Men’s soccer junior Hassane Diakho said goodbye to his family, crossed an ocean and forever changed his life just after his 17th birthday.
Ascending through the ranks of Galaxie, one of the most famous soccer academies in the bustling metropolis of Dakar, Senegal, Diakho’s hat trick in a playoff game impressed his future agent, landing him the chance to travel to America and play for the nationally-ranked South Kent School in Connecticut.
After graduating from South Kent, Diakho landed a scholarship to play at Lehigh.
On Sept. 16, South Kent’s soccer team stopped on their way to a game in the Philadelphia area to pay a visit to Diakho. He took time after the game to meet with his alma mater’s players and share his story about overcoming hardships and making his way to play in America.
The process of coming to America took just two weeks, but leading up to it were years of adversity. Before reaching the turf fields of Galaxie, Diakho played barefooted throughout his childhood on treacherous surfaces, often injuring his toes.
“Most of Senegal’s fields are sand, and the sand has a lot of rocks,” Diakho said. “It’s hard to play and it’s hard to control the ball.”
Diakho also had to take a year off of school to support his mother and five siblings. He worked throughout the year to try to provide money for his family. After that, his mother sat him down and told him to continue chasing his dream of playing professional soccer.
“She said to just ‘stop worrying about us,’” Diakho said. “She told me that ‘you’re young, go back to school and go back to playing soccer for your dream.’”
After landing in America, Diakho said he had no knowledge of English and he had to quickly adapt to a much different climate and also had to find a way to support his family back home in Senegal.
At South Kent, coach Owen Finberg was one of the key figures in helping Diakho adapt to playing in America.
“The opportunity to help young men like Hassane (Diakho) and to not only change his life, but quite frankly help change his family’s life is what sport and the opportunity for an education can do,” Finberg said.
After graduating from South Kent, Diakho would eventually proceed to Lehigh where he would become one of the school’s three African players in the past 20 years.
For a period of 16 years between 2002 and 2018, Lehigh did not have a single player on their roster from Africa. Michael Tahiru, a 2022 graduate who was named to the Patriot League All-Tournament Team during Lehigh’s 2019 championship run, opened the gates for fellow Ghanaian Perry Kingson and Diakho, who are the two current African players on the team.
“I think international students, whether they come from Africa, or Europe or South America, just provide our team with more diversity,” Lehigh coach Dean Koski said. “Different cultures, different upbringings, and I think it’s invaluable for a lot of our domestic players to have relationships with people from other continents and other cultures.”
Koski said Diakho’s maturity and understanding of the game sets him apart from other players.
“Perhaps that’s cultural,” Koski said. “I’m sure that he grew up with the ball at his foot and put far more hours into the game than a lot of his American counterparts.”
Diakho appeared in 16 games for Lehigh’s defense last season and earned Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week honors last October.
Off the field, Diakho continues to provide for his family whenever he can by washing cars at his host family’s car dealership. He also used to paint and clean houses in order to send whatever money he could back home.
“My mom doesn’t know a lot of the things I do just to get money and send it back home,” Diakho said.
Diakho is on his way to receiving a degree in mechanical engineering. While he has gotten interest from professional teams in Europe about trying out, he said he wants to see his degree through and complete his schooling as a second option to his dream of playing soccer professionally.
“I came to a point where I’m thinking that you never know what the future is going to be,” Diakho said. “You could quit school, play soccer for a year and then have a bad injury.”