When I interviewed Patrick Vieira back in January, the former France and Arsenal star spoke of his pride at seeing Pape Souaré become the first Premier League player to have come from the Diambars Academy he helped set up in his native Senegal 16 years ago.
Souaré has been making a name for himself at Crystal Palace since arriving from French club Lille in January 2015, having graduated from Diambars. Now he is hoping for honours with Palace playing Watford in the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley this weekend.
Souaré admits to being flattered by the praise from Vieira, whom he first met when he was selected from national trials to join the academy in Saly, Senegal, in 2003.
‘I am very happy to hear this from him,’ he says as we shelter from the rain at Palace’s south London training ground. ‘I first met him when I was 13 and he selected me for his centre. There were 16 of us, and we used to travel a lot, playing in Norway and Spain against youth teams.’
One of his contemporaries, and still his best friend, was Idrissa Gueye, who followed Souaré to England when he joined Aston Villa last summer.
They both idolised Vieira as the first great player to emerge from Senegal, although he chose to play for France and helped them win the World Cup in 1998. But four years later, the tables were turned when Vieira was among the reigning world champions sensationally beaten 1-0 by Senegal in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup, the African nation’s first appearance and finest moment.
Souaré has happy memories of watching the game. ‘Papa Bouba Diop, who scored, lived in the same town as me and I remember it well. I went outside and everybody was out celebrating. Everybody in the country was very, very happy.’
But Souaré moved to France when he got the chance to join Lille in 2008, along with Gueye. ‘It was difficult at first, because I had to adapt to the cold weather in northern France but it helped that I was with my friend Gueye.’
‘It is the dream of every player in Africa to be in the Premier League.’
But the lure of the Premier League was strong. ‘Every player wants to come to England because of the big names here, and it is the dream of every player in Africa to be in the Premier League. Palace came in for me and I am very happy to be here now.’
Because of Souaré’s performances, Palace are getting well-known in Senegal. ‘My family and friends watch every game on TV and everyone in my home town knows all about Palace.’
But his arrival 18 months ago was not his first experience of England’s big stadiums, having played for Senegal in the 2012 Olympics. ‘I played at Old Trafford and Wembley, my first big tournament with the national team and it was amazing to walk out on the pitches and hear the noise of the crowds. It stayed in my mind that I wanted to play in England.’
It has been such a topsy-turvy season for Palace.
He is back at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final, hoping to book a return ticket for the final in May but it has been such a topsy-turvy season for Palace that no-one knows what will happen. A great start to the season included victory at Chelsea among others, with the Eagles soaring as high as fifth place, but a slump after Christmas took Palace to the fringes of the relegation battle.
‘We had a difficult time before beating Norwich recently and have to finish the season strongly.’
He will play in African Cup of Nations qualifiers in the summer and hopes to qualify for the World Cup in 2018. ‘That is my next ambition.’
Souaré sees signs that many more players from Senegal can make it in,England but does not agree with Vieira’s view that African youngsters need to join European clubs in order to develop fully because the resources are not there.
‘Diambars is the best centre in Senegal.’
‘It depends where you are. Diambars is the best centre in Senegal and we did all our development there – it was really only a final year in Lille. But of course only 16 players each year can make it to Diambars, so maybe others need to go elsewhere.’