Wahi, Diouf living childhood dream as Lens go continental

Wahi and Diouf, still just 20, will both be taking a huge step in their careers on Wednesday when RC Lens travel to southern Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Matchday 1 clash on Wednesday night.

The boyhood pals will likely be pinching themselves as the famous anthem plays in the lead-up to kick-off at the Estadio Sanchez-Pizjuan, so serendipitous it is that the striker from Suresnes and the midfielder from Nanterre – who have had quite different career paths so far – should end up together at Lens just as the historic club make a long-awaited return to Europe’s top club competition.

Kalimuendo: ‘They were both phenomenal’

The pair almost linked up at Rennes a few years ago – Diouf joined the famed youth academy but Wahi missed out – and striker Arnaud Kalimuendo, formerly of Lens and PSG and a slightly older contemporary of both in Paris region, recalled the pair’s precocity.

“They were both phenomenal,” recalled Kalimuendo, now with Rennes after a successful loan spell in Lens. “At under-12 level, Andy was a versatile player, with an enormous amount of technique, way above the rest. He was physically ready and had the mentality to match. I didn’t play much with Elye, but we grew up in the same town and played in the same areas. I’ve always had a lot of respect and admiration for him. I hoped he would turn pro.”

Chalk and cheese

And turn pro he did, bursting onto the scene at Montpellier after finishing his youth football at SM Caen, bagging an impressive 19 goals for Montpellier last term. Meanwhile, Diouf took a more peripatetic route, via Swiss giants Basel, but now the France youth-team colleagues are reunited at Lens.

“We were often roommates with the French national team and now at Lens too,” Diouf told L’Equipe. “He’s a guy who sets the mood, dances and doesn’t let it go to his head. He laughs 24 hours a day.”

Quite the opposite of what Wahi had to say about his close friend.

“He doesn’t talk much,” explained the striker. “You really have to get to know him to discover his true personality. At first, he mostly talked to me on the pitch. He was really reserved, even when we shared a room.”

Continental challenge

Now that the time has come to take to the European stage, Lens boss Franck Haise could certainly do with the kind of cohesion chosen by this pair of new recruits. The league’s revelation last season, Lens have struggled for results early in the 2023-24 season, and currently sit bottom of the table with just a solitary point from five matches.

And while a late arrival (in the case of Wahi) and a groin strain (for Diouf) has kept the two young guns from bringing their talents to bear for Les Sang et Or so far this term, France U20 coach Landry Chauvin feels that their respective characters can be a boon to Haise and his squad.

Chauvin: ‘Two great lads’

“They’re two great lads, who carry themselves well in the squad – on top of being great footballers,” said the former Nantes and Brest coach before recounting how Wahi had sent messages of support to the French U20 squad and coaching staff before the U20 World Cup last year. “That kind of attention is pretty rare. These are two good people with really good values.”

While it remains to be seen whether Haise will call on either of these young talents as Lens look to turn the page on their tough start to the season by clinching what would be an upset result in Sevilla, there is little doubt that these two – and their friendship – could play a big role in the club’s future success.

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