Raoul Diagne

Football's Pioneers: Raoul Diagne

In the latest edition of Football's Pioneers - in partnership with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture - Professor Matt Taylor looks at Raoul Diagne, a footballing pioneer in both France and Senegal.
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The son of a Senegalese civil servant and a French mother, Diagne was born in French Guiana in 1910.

Educated in Senegal, he migrated to France to pursue his studies and joined Racing Club de Paris as an amateur in 1930.

Just a year later, Diagne became the first black player to represent France when he appeared for Les Bleus in a 2-1 defeat against Czechoslovakia.

There was little hostility at the time, although Diagne’s father, a pioneer in his own field as the first African to be elected to the French Chamber of Deputies, was said to have disapproved of his son’s career choice.

During the 1930s, Diagne achieved considerable success in France’s new professional league.

With Racing Club, he won the prestigious league and cup double in 1936, and the French cup on two more occasions, in 1939 and 1940.

He also gained 18 caps for France and starred in the 1938 World Cup on home soil. Diagne was a big central defender (6ft 2in and 12 and a half stone) known for his stamina and fierce tackling.

He was also extraordinarily athletic and versatile, regularly supporting the attack and even, at times, playing in goal.

In 1931, he stood in for Racing’s regular goalkeeper for four months, repeating the feat during the first half of Racing’s 1935/36 double winning season when Austrian international Rudy Hiden fell out with the club.

A popular and colourful character, Diagne enjoyed Paris nightlife and struck up friendships with famous entertainers such as the actor Jean Gabin and the singer and dancer Josephine Baker.

Legend has it that he was seen walking the streets of the French capital with a cheetah on a leash. "He was called Rosso and he wasn’t aggressive at all", Diagne claimed. "But I had to give him up when he started to grow."

Diagne moved to Toulouse during the war, winning four consecutive regional titles. He finished his career in France with Annecy in 1946 and then returned to Dakar, where he became player-coach at US Gorée.

He later coached in Algeria, Belgium and France and, in 1960, after independence, he became the first national coach of Senegal.

Three years later, Diagne’s status as national hero was cemented when he oversaw Senegal’s first victory over France at the Friendship Games in Dakar.

Remembered as the ‘grandfather of Senegalese football’, Diagne was a pioneer in France and Senegal, contributing to the construction of the football culture of both nations.

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