Ali Dia and the Most Infamous Appearance in EPL History
The incredible story of Ali Dia, an unknown striker from Senegal who had the most memorable debut in Premier League history.
The EPL is widely recognised as the most exciting soccer league in the world, featuring some of the biggest superstars on the planet since its official launch in 1992.
Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and Michael Owen are just a few household names who have graced the Premier League stage, but a little known striker from Senegal had a debut that was more memorable than any other in EPL history.
It was November 23rd in 1996, where recent signing Ali Dia was named on the bench for an injury-ravaged Southampton side at home to Leeds United. There was plenty of buzz in the stands for Dia, because after all, he was “George Weah’s cousin” and arrived at the club with a lot of hype. George Weah was a star striker for Paris Saint Germain and AC Milan, and was named the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995, the only African footballer to achieve that honour.
As fate would have it, Southampton forward Matt Le Tissier picked up an injury after just 32 minutes, and hence Ali Dia was called upon to make his debut, to a standing ovation from the home fans.
Unfortunately for Dia and Saints supporters that day, his debut was terrible. He missed an easy chance to score, could barely pass the ball and showed no skill whatsoever. He was that bad that Southampton coach Graeme Souness decided to substitute him in the 85th minute, putting an end to his debut after just 53 minutes of playing time. It is extremely rare for a soccer player at any level to come on as a substitute and then be substituted in the same match (barring an injury).
After losing the match 2-0, coaching staff, supporters and commentators were all left wondering why Ali Dia performed so poorly. He was George Weah’s cousin afterall.
Was it nerves? Was he unfit, or was it just a bad day at the office? The real answer.. he actually wasn’t George Weah’s cousin, but he somehow lied his way into a professional contract and a Premier League appearance.
A few days before the match against Leeds, coach Souness received a phone call from a man pretending to be George Weah, who was playing for Italian powerhouse AC Milan at the time. The Weah imposter informed Souness that his cousin previously played with him in Paris, and was looking for a new club in the Premier League. Despite the fact that Dia is from Senegal and Weah is from Liberia, Souness took the bait, and agreed to offer Dia a trial, believing that he was George Weah’s cousin and a handy striker.
Not only was he lying about being Weah’s cousin, he was lying about his entire resume. Ali Dia never played with Weah, or any professional soccer club for that matter. The highest level he had ever played at was in a semi-professional league in England, where he was cut from the team after just one match!
But in 1996, before everyone had the internet and a mobile phone, finding out these facts was a lengthy procedure, and Southampton were desperate for another striker after a harsh run of injuries to their first team squad.
To find out if he was up to the task, Dia was set to play in a trial match in front of club coaching staff for the Saints’ reserve team against Arsenal, but heavy rain and a waterlogged pitch forced the match to be abandoned.
With just one day remaining until their clash with Leeds, Dia trained with Southampton for the first time. Many of his soon to be teammates did not think he was up to the challenge of playing Premier League soccer, but Souness gave him the benefit of the doubt, and decided to include him in the matchday squad as a backup for club legend Matt Le Tissier.
Of course, Le Tissier would injure himself early in the match, and the next 53 minutes would become English Premier League history. Dia entered the pitch with a very baggy jersey, sporting number 33 on his back, and left the pitch with five minutes remaining to cap off an embarrassing day for all concerned.
That would be the first and last time his oversized number 33 jersey was worn on a Premier League pitch, as his contract was torn up before the next match. Dia ended up playing for Gateshead in a semi-professional league, and somehow managed to score two goals! Unfortunately, he only lasted eight games, and was never seen on a soccer field ever again.
When asked about the man who replaced him on that infamous day, Le Tissier described it “like watching Bambi on ice”, and had no hesitation saying that Dia was “fucking hopeless”. While Dia only lasted 53 minutes, Le Tissier remained at Southampton until 2002, where he left as the club’s most popular player ever, after a 16 year stint, and 161 goals, including this stunner:
Despite the farcical nature of Ali Dia’s one and only EPL appearance, he is now known as a cult hero, and continues to pop up in many ‘Worst Premier League players of all time’ lists.
He graduated University in 2001, and went on to receive an MBA at San Francisco State in 2003. He now lives and works in London, keeping a low profile away from the game of soccer.
Lifelong Southampton fan and former season ticket holder Phil Connor was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in attendance for Dia’s memorable debut, and recalls the excitement surrounding the Senegalese striker: “I remember the local paper that morning pointed out Ali Dia as one to watch, as he was ‘George Weah’s cousin’ and would be a great option to bring off the bench if needed. But after a few minutes we could tell he was absolute shit”.
But time heals all wounds, and Southampton fans look back on this saga as a humorous day in the club’s history, with some even wearing “Dia 33” on their back of their jersey. He even has his own chant that occasionally rings out at St Mary’s Stadium - “Ali Dia, he’s a liar, he’s a liar”.
It is quite remarkable to consider that a guy who couldn’t make it as a semi-pro somehow conned his way into an EPL club. Coach Graeme Souness was no fool, he had previously managed Liverpool to an FA Cup trophy, and enjoyed success throughout Europe as a player and manager. But on this day, he was fooled in front of the whole world for 53 infamous minutes.
Unfortunately, something like this will probably never happen again, because it only takes a few seconds to pull out a phone and google any soccer player (or alleged soccer player) and view all of their legitimate stats.
So many questions remain about just how Dia pulled off this genius plan to not only earn an EPL contract, but also make an appearance in the most popular soccer league in the world. But maybe it is time to start asking another important question: how has this story not been made into a 30 for 30 documentary or a Netflix special? Perhaps it seems too far-fetched and hard to believe.
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