MARSEILLE, France, Apr 1 – Tributes poured in Wednesday for former Marseille president Pape Diouf, who has died aged 68 after contracting the coronavirus.
Diouf, who became the first ever black president of a top European football club, died on Tuesday in Dakar, his family told AFP.
The former journalist and football agent led the club between 2005-2009 and helped build the side that lifted the Ligue 1 title in 2010.
“He was a man of conviction, a man of wit and passion for the game and all those involved in it,” said French World Cup-winning national coach Didier Deschamps, who was recruited as Marseille coach by Diouf in 2009. “His sudden and brutal passing saddens me deeply.”
Diouf was hospitalised in Senegal after contracting the virus there and became the country’s first COVID-19 fatality.
He had been due to leave for Nice earlier on Tuesday to be treated in France, but a sharp deterioration in his health — which saw him placed on a respirator — prevented him from boarding the plane.
Moving to Marseille from Senegal aged 18, he was set to follow in the footsteps of his father, a World War II veteran, by embarking on a career in the military. But he soon switched paths.
After dropping out of university he worked at the La Marseillaise newspaper before changing careers to become a football agent, handling some of Africa’s top talent including Didier Drogba, who enthralled Marseille’s Stade Velodrome in 2003-04.
He was brought on to the club’s payroll as general manager in 2004 and a year later rose to become president, “a difficult post, where there were very few men from diverse backgrounds,” said Jacques-Henri Eyraud, the club’s current president.
– Painful –
“But he fought tooth and nail, and won the hearts of thousands of supporters.”
Diouf was acutely aware of the lack of diversity in the boardrooms of European clubs, telling an interviewer in 2008 that it was painful to him that he was the only black president of a European club.
“I am the only black president of a European club. It’s a painful observation” but one that “fits the image of a European society, especially French society, that excludes ethnic minorities,” he said.
Nevertheless fans at the Velodrome embraced the ever popular figure who was eventually forced out by internal differences in the boardroom in 2009.
“Pape will remain in the hearts of the Marseillais forever, as one of the great architects in the club’s history,” Marseille said in a statement.
Senegal President Macky Sall also paid tribute to “a great figure of sport” on Twitter.
“To his family, I offer, on behalf of the nation, my deepest condolences.”
In Ligue 1, his most bitter rival was always Lyon chief Jean-Michel Aulas. The pair traded barbs over the years but the bitter jibes veiled his respect for a “great president” said Aulas.
“I had profound respect for him,” Aulas said. “He was a great president and very successful one.”
“He knew football, the media, the agents and the players,” said Louis Acaries, adviser to Marseille’s then owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus.
“But above all he was a man. And a good man.”