Did a soccer team sign a player because of a hoax played on the club's manager?
Association football history is littered with players who were given a chance to play in the Premier League in England (the top football league in the country) or in Serie A in Italy (the Italian equivalent to the Premier League) and not only failed, but flamed out quickly and spectacularly. There have been many legends told about these flame-outs. Heck, in a previous Sports Urban Legend installment, I examined the legend of Luther Blissett and how exactly he came to be signed by AC Milan for a disastrous season in Serie A (you can read that story here). One of the craziest stories, though, involves a Senegalese football player named Ali Dia who actually managed to con himself on to a British Premier League team (and even saw an action in a Premier League game!)!
Read on to see how he managed to pull it off...
Born in 1965 in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, Ali Dia spent the late 1980s and early 1990s playing for a variety of small non-league football clubs in France, Germany and, by the mid 1990s, England. Dia had failed try-outs for a number of smaller league football clubs in England. In 1996, he appeared in one game for the semi-professional Blyth Spartans in Blyth, Northumberland, England. Where he ended up playing next would astound everyone. You see, Dia and another person (some reports say it was his agent, but I don't know if we'll ever have a definitive answer on it, so I think it is better to stick with referring to him as a friend of Dia's) had come up with a scam that would involve the friend calling teams in the Premier League and presenting himself as George Weah, the Liberian football player who was the reigning Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Player of the Year in 1995 (and who would later be named the African Player of the Century soon after)! Dia's friend had already tried West Ham United before convincing Southampton manager Graeme Souness that the actual George Weah was calling him and recommending his cousin Ali Dia, who had played with Weah at Paris Saint-Germain and had represented his native Senegal in international play.
Souness agreed to give Dia a try-out, and despite not exactly impressing his fellow Southampton players at his try-out, Souness still figured that Weah must know what he is talking about, so he gave Dia a trial contract with the team (I have seen conflicting reports as to the length of the contract - some say a month and some say a week. It doesn't really matter) and he was listed as one of the possible substitutes for Southampton's next game against Leeds on November 23, 1996. Southampton star player Matthew Le Tissier later recalled that after seeing Dia's weak try-out that they would never hear from the player again, only to see the next day, "Then when we turned up for the game against Leeds the following day, I was amazed to hear that he'd been named on the subs' bench. I think the picture of the faces of the boys must have been remarkable. Our jaws all dropped to the floor." Souness had told the media about what he thought was Dia's story, so the crowd knew about "Weah's cousin" being a member of the team the next day.
Amusingly enough, it was an injury to Le Tissier that led to Dia entering the game! Dia entered at the 32 minute mark in the game. Peter Harrison, Manager of the Blyth Spartans, was particularly floored, "Next thing I knew I was watching him on Match of the Day playing for Southampton which was pretty unbelievable." What is really interesting is that Dia actually nearly scored a goal soon after entering the game!! However, soon it became quite apparent that Dia had no place playing in a Premier League match. Le Tissier later recalled, "He ran around the pitch like Bambi on ice; it was very embarrassing to watch." So after just fifty-three minutes on the pitch, Souness actually had to put in a substitute for his substitute!! Ken Monkou entered for Dia and Dia never played another game for Southampton.
Dia actually played eight games for a small non-league team in Gateshead, England (no doubt using his experience on Southampton as his pitch for being signed) before retiring from football period to go back to school. He graduated from Northumbria University in Newcastle in 2001 with a degree in business. Souness later stated, "I don't feel I have been duped in the slightest. That's just the way the world is these days."
Souness resigned as Southampton manager after the 1996-97 season, his only season in Southampton.
So, amazingly enough, this story is...
Thanks to David Hills of the Observer, Thom Gibbs of the Telegraph and Paul Bradbury for the great quotes for the piece!
Be sure to check out my website, Sports Legends Revealed, for more sports urban legends! I have archives of all the past urban legends featured on the site in the categories of: Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey and the Olympics.
Photo: Ali Dia. Credit: Associated Press.