Krépin Diatta’s comeback trail was long and arduous, but having missed almost the entirety of last season, including Senegal’s AFCON triumph, he is ready to make his mark at the World Cup.
19th November 2021 was a bitter-sweet day for Diatta. It marked the day of his first Ligue 1 goal, but it was also the day that brought a swift and untimely end to the Senegalese forward’s debut season at AS Monaco.
Diatta went down in the first half, but soldiered on until half-time. It was only back in the dressing room that he began to understand the severity of what had just transpired.
“I was really angry with myself, asking how I could have done this because when I got injured, I continued playing,” he tells Monaco Life. “It was at half-time that I tried to get up and I realised my knee was moving. I told the doctor and he replied that the medical results probably won’t be good.”
The results weren’t good. Diatta had suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury, and would likely miss the remainder of the season with Monaco. Not only that, he would miss the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations, where Senegal would eventually prevail and become African champions.
The start of nine months of recovery
“Of course, it really hurt to miss the AFCON, especially since I had played in one when I was younger and it went really well for me personally. It was a shame we lost the final that year, but it was a good experience for me because I was the Young Player of the Tournament in this competition. It was a shame just one month out from the 2022 tournament [that I would] sustain my injury and miss it. I had played practically all the qualification matches and that hurt, but the most important thing is that we’re champions of Africa,” Diatta continues.
On the road to recovery, Diatta improved physically, as noted by his international teammate Sadio Mané, but also matured greatly.
“I think I have got more muscle. Often with injuries like that, you can gain a bit of weight, but that wasn’t the case with me. I was well accompanied by the club. I was basically told exactly what to eat, what I shouldn’t eat and I respected all of that. I often speak with Sadio, and he told me to be aware of what I eat during this period,” Diatta says. “When you have an injury like that, something clicks in your head, and you have to get past it. It’s true that for the first two months, I didn’t want to know anything. I told myself that if I stay in this mindset, [it] won’t help me. So I told myself that I had to stay positive. When I arrived here for recuperation, I saw the atmosphere, the group was doing well, the dynamic was good, we were winning matches and I think all of that helped me. I saw positive things here, so I told myself that I have to be positive too.”
By the time he returned to the Performance Centre in La Turbie, a familiar face was there to greet him. In January 2022, Philippe Clement took over from Niko Kovac at AS Monaco. Diatta knew the Belgian coach from their time spent together at Club Brugge.
“I know him from before and he knows me. From the start, he always came to speak to me, even though he knew I wouldn’t play before the end of the season. He would come and chat with me at the treatment table. All that made me want to fight to come back as quickly as possible,” says the Senegalese forward.
Making a mature decision to focus on wellbeing
Whilst Diatta was recovering well from his serious ACL injury, there was no chance of him returning before the end of the season. However, his international manager Aliou Cissé, who had invited Diatta to join the AFCON celebrations in the winter, wanted to re-integrate him into the squad over the summer. Diatta made the thoughtful and mature decision to reject that offer.
“He wanted to bring me back to the national team, but I told him I know how I feel. I felt that I had taken myself to the next level in my recovery. I said give me more time because I wanted to work more here and if I come back to the national team, I won’t be doing so at 110%. I said when I come back, I want to be at 100% then I can give you what you want from me. I’m not coming back to not be ready, and playing just the end of matches isn’t interesting. It is better for you to take a player that is really ready. So I refused. I said I wanted to continue working with AS Monaco, and that when I’m ready, I’ll tell you.”
Nine months after that fateful night at the Stade Louis II, Diatta finally returned to competitive Ligue 1 action at the start of August, marking his return with a goal in the opening game of the season against Strasbourg. He has since gone on to make 21 appearances in all competitions and has earned himself a seat on the plane to Qatar.
Diatta revealed that making the squad was an objective he had set for himself after his injury.
Senegal and the World Cup challenge
“The first [objective] was to bounce back well in pre-season and to start the season. I told myself that, for the World Cup, there was still time. But if I’m not coming back in pre-season and then not getting into the group, not starting matches at the start of the season, I don’t think I’ll be able to think about a World Cup. Today, the sacrifices I’ve made, and the club has helped me as well, have helped me realise my objective. I am back where I want to be.”
Although he wasn’t part of the Senegal squad for the AFCON triumph, Diatta admits that there is added pressure on the team going into the tournament.
“Of course, having won the AFCON, lots of people will have expectations,” he explains. “We can’t hide from that, but we are a humble team and we’re not going to say that the World Cup is ours for the taking. No, if we go into the tournament with that mindset with this state of mind, we’ll lose ourselves. We’re playing against huge teams that also have thoughts about winning it.”
Diatta describes his call-up as “a special feeling,” adding that “all kids grow up wanting to win the World Cup”. However, the Senegalese forward isn’t getting ahead of himself. Before even thinking of the knockout stages, Senegal have to navigate a difficult group that contains the Netherlands, Ecuador and host country Qatar. They will also have to do so without starman Mané, whose absence Diatta must now attempt to mitigate.
“Sometimes I hear people say that ours is an open group, that we should make it through. That’s what people on the outside will say, but we mustn’t fall into that. That’s the danger. I don’t think there is one easy group in a World Cup. Every team that is there got there somehow. Firstly, we need to put in the work in the first three matches and after that, we’ll see what we can do.”
Photo by Monaco Life