Diop says.

"He then asked me if I was willing to work to achieve my objectives, and I told him I was.

"He prepared a training schedule for me which was a fitness schedule in the morning before going to school and a longer second session after school which included skill-drills and playing.

"My father was behind me all the time and if I owe anything for the success I have had so far is all due to him.

"He not only guided me in my game but instilled discipline in me, which I think was the key."

Diop has maintained that focus in his adult years and is constantly trying to improve his game. He does not have much time for socialising.

"When I am not training, I want to relax in my room," he says. "I may go to the beach or to a cafe. I have been to the Dubai Mall three times, that's the only outings I have had, since I arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2011.

"I know how hard it was for me to get to this point in my career. I want to achieve more and that means more hard work. I played for Senegal in the age-group team and now my ambition is to play for the senior team.

"It is quite tough but that is my long-term objective and such hopes will keep me motivated."

Diop began his journey in the youth team for Port Autonome in Dakar, in 2006, and moved to ASC Yakaar in the city of Rufisqe in 2008.

He transferred to the Saudi club Al Watani in the following year and spent one season each at Nejmeh in Lebanon and Al Karamah in Syria, where he was the top scorer in both leagues.

At Dhafra, Diop has been prolific, averaging a goal a game with 27 goals in all competitions, helping the Abu Dhabi minnows –who train in the capital but play their home matches in the Western Region – to a respectable ninth place in the Pro League this season.

"The Pro League is at a good level," he says.

"There are very good foreign and local players. For me, as a professional player, it doesn't matter where I play and to whom I play, I want to do my best."

Diop arrived at Dhafra on a one-year loan from Karamah and, after his first season where he played a key role in club's survival in the Pro League, he was given a two-year permanent contract until June 2014.

Diop is the second boy in a family of six – three girls and three boys – and all of them are football fans who have given him their full support throughout his career.

"I came the hard way up and I know the difficulties," Diop says. "I know the gravity of the hard work and I know the success and failures of the young African footballers."

Diop lists Galatasaray and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba as his role model. Abdulsalaam Jumaa, his captain at Dhafra, thinks his teammate has a bright future ahead.

"His discipline and commitment is remarkable and very rare," says the veteran Emirati midfielder.

"I haven't come across a player so dedicated to his work than Makhete. I think he has the potential to play for any big clubs in the Pro League or elsewhere.

"I wouldn't want to miss him in my team but to be honest; any big club in the Pro League would like to have him, now that he has proved his capabilities with us. It is up to him to decide where he wants to play."

apassela@thenational.ae

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