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Football, and the Illusion of the Quick Route to Success

In this second episode, we’re talking about football (soccer). Our guest Insa Diagne left his hometown in the north of Senegal in the eighties to play professionally in Kortrijk, Flanders, Belgium. Only 17 years old, he experienced firsthand how the insistent search for African talent created a stream of young West Africans travelling to Europe.  

Confronted with today’s perception of a professional football player and the changing perceptions of these talent’s entourage, Insa decided to act. He developed a model for using sports as a vector for social change. Through his association ASSCAN, he’s putting theory to practice, changing the young minds of his community daily. 


Insa: I think I could have stayed in Senegal doing what I was doing, passing my Baccalaureate, going to university and continuing to play in the neighborhood, playing navétanes. I didn’t realize that this talent I had could take me elsewhere.

Marianne: The person talking is Insa Diagne. And the talent he is talking about is football. I went to meet him and find out about his motivation to leave his country, all alone, 32 years ago, to play football in Belgium.

Insa: What made me leave wasn’t because of anyone close to me. There was just a side to my love of football … I loved football. I didn’t realize that I had this talent, but I loved football. I loved football and I wanted to play it in the best possible conditions. So, my dream as a footballer was to be able to play on good quality grass pitches, with very good quality balls, to have the opportunity to travel in quality buses because I missed all that in Senegal.

Marianne:: Insa left Senegal in the 1980s when he was not yet 18 years old. Even for his time, it was young.

Insa: At the time, it was already possible to go and play football in Europe from Senegal. The Senegalese footballer who went to Europe was already a talented footballer here, who was already and international player and this easily recruited. I arrived in Belgium in 1989. Immediately after passing my tests, the club’s first reaction was to say: we want more of that. And so it happened. In the five months following my arrival in Belgium, I think we welcomed at least five more players for tests. Four of them did not pass, but they didn’t return to Senegal. I told myself: “this is crazy, irregular immigration started here”. Except that today, it’s almost like “I’m going to Europe, when I get there, I might find a club”. There’s the difference.

Marianne: I wanted to know if other people around him made the same observation. Were others also aware that something strange was going on?  

Insa: I was talking with a friend, a former teammate who is now an agent. We were talking about today’s football proven players like Dimitri Payet, a French international playing for Marseille. At one point, he said: “The players today are different from us”, I say ah yes, why? – ”They are disbelieving, and they are credulous; they always have big problems”. Reflecting on this, I asked myself: what has changed about the 17-year-old I was, who wanted to go and play in Europe, and all the other friends who were with me, compared to this 17-year-old today who also has this ambition to go and play in Europe? I think the question you should ask is: what did this 17-year-old make of this life before thinking of going to play football?

Insa: When I was 10 years old, my family didn’t think I was going to be a football player! On the contrary, my father didn’t want me to play at a high level with the risk of stopping school. It was the same for all my friends. Today, the family of a 10-year-old boy is already dreaming of the millions he can bring home when he’ll be 18 and playing football. I think the perception of a professional football player has changed a lot. I think that this economic dimension isn’t only within the young person himself but also within the people around him. It all comes down to their perception of what success is.

I think that what has changed is the social model that Senegal has had for more than 20 years. I think that all these problems of the young footballer: rapid success, compared to the slow success of the school, easy success, this fantasy of success…. We need to understand when this idea of immigration emerges in the minds of young people. When we were 16 or 17, when we went to play football, we didn’t have this idea in our minds. We already had TVs and we knew what life in Europe was like. That doesn’t mean we were prepared to do anything to go there. But today, from the age of 12 or 13, it’s already on their minds.

Marianne: It seems that unlike young people who dream of becoming the next Messi or Mbappe, the young Insa dreamed of something else, glory and sporting success were not his objectives, so he was … an international football talent despite himself.  

Insa: When I returned to Senegal, I didn’t have a bank account, cars or a villa. I didn’t have that kind of football career. Very early on, I told myself that football for money, for glory, isn’t the football I wanted. But I still wanted to play, and it allowed me to travel, and travelling means learning, meeting other people, discovering other cultures.

Marianne: His many trips around the world helped Insa gain many different experiences. But sport has never left his thoughts. It was during one of these trips that he realized what he wanted to do.

Insa: I’m thinking about using games as an educational vehicle. But using those games that we already know, like langa buri, a local game, or the sparrowhawk, the flag game, things like that, and insert awareness-raising messages inside for children. The child, while playing, experiences emotions. Starting from these emotions, we move enter the third level of the game, including educational messages. Games lead the way to skills development and important life lessons. We can use the internal logic of sports games to introduce educational messages, but there’s obviously the matter of different cultural contexts.

Marianne: Insa created his own association called ASSCAN, which currently implements several projects that use sport as a vehicle for education. He has been able to build partnerships with international NGOs including as Play International, helping them to take their first steps into Senegal… and to adapt to the local context.

Insa: Play wasn’t sure about fusing football in Senegal. They were afraid that if kids were playing football right next to us, our games wouldn’t work. I told them/ let’s start the activity. Some of the kids playing football, are going to stop and come participate because they know that they’ll still be playing football later. And this game is different. Why is that? Because these are fun games. Kids realize that as much as football is fun, it’s not always. Often, out of 11 against 11, there are only 7 kids who get to touch the ball. The others just run around the court. Only the best ones always touch the ball, whereas here in the game the facilitator’s role makes it easier for all children to participate. In this game, boys are also mixed with girls. Therefore, on an emotional level, it’s different from the emotions created by football game. There is no concern about performance, the child who is good or not good is not embarrassed. Very quickly, kids realize that they too have their place.

Marianne: How can a child build the bridge from games to educational messages? Insa explains that playing is only the start.

Insa: Let’s take a theme as an example: it could be irregular migration, but we did it with before also around malaria or education. We organise a meeting between kids and specialists. The children listen to them, but it doesn’t end there. The children take notes, we take notes with them, and then we organize a meeting within peer groups, with young people like them. They have debate on the theme with all the preconceived ideas they may have, supervised by professionals, and these meetings are filmed. But in all these meetings, we have our group of children in the programme that we want to raise awareness of. We organize these meetings with professionals, meetings with groups of peers, and from there we film all the activity. And we edit it with the support of our group, creating a synthesis of what to retain or not retain?

When the children have done this synthesis, always helped by the supervisors, the facilitators will draw out what they thought was important. Sometimes, they may think that what’s important is a preconceived idea. So that’s facilitator’s work. From there, the final synthesis that the children draw from it is not one that we have made for them but with them.  And as a result, they can recognize themselves in these messages and because they recognize themselves in these messages, they will carry them out. Now, the kids go see the adults of their community and discuss with them what they have learnt. There’s an intergenerational approach, where it is the children who are now carrying the message and going to the adults to talk about it.

Marianne:: I understand now why Insa decided to target young children, to develop certain concepts. But I also wonder what his relationship is with these young adults, men and women, who are in the phase of their lives where they aspire to travel… What is his opinion? 

Insa: There was once a young man, a younger brother… We work together on a youth project and our partners, Sport sans Frontières, visited regularly. My brother worked on the project as a facilitator. One day, one of my friends working for the NGO in France called me to say: “Your brother called me: he wanted me to send him an invitation to come to France because he wanted to join your other brother in Italy. I said, “ah yes”, I said forget it, don’t send this invitation because I know he’s planning to go irregularly.” I didn’t tell my brother I knew about his plans. The project started to grow and evolve. He had dropped out of school in the fourth grade and was hanging out in the streets. He was dreaming of football but he wasn’t doing nothing. Of course, in the neighborhood, he was seen as these young people who hang out, who spend their time smoking, who do nothing. They live in an environment where they are looked at in a negative light. They know it, they feel it. He continues to work in the project, the project is developing, there are training courses, we have budget. That brings along some earning. He can buy himself his own shirt, he can buy his trousers himself. In the neighborhood, the children he supervises under the project, start to call him Uncle Pape. The children go home saying: “Today we did this game, it’s Uncle Pape who organised that for us. “Who’s this Uncle Pape”, families ask, “ah that one who hanged there smoking, doing nothing…”. Time goes by, Uncle Pape, Uncle Pape, Uncle Pape. The families changed their opinion on him. Now, these young kidss, our children call him uncle and he takes care of them. And so, he’s starting to feel that people’s opinions have changed. He’s becoming socially useful. He’s obtaining a social status in the community. He can provide for his own needs.

A few years later, our association was invited to France. I was worried about Pape, as I was for the other four at the time of that trip. It was also an opportunity to disappear. I didn’t mention it to them. I tried to trust in what we had and the opportunities that could still be in front of us. Frankly, we went to the embassy, to the consulate for visas, and already at the time, they made you fill in a form saying you were going to come back. But we know very well that it wouldn’t stop them from leaving if they wanted to leave.

We went to France for ten days. Everyone came back. It didn’t it cross their minds to stay there. He came back, whereas a year or two before he was dying to leave irregularly. He had an opportunity to stay there, my brother was in Italy, he could go and join him. It didn’t cross his mind. Today, thanks to the Ejo project, he became an official employee. Just to say that it takes time to believe that your success can be here.

Marianne:: If Insa had to give advice to young Senegalese, Guineans or Gambians who dream of becoming great international football players, what would it be?

Insa: If you are lucky enough to find a coach here who knows European football and who experienced European life, he will be able to tell you whether you are talented. If you are talented, he will be able to tell you what level of football your talent will be for because in Europe there are many levels. Except that all the young people here who dream of football, dream of being Neymar, they dream of being Mbappe, they dream of being Messi, but they are very far from that.

So, I think that’s the message and the last message is there’s not only football in life. I know that, but I’ve always had it in mind. This is what saved me: I always knew that there’s more to life than football alone. When you play, tell yourself that if you don’t learn the stuff that you’re supposed to learn today at your age, it will be extremely difficult to learn them later. Sports is never the end point, but it’s a strong vehicle for education. When I was a football player, football was never my life goal, but it was a good way to learn about life. And it was an excellent means to travel the world.

Marianne: Thank you for listening to this episode of our migr’histoires series. To follow the other episodes of the series, please visit the Yenna channel or your favorite streaming platform. 

This podcast is produced by IOM and funded by the UK government

“The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in these podcasts belong solely to the speaker, and not reflect the view of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), its partners or donors. This podcast is protected under creative commons and can be used by third parties under certain conditions. For more information, contact [email protected].”
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