Oumar Niasse thought all his dreams had come true. After spending the first half of the 2015-16 season crushing it in Russia (12 goals and eight assists in 21 domestic league and European games), the Senegalese striker earned a lucrative move to the land of the TV money and the home of the enormous wages, getting signed seemingly out of nowhere by Everton for a startling £13.5 million transfer fee. Finally, he must have thought with more than a little justification, he had arrived. Since then, everything has been a disaster.
When Niasse got to Everton in February of 2016, he hadn’t played competitively in a couple months due to the Russian league’s winter break. Thus it took a good amount of time and training before he was even available for selection with his new club. The thing is, the more then-manager Roberto Martínez saw of his newest striker on the practice field, the less enchanted with the forward’s talent he apparently became. Niasse only made seven total appearances for Everton in all competitions last year, during which he racked up a mere 152 minutes of time on the pitch, and never scored. It was a disappointing return for a player who could’ve reasonably expected to be featured much more often as star striker Romelu Lukaku’s primary back-up.
Still, a winter window transfer taking a while to adapt to his new team and league doesn’t have to be a career death blow. Neither is a new manager coming in, as was the case when Everton fired Martínez and replaced him with Ronald Koeman. Work hard in the offseason, prove yourself in the preseason, embed fully in the team and manager’s tactics like the other players, and there’s no reason why you can’t thrive in the following full campaign coming off half of a shaky one.
What is more difficult to rebound from is the manager calling you into his office early on in the preseason and telling you that you’re not in his plans for the new season. And making it clear that you’re never going to play so you might as well leave. And taking away your squad number. And forbidding you from training with the first team. And dumping you with the reserve squad. This is the current plight of Oumar Niasse.
The Guardian sat down with Niasse for what is a very depressing interview as the poor man revealed the cracked shards of his broken dream. It starts off with this most pitiable anecdote, where Niasse recounts just how looked over he is by the entire club:
“I’m in the dressing-room with the under-23s but I don’t have a locker,” Niasse says. “The other players have where they put their stuff but I don’t. I come with my bag and I just have a place that I know. I put my bag down, I train and after, I put everything in my car and go home.”
The really bad times all started with a conversation Niasse had with Koeman a couple days after Everton’s first preseason game. Niasse got 45 minutes of game time and felt he did pretty decently, all things considered. Two days later, Koeman called Niasse into his office:
“Koeman said: ‘You have to leave,’” Niasse says. “I couldn’t understand how that decision could have been made after 45 minutes but I just said: ‘OK, thank you.’ It’s his decision. He’s the manager. What can I do? I called my agent and he said that he would look into the opportunities for me. To be honest, I didn’t ask Koeman to explain his reasons. I just thought, even if I asked why, I would never understand. After just 45 minutes, you cannot say to me: ‘You are no good.’”
Unfortunately for both parties, no one was able to come up with a suitable exit strategy. This is mostly on Niasse. The Guardian article makes clear that the striker did have options to join teams, even ones in very good European leagues in Spain and Germany. But Niasse wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to make his mark at Everton, and, short of that, he wished to stay in the Premier League, where he sees his skillset as especially valuable, even if none of the other teams in the league agree.
As the transfer deadline came and went without Niasse’s exit, and Koeman had done everything in his power to ensure Niasse received the message that he was never going to play at Everton and thus should go find pastures new, the manager was at a loss:
“It is all up to the player whether he doesn’t leave, I can’t understand it but that is normal,” Koeman said on 22 September. “Football players like to play football, that’s how I see it, and I explained to Niasse why he was not in my plans for the season.”
Koeman shouldn’t be so confused. This situation is extremely common across Europe’s bigger clubs. The process always goes something like this: A team spots what they believe to be a promising player running circles around their opponents in a lesser league, throws what to the player’s team and the player himself look like outrageous sums in exchange for the player’s services, the team signs the player up, realizes he’s not as good as imagined or for whatever reason just doesn’t fit, and buries the player on the bench underneath a growing pile of newer, younger, even more expensive Great New Hopes.
At that point, the player can either bide his time, accepting the lack of playing time and the increasingly obvious slights meant to shame him into leaving the club, and cash his sizable checks on the sidelines, or he can try to move on. The problem here, though, is that finding a new team is never that easy. The stink of failure surrounding the player and his usually prohibitive salary scare off most of the smaller teams who would theoretically take a chance on a player that was once so highly regarded. Thus the two parties, club and player, become stuck at an impasse. The club wants nothing more than for the player to be gone while the player struggles to find a move that makes sense for him.
Oftentimes the solution is for the Purgatory-trapped player to head back to the team or league he made his name in. This too is an avenue Niasse as no interest in traveling down, since Russia, as you could imagine, is not the best place for a black man to find himself:
“It’s very hard to be a black guy in Moscow,” Niasse says. “Even in the games, you can sometimes hear the fans doing some shit. I remember they did it to me. Away to CSKA Moscow [in September 2015], we had a penalty and I took it but all the fans were making these noises. It didn’t bother me. I scored the penalty. I didn’t say anything.”
And so Niasse is stuck. He wants to play, and above all wants to play for Everton, but that has been made nearly impossible. Niasse expresses his optimism and iron will in swearing that he has no problems with Koeman and trusting that if he just keeps his head down and trains his ass off, the manager will change his mind and give Niasse a shot. Judging from Koeman’s words and actions, this appears an exceedingly naive belief.
It is, however, all Niasse has, along with those big checks that will continue coming until the summer of 2020. Whether hope and money are enough to distract him from the sad state of his playing career is a question only he can answer.