Speaking in an exclusive interview with Get French Football News, 23-year-old Senegalese international and Reims striker Boulaye Dia told his story.
We’re speaking at the end of a good week for you, scoring a hat-trick to help Reims to your first win of the season. How are you feeling, individually and as a Remois?
Good. It’s the first time I’ve scored a hat-trick and scoring any time is great but three times in a match is even better. And hopefully it will also launch our season – we haven’t started it well but hopefully this first win will set us off.
You qualified for the Europa League but didn’t get through the qualification rounds. Do you think playing in Europe had an effect on the start of your Ligue 1 season?
Yes maybe a little bit, unconsciously, because we were focussed on reaching the Europa League play-offs, and maybe that sidelined our league objectives for the season.
You mean focusing on the play-offs beforehand or also the disappointment of not reaching them?
Yes, that hurt us too.
You mentioned season objectives. What are those objectives – for Reims and for you?
To do at least as well as we did last season (6th – 41 points), that’s our main objective. And then personally it’s to get a decent number of goals – hopefully break 10 goals, maybe reach 15.
Well you’ve made a great start with six in six matches!
Well we’ll keep trying!
Can I ask a cheeky question: for a striker, does scoring a penalty mean just as much as scoring in open play?
Yes. Well let’s say yes and no [laughs]. Yes because you still have to put them away. There is still technique involved. It depends on the context of the match but scoring in open play or a penalty still counts the same. As long as it hits the back of the net, it’s another goal!
Ridiculously, there was a bit of pressure on Reims coach David Guion, which will hopefully lift after the Montpellier win. But can you say what he has brought, both to Reims and to you personally?
It’s not that he was under pressure, other than the usual pressure to get results, which is the same for all the players as well as the coach. But we never doubted him, nor him us. Personally, he is the one who gave me my chance and put his confidence in me two and a half years ago. And I’ve always tried to repay that faith on the pitch. It went well last year and has started well this season too.
What is he like as a coach? On one side you have for example those like Roland Courbis or Frédéric Antonetti, who are on a short fuse, but he seems to me a lot more relaxed.
He’s very calm. He’s zen! He doesn’t lose it. He rarely shouts – but he does when it’s necessary, like when we don’t follow instructions. But he’s the type of coach who speaks a lot to his players, that’s the kind of relationship he has with us.
The media often criticises French coaches, but you have the likes of David Guion, Julien Stephan, Thierry Laurey, Stéphane Moulin – really good French coaches. Do you think that they might deserve a little more respect in the French media?
Yes, I think they are coaches who have good skill-sets and foundations. But I think for French coaches, until they prove themselves abroad, they won’t have respect. But that’s not a new thing.
Let’s look at your story as a footballer because it is certainly not typical. Normally players come through youth development and there is a clear progression. But your journey has been different, with some big blows on the way. Let’s start with Saint-Étienne and the broken down car.
Yes, that’s it. I was young – I think around 12 years old. I was invited to a two-day trial at Saint-Étienne, so I went with my dad by car, and at the toll booth the car broke down. At 9 in the morning. So we hailed a taxi and returned home. So no trial and Saint-Etienne never called back.
You didn’t take the cab to Saint-Étienne rather than back to Oyonnax?
No, it was too late by then.
And was that hard to take or, at 12, were you zen about it?
No, when you’re 12 you move onto something else. You’re disappointed on the day, but have forgotten about it two, three days later.
Then the next set-back came at Lyon, which was not a short-term trial but a longer-term set-up, with people dropping out. You missed out because of a test on your wrist?
Yes, that’s right. I went there almost every Wednesday over a few years but then at 13, I think, they did a wrist test to assess future growth and told me that I wouldn’t grow much – because I was quite small at the time – that I wouldn’t get much taller and so I didn’t fit the profile that they were looking for.
You were born in Oyonnax which isn’t too far from Lyon. Were they your childhood club?
No they weren’t my club – I didn’t support anyone. But Lyon were the big city and, when I was younger, they were the big club and had one of the best French youth development centres. So they attracted everyone and I was really pleased to be able to do trials there regularly, and hoped to be accepted into the youth set-up – especially as there was someone already there whom I knew, a kid I’d played with at Oyonnax who was a year older than me – he told me about it. And I would have been really pleased. But that’s life, you move onto other things.
You say that but at that time was it your dream to become a footballer, or was it a case of if it happens it happens, and if not then never mind?
No, it was an objective but at that age you’re carefree. So they were blows, you thought about them a bit and then moved on. I told myself I still had loads of time ahead of me and at 13 it isn’t so serious, you just think we’ll see when I’m older what opportunities I’ll have.
So then you started playing for Jura-Sud but gave it up to focus on getting your electrician’s licence and making a living. But then you had a trial in Wales?
Yes, a friend of mine whom I played with in Oyonnax when we were younger had gone to play in a top division club in Wales, in the Welsh league. The following season, through his agent, he contacted a few players to ask them to come over for trials. So I went with some team-mates. And it went well but I wasn’t prepared to go there. I think the club was Airbus. Well that was the club my friend played for. The agent said a few clubs were interested but it was all a bit ambiguous so I decided to go back to France.
I still wanted to become a footballer but it wasn’t my priority. First I had to work and earn a living for me, for my family [Boulaye is the sixth of seven siblings]. But football was always at the back of my mind, and my plan was to work for a year or two and then to really go for it, apply for trials at the CFA (4th division) level and hopefully use that as a springboard to get to the professional level.
And that’s how you returned to Jura-Sud?
Exactly. I went back to Jura-Sud, who were in the CFA, I got on well with the coach, we’d already worked well together. I had a good season, scoring 15 goals in 20 matches, and then Reims came in to sign me.
Then everything moves quite quickly, from CFA to Ligue 2 to Ligue 1 in a couple of years – that’s a pretty steep slope! Was it difficult to acclimatise to the different levels in quality and expectations?
Yes it was different. There’s no comparison between the amateur and the professional worlds. But I was always in the mindset – even when in CFA – of preparing for a transfer to a professional club in the summer. Once I joined a professional club, Reims, I started with the reserves and the youths and the same thing, I went in with a professional attitude and that’s why I quickly broke through.
But I came from so far back that I didn’t have the time to be starstruck. I knew that I had to work hard to make up for everything I had missed, having not gone through a youth development centre. I had to fill those gaps quickly and work fast and hard in order to catch up.
Talking of those gaps, what were the differences between you and those who came through youth development? Was it physical, or more a tactical sense?
Firstly habits, like the habit of training every day. And then tactics, a lot more on the tactical aspect. You can more easily catch up on the physical aspect, but the tactics was a lot harder. With the pros it is more technique and tactics.
Do you think that your route brought you any advantages that the others didn’t have?
Yes, definitely. It brought me character, an experience of real life, mental strength. It brought me loads of things, and getting to know all those values has helped me to keep my feet on the ground and to always remember where I come from – not that I’d forget anyway.
I guess also a sense of perspective?
So does that mean that you take defeats better than the others?
[Laughs] No in that sense there’s definitely no difference! But in terms of character and mentality as a footballer it has brought me a lot.
I recently had to look at the goalscoring/assist statistics for Raphinha, who has just joined Leeds from Rennes. Although they’re good on paper, they’re all against clubs from the bottom half of the table.
You score against Rennes, Saint-Étienne, Marseille, an overhead kick against PSG at the Parc des Princes – you score against the big clubs. Do you think that you’re able to raise your game because of your path, which maybe makes you less intimidated?
Maybe there’s a bit of that. Because of the route that I’ve taken I’m less intimidated by anything. It’s that I’m not scared of anything. When you play against great players or opponents some feel extra pressure and others can put it in perspective and say that they have nothing to lose, and we’re going to show it.
Is that goal at PSG among your favourites?
I have lots so it is not necessarily my favourite but it’s one of them. It was a great evening, we beat PSG at theirs, I made it 2-0 with a scissor-kick. Yeah, it wasn’t bad! I think it’s in my top 3!
For those who don’t know you well, how would you describe your style of play as a striker?
Strong and quick! [Laughs]
What about weaker points that you need to work on?
Playing facing the goal.
In terms of a super-quick rise from amateur football to the top, N’Golo Kante is always used as the example. You have a similar route but who was your footballing role model growing up?
I didn’t really have any particular players as role models. I liked Robinho. Maybe Ronaldinho. But that’s all.
I wish I was like you and didn’t support any particular club or player – it’s too painful!
[Laughs] Yep, that’s the problem with it!
There were transfer rumours during the summer – and I’m sure there’ll be more and more with you currently joint-top Ligue 1 scorer. You were linked with Marseille but also other clubs – including Brighton, who are my team. Is there any truth to the rumours and do you have any ambitions to move to the Premier League sometime?
Yes, there is a little truth to the Brighton story but an agreement couldn’t be reached between the clubs. There were discussions but it didn’t go any further. I’d like to experience England and the Premier League – all players dream of playing in the Premier League one day, and I’m one of those players.
But there’s no point making the move just for the experience of it. You need to move when you’re ready, when you’ve proven yourself, when you show consistency. You need to take your time and not move to England too quickly, otherwise you’ll quickly get lost.
Are you in contact with any footballers already in England to ask their advice?
No, no one. Actually yes – now that [Édouard] Mendy has joined Chelsea. I speak to him sometimes but apart from him I don’t speak to anyone.
Well if you ever need anyone to sell Brighton – the city and the club – to you, then come to me!
[Laughs] No problem, I’ll bear that in mind!
You mentioned Mendy. You made your Senegal debut last month, vs Morocco. You had the choice between representing France and Senegal. Why did you choose Senegal?
Because it’s the country of my parents, it’s where they were born. It’s my country too. Wearing the Senegal shirt is a source of pride for all my family. It was very emotional pulling the shirt on for the first time. It made everyone happy.
And you almost scored, hitting the post?
Yes that’s right. But we’ll save it for next time!
Whether it’s a penalty or an overhead kick!
Yes – I don’t care how!
This will be a disrupted season because of COVID-19 and, for example, the African Cup of Nations has been postponed. But what personal objectives do you have, with Reims and Senegal? Next June what will make you look back and think that was a good season?
June is a long, long way away. But between now and then I’ll try to keep scoring, to be decisive and then at the end of the season we’ll see where we’re at and how to judge it.
Your journey to the top level of football, overcoming various setbacks, really is an inspirational story. What advice would you give to a youngster who is experiencing similar challenges?
You always need to work, always believe in your dreams, never give up. There is always hope if you do things well and have a little confidence in yourself.