When Raoul Diagne made his first appearance for France in 1931, the landmark event could conceivably have been met with a wave of criticism and hostility. As the first black player to represent Les Bleus, Diagne was breaking ground in a very different age, with France hosting a major colonial exhibition the same year and the sound of jackboots starting to become audible beyond the nation's borders.
As it happened, the most virulent criticism of his selection did come from a government source. While Diagne was readying himself for his historic appearance against Czechoslovakia on 15 February that year, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies expressed his stern disapproval – though for no other reason than that he was Blaise Diagne, Raoul's father, and hoped to see his son pursue a career in medicine or the military. Diagne Sr even went as far as vowing that he would never set foot in a stadium to watch his son play. A pity, because he missed out on some excellent performances.
Athleticism and versatility
Outside of his own family, the breakthrough moment was relatively uncontroversial compared to the first calling-up of a black player in England – The Football Association (FA) revoking Jack Leslie's selection in 1932 after learning of the Plymouth player's ethnicity. In France, the press focused on Diagne's maiden outing without even mentioning his colour as they reflected on a 2-1 defeat for the national side. "Diagne, who was making his debut for Les Tricolores was absolutely excellent in the defensive part of his role," wrote Michel Rossini, editor-in-chief of Football magazine. "In attack, he still has plenty to learn."
That much was hardly surprising, given that the newcomer was only just starting out. Born in 1910 in Guyana, where his father was posted at the time, Diagne took his first steps in the game as a 13-year-old with Stade Francais, before moving to Racing Club de Paris three years later in 1926. Standing 6'2 tall, he quickly proved his worth thanks to his athletic qualities, while also bringing an impressive versatility to bear.
"A defender rather than a full-back" in his own words, he could even play in goal – as he did after standing in for injured Racing regular Andre Tassin in 1931. Diagne went on to spend four months between the posts, and later returned to the role for the first half of the 1935/36 season, which Racing ended by clinching a league and cup double. Those triumphs bolstered the legend of a player who retired with 18 France caps and appeared at the 1938 FIFA World Cup™.
Famous friends and exotic pets
Away from the pitch, Diagne was an equally fascinating character, living a life rich in anecdotes and notable episodes. A smoker and renowned party-goer despite pressure from his father, he was a regular sampler of Paris's nightlife. "He liked to go out in Montmartre," explained his France team-mate Alfred Aston. "He was a very charming and cheerful guy."
Diagne's nocturnal sorties in the city's cabarets also brought him into close contact with various famous faces, and he made friends with French actor Jean Gabin as well as singer Josephine Baker. "She used to call me her 'little brother' and even got me to go up on stage with her one time," he later recalled.
According to one particular legend, Diagne was even spotted about town walking with a cheetah on a leash. "He was given to my father during a trip to Senegal," the player said. "He was called Rosso and wasn't aggressive at all, but I had to give him up when he started to grow."
What Diagne did not give up, however, was his link to Senegal, the country where his father was born. Instead, he finished his playing days at Senegalese outfit US Goree, and then embarked on a coaching career that took him to Belgium, Algeria and France before he became Senegal's first ever national coach in 1960. It was he, in fact, who oversaw the Lions of Teranga's maiden victory against France, a 2-0 success during the Jeux de l'Amitié (Friendship Games) in 1963.
What he would have noticed during that match is that the France team now contained several black players, including Lucien Cossou and Paul Chillan. The road that he first pioneered has remained open ever since, though Diagne passed away in 2002 before two more black players finished carving out their own piece of history. Eighty-five years on from that landmark Czechoslovakia game, France's all-time goalscoring record belongs to Thierry Henry, while no player has won more caps for Les Bleus than Lilian Thuram.