A football player’s journey from Mali to Belgium

The Take follows the story of Abdoulaye Diaby, an athlete migrating for his sport.

Leonardo Sanchez (C) of Paraguay in action against Abdoulaye Diaby (L) of Mali during the FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2017 group B soccer match between Paraguay and Mali at the D Y Patil Stadium in Mumbai, India, 06 October 2017.
Leonardo Sanchez, centre, of Paraguay in action against Abdoulaye Diaby, left, of Mali during a FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2017 group match at DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai, India [Divyakant Solanki/EPA]

The World Cup is around the corner. Hundreds of the best football players across the planet will have the honour of competing for their country. But to become one of those players requires a huge amount of dedication, hard work and luck. Today, we’re sharing the story of one man trying to reach the top tiers of his sport.

In this episode: 

  • Benjamin Chevallier, co-director of Diaby: The Away Game

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Full episode transcript:

This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net. 


Malika Bilal: The World Cup is around the corner. Hundreds of the best football players across the planet will have the honour of competing for their country. But to become one of those players requires an endless amount of dedication, hard work, and luck. Today, we’re taking a break from the news for something a little bit different. We’re sharing the story of one man trying to reach the top tiers of his sport.

Abdoulaye Diaby: If I didn’t want to become a football player, I wouldn’t go to Belgium.

Malika Bilal: That’s Abdoluaye Diaby. He’s a football, or soccer, player from Mali. Back in 2018, he was a rising star in his home country. But to reach the next level of his career, he had to make a sacrifice. At the age of 18, Diaby left his family, friends, and home country behind to play for one of Belgium’s top teams. He’s one of the many African football players to go north to try and find success. His tumultuous first year abroad is the subject of a recent film from Al Jazeera’s award-winning program Witness.

Abdoulaye Diaby: They say it’s going to be hard: the climate, the lifestyle, the people. I’ve never lived alone far from home.

Malika Bilal: So, we’re bringing you the ups and downs of Diaby’s year in Belgium. I’m Malika Bilal, and this is the Take.


Malika Bilal: To share his story, we’re hearing from one of the filmmakers behind the documentary Abdoulaye Diaby: The Away Game.

Benjamin Chevallier: I’m Benjamin Chevallier. I co-directed the documentary called Diaby with another French director, Quentin Coulon. We directed this film together.

Malika Bilal: Benjamin and Quentin met Abdoulaye Diaby in 2016. They were studying cinema in Paris at the time. And during the summer they taught classes to young film students in Bamako, Mali’s capital.

Benjamin Chevallier: We were teaching classes during the day and after classes, at the end of the afternoon, we visited a very impressive football pitch nearby our home. So we went there because we were curious, we wanted to know what was this very beautiful football pitch in the middle of this city. So we asked one of the coaches, what team is playing here?

Football - Under-20 World Cup - Group E - Mali v France - Stadion GOSiR, Gdynia, Poland - May 31, 2019 France's Moussa Sylla in action with Mali's Abdoulaye Diaby.
France’s Moussa Sylla in action with Mali’s Abdoulaye Diaby in Gdynia, Poland on May 31, 2019 [Agencja Gazeta/Bartosz Banka via Reuters]


Benjamin Chevallier: And so this coach explained to us that was the training centre of the Djoliba AC, the Djoliba Athletic Club, which is basically the biggest football club in Mali, the oldest, the most prestigious club in Mali.

Malika Bilal: After that first visit, they came back and got to know the coach of Djoliba’s team for players under the age of 17.

Benjamin Chevallier: We were just watching the games and watching the trainings. And also little by little, we became friends with the players.

Malika Bilal: And one of those players was Abdoulaye Diaby, a defender for Djoliba Athletic Club’s youth team.

Benjamin Chevallier: Diaby’s reputation was rising when we met him. He was not a national star but he was definitely a local rising star, I would say. He was well known in Bamako.

Malika Bilal: As Benjamin mentioned, Djoliba is a prestigious club in Mali, which made Diaby famous in his hometown.

Benjamin Chevallier: So when you play in the Djoliba, whether you play for the A-team, the B-team, or the youngsters’ team, you are local celebrity. Everybody knows you. You walk in the street and people say hello, stuff like that. And also he was a local star because he was playing for the under 17 national team.

Malika Bilal: And that team won the African Cup of Nations in its age bracket.

Benjamin Chevallier: And in 2017, he was elected best African player of the under 17 African Cup of Nations, which was really a very strong achievement for him.

Malika Bilal: As Diaby’s star was rising, Benjamin and Quentin got to know him during their visits to the football pitch.

Benjamin Chevallier: And then it was the end of the summer. We came back to France. But we stayed in touch with Diaby through WhatsApp. And a few months later, he told us that he had been offered a contract by a big European football club. And so that you had the opportunity to go and to play soccer in, in Europe, in Belgium. So we thought it was amazing and we asked him if he was okay if we film his first season. He agreed and that’s basically how it all started.


Malika Bilal: Diaby was being offered a place at Royal Antwerp FC, the oldest football club in Belgium’s top league, in 2018. For many players, it would be a dream come true. But that wasn’t necessarily the case for Diaby.

Abdoulaye Abdoulaye Diaby: For me, Belgium is just a place where I can improve. It’s not that I want to go there. I’d rather stay at home.

Benjamin Chevallier: Contrary to a lot of his friends and contrary to a lot of his teammates, he was not dreaming about Europe. He was not fantasising about going to Europe, living the European way of life. He was actually living a very decent life in Bamako. But still, he wanted to make a living out of his abilities as a football player. He wanted to be able to live as a football player in financial terms. It’s very difficult to do that in Africa. So when he was offered this opportunity to go and play in Belgium, he made a pragmatic choice.

Abdoulaye Diaby: I’ll earn in five years what a Malian civil servant makes in a lifetime. I’ll sign a contract and other contracts until I’m 35. With that money, I’ll live the rest of my life and support my children and their children.

Malika Bilal: So with that pragmatism in mind, Diaby flew off to Belgium to begin his European career.

Abdoulaye Diaby: I was lucky. There were a lot of us. We grew up together. We did everything together. I just got lucky – a bit more lucky.

Malika Bilal: While the film obviously focuses quite a bit on Diaby’s sport, some of its most compelling moments come as he talks about the difference in his quality of life after the move, especially the sense of community.

Abdoulaye Diaby: I almost went crazy when I arrived. I’ve been here for seven months. I don’t know who lives across the hall. I only see people in the lift. No hello. No how are you? Nobody cares about anybody. Imagine coming here as an immigrant, hungry, you have no money and you don’t know anyone. You’re dead. In Mali, if you’re hungry, we’ll give you food. That’s the difference between Africa and Europe.

Benjamin Chevallier: The most difficult challenge he faced when he got to Europe was the loneliness he discovered. In Mali, he was living with his family in the same house.


Benjamin Chevallier: The house was completely open. Everybody was coming and going. And so he was always surrounded by the people he loved. Consequently, when you got to Europe, and he was alone in his apartment, it was very difficult for him and his smartphone basically became his best friend. I remember he was spending more than eight, nine hours a day on WhatsApp talking to his friend and his family back home. That’s, by the way, one of the reasons we decided to use excerpts from his WhatsApp conversation in the film. Because when you got to Europe, he was living as much on his phone as he was living in the real life.

Malika Bilal: At the same time, Diaby was contending with some more traditional challenges, like the change in the weather from Mali to Belgium.

Abel Ruiz of Spain (R) and Abdoulaye Diaby of Mali vie for the ball during the second semi final football match between Mali and Spain in the FIFA U-17 World Cup at the D.Y.Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai on October 25, 2017.
Abel Ruiz of Spain, right, and Abdoulaye Diaby of Mali vie for the ball during the second semi-final football match between Mali and Spain in the FIFA U-17 World Cup at the  DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai on October 25, 2017 [Punit Paranjpe/AFP]


Malika Bilal: And there was something else he struggled with, something that many other teens might relate to when moving out of their family home: what to eat.

Benjamin Chevallier: He was not even able to cook an egg, so it was completely disturbing for him. So he also had to learn to make food for himself. It’s very simple, but it was also a very big challenge actually for him. And at first, everything he was cooking for himself was completely not edible. So, it took time for him to adapt to this new adult European life actually.

Malika Bilal: Being a professional athlete made this transition into adulthood more complicated.

Benjamin Chevallier: He discovered that being a professional football player in Europe means that your everyday life is controlled outside of the pitch. So they control what you eat. They control when you go to sleep. They control what you drink, what you do during the weekends. Of course, you can not go to clubs. You cannot go to party. Otherwise, your performances will not be as good. And for Diaby, it was difficult because he was a teenager. In Mali, he was eating what women were making for him. It was not always very good nutrition. In Mali, it was not uncommon that he was eating rice from Monday to Sunday every day and without any meat or stuff like that. Not because he was poor, but just because it was like very rare to find good meat in Bamako. When he got to Europe and he discovered that you had to eat a certain amount of meat during a week, that he had to eat fruits, that he had to eat vegetables, that it was not a good thing to go to a McDonald’s or fast food or kebabs every weekend. And for a teenager, it was yeah, it was also difficult because he had to control himself. He was a teenager with a very controlled life with nutritionists following him, so there is a contradiction there, I think.

Abdoulaye Diaby: I don’t know what to do in this town. I can’t live like a European teenager. I’m focused on football. I play ball and I rest. I play ball and I rest.

Malika Bilal: On top of that, Diaby wasn’t finding the immediate success he expected upon his move to Belgium. First of all, he was playing for Royal Antwerp’s B-team. It’s not the team that you’d watch on TV each weekend; it’s a reserve team. And so Diaby found himself in a position he hadn’t encountered before.

Abdoulaye Diaby: In Mali, everybody knows me. Everybody knows what I can do. Here, nobody knows me. I have to prove who I am. So when I play, I think more about my personal performance than about the clubs.

Benjamin Chevallier: In Mali, he was really a rising star.


Benjamin Chevallier: He was used to be the most important player of his team. He is very confident in himself. When he got to Europe, the biggest challenge in terms of football was to rebuild all that.

Abdoulaye Diaby: I want to move up to the A-team. I just think about playing. Well, I only think about myself. I just want to show who I am and every time I play, I need to outdo myself. I need to make a name for myself all over again.

Benjamin Chevallier: It was difficult because when he got to Antwerp, he had to prove himself to everybody. He had to show that he had the ability to play there. And at the beginning, he didn’t play so well because the football was different. So he felt that he was not recognised as the talented football player he was. He spent the first six months being on the bench, which never happened to him. So watching that change from our perspective as directors was, of course, very sad.

Malika Bilal: Over the course of the documentary, Benjamin and Quentin documented some of Diaby’s career lows. It’s hard to watch at times.

Abdoulaye Diaby: Since I was born, I’ve never played that badly. I’ve never been shown the red card, but yesterday I got one. I’d never scored my own goal. Yesterday, I did. I know it’ll get better with time. I didn’t get here by accident.

Benjamin Chevallier: In the film, you can feel that Diaby is very strong in his head.


Benjamin Chevallier: So he managed to overcome this first moment of difficulties. Yes, his confidence in himself was shaken, but it was not destroyed. So it was hard at first but thanks to his determination, he managed to overpass this difficult moment.

Malika Bilal: Towards the end of the film, Diaby is waiting to see what the next year holds for him. Not much about his future lies in his own hands. And he makes a comparison:

Abdoulaye Diaby: They gambled money on me. They said he can play. Let’s buy him. We can use him. Like you buy your smartphone. If you want to sell it, you sell it. If it’s damaged, you throw it away. If it’s old, you throw it away.

Benjamin Chevallier: It’s not that he’s sad or that he’s disappointed or that he’s disillusioned. It’s more that he became aware of what it means to be a football player in Europe. When you play for the big clubs, most of all you’re a financial asset.

Malika Bilal: Eventually, Diaby was loaned to another Belgian team, because at the end of the day, like Benjamin said, being a football player is being a financial asset. And when that loan was finished, he was transferred to yet another team, in yet another country – Hungary. And while that might seem like a jarring move, Benjamin says he found more success there.

Benjamin Chevallier: He has been in this new club a year and a half now and it’s going very well for him.

Malika Bilal: Benjamin says that despite all the difficulties Diaby faced in his first year abroad, his story is a success story.

Mauritania's defender Bakary Ndiaye (R) is marked by Mali's forward Abdoulaye Diaby during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) football match between Mali and Mauritania at the Suez Stadium in Suez on June 24, 2019.
Mauritania’s defender Bakary Ndiaye, right, is marked by Mali’s forward Abdoulaye Diaby during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations football match between Mali and Mauritania at the Suez Stadium in Suez on June 24, 2019 [Fadel Senna/AFP]


Malika Bilal: We might hear about some of the star African players who move to Europe and quickly become international names, but they’re a rarity. There are tons of young players who go abroad and never manage to break into an A-team, like Diaby eventually did.

Benjamin Chevallier: Filming Diaby was most of all I think a human experience because yes, we made the film and yes this film shows his discovery of a new world in a way. But it was also the beginning of a great relationship for me. We became very good friends during the shooting. And we were actually in Budapest, with Quentin two weeks ago to visit him. And we didn’t have any camera gear, no microphones, nothing. We just went there to spend quality time with him. After this first moment of difficulties in Europe, he’s finally getting everything together. And I’m sure that in the upcoming years he will even go further.

Abdoulaye Diaby: They say you want to go? We want you to go. I say, okay, I’ll go. Pay me and I’ll go. It’s to play football, too, right?

Malika Bilal: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Negin Owliaei with Ruby Zaman, Amy Walters, Alexandra Locke, Chloe K. Li, Ashish Malhotra, and me, Malika Bilal. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is our head of audio. Special thanks to Adam Elrashidi. We’ll be back.

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by Negin Owliaei with our host, Malika Bilal. It was fact-checked by Ruby Zaman.

Our production team includes Chloe K. Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters and Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.

Source: Al Jazeera