Kelly Naqi is an American sports broadcaster and writer who, after 29 years at ESPN, is now based in the UK. In November 2016, she wrote a longform article for Bleacher Report describing the whereabouts of Senegalese footballer Ali Dia, exactly 20 years after his infamous Premier League cameo for Southampton.
In the first in our Byline series, exploring the stories behind the stories with the journalists that wrote them, Kelly tells us how she pipped every other major news outlet to find out what really happened to the notorious footballer after he left the South Coast.
Before reading the interview below, we recommend reading the excellent story here: thelab.bleacherreport.com/finding-ali-dia
What did you do before you moved to the UK?
I worked in New York City as a broadcast associate for CBS sports and then KYW as the weekend sports producer in Philadelphia, and then ESPN since 1989. I was there for 29 years and I worked my way up from associate producer, to a bureau producer for New York City and then they let me be on camera. I was the first woman to go from behind-the-scenes to in front of the camera there.
I did longform investigative stories and then, as you know, in the last 10 years or so it’s been different how media has evolved. It used to be we got our information from our TV but now it’s on our phones, on our laptops and journalists. Even though I was mostly a TV journalist, now we had to write stories for the Internet as well, which is a completely different skill set. But you either do it or you don’t, so get on board. So, basically when I do longform stories for the Internet I just treat it like a TV piece.
The difference is you need more detail and you’ve got to describe stuff versus, if it’s TV, you don’t need to describe it because the people are seeing it on the screen. But the storytelling is the same, it’s just little scenes, little moments. You know, doing the Ali Dia story, in hindsight I think Bleacher Report wished they had used a camera, but you don’t really know how the story is going to unfold until you are there sometimes. Adding a camera changes the dynamic, people might be more suspicious of you, they might be more self-conscious, so really the story may not have been the same if I did have a camera. But the techniques in terms of investigating and finding stories, everything’s the same.
How did you get the commission?
People at Bleacher Report knew me through my work at ESPN and Will Tidey – at the time he was heading up the London office which had just recently opened – said, “this strikes me as a story would be good for you”. He just said “the 20th anniversary is coming up; can you find him?”. I said I’ll do my best.
How did you begin your investigation?
When you first start to investigate a story you don’t really know where to go, and so you just read as much as you can, and there was something that got me initially started on this: every time I read the spelling of his name it was ‘Ali Dia’, and I saw that journalists had looked for him over the years, I was seeing that people were trying to find him, and you know, I just thought maybe everyone is looking for the wrong guy, maybe everyone’s misspelt it? Because I thought to myself maybe they just think it’s ‘Ali’ like Muhammad Ali, and maybe that’s not how you spell it, because in Africa there’s different spellings of Ali.
It’s like another cultural thing too. In today’s day and age, nobody would mispronounce his name. Things evolve and I also think there’s a bit of an echo chamber in the English football community versus independent thinking and independent reporting.
The big break for me, because I couldn’t find him on the obvious things like Facebook and Twitter, was I thought “well he’s from Dakar evidently, so let’s see if that’s true”. So, I just went into Senegalese sports sites and newspaper sites and looked in comments sections and I had noticed that there was this ‘Aly’ guy that people were talking about and a couple of people had said they remembered him.
And I’m translating this from Google translate, and a lot of the time it doesn’t make sense. But I had saw two people who had allegedly gone to school with him. So, I tracked down the people who made the comments with the help of a freelance journalist in Dakar.
So that’s when I also learned it’s ‘Aly’ Dia not ‘Ali’. People had thought the parents had moved to France and no one really knew, but I thought “you know what, I’m just going to go to Dakar and just ask around”. I just pitched to Will Tidey saying, “look I know somebody that went to school with him who will meet me, and I think I’ve got to go there to find out”.
Did Bleacher Report agree to providing expenses and costs in advance?
I came up with a budget and there was a lump sum given to me. The problem was of course, when I found out that his son was playing football in France I couldn’t not go to France, so I just ate that part myself. I had to finish this story, I had to get it done but it’s one of those things where when you’re in it, nothing else is existing in the outside world.
You’re just totally in the zone and I couldn’t believe we found the parents, I mean that whole thing was so beyond belief. When those moments happen to me it’s why I do my job. Even though I got sick on the food and I had to limit myself to vegetables and rice when I was there because the food kept making me ill, but how else would I get these experiences?
Did you go out on your own?
Yes. I reached out on email to the head of BBC Africa and told him what I was wanting to do, and it turns out the guy himself is from Dakar. But he was here in London at the time, his name is Mamadou, and I asked him if he would have a cup of tea with me and I told him what I was trying to do.
He said: “I know a journalist, he’s out of work right now, he’s a friend of mine, he lives there and just negotiate a price with him and get a driver” and so he totally hooked me up. I just happened to luck in to the fact the guy himself just grew up in Dakar, so then I was off to the races.
What measures did you put in place for your security?
Mamadou told me the best hotel to stay at, because he had been there a number of times for the BBC on business and knew which one he thought would be the safest. I didn’t go places without [journalist/fixer] Cherif and our driver. They took me everywhere I went and there were times where Cherif said “stay with me, you’re lagging behind”. He told me he had seen people get robbed and killed. But I didn’t feel imperilled. We didn’t go out after dark and we were in populated areas. But when you go to foreign countries, I’ve done it a few times with ESPN in Vietnam and Russia, you always need a fixer and a driver.
What was good about Cherif is we met a day before just to talk about journalistic standards. I don’t know how things work in Africa but I told him the things we can’t do; we can never lie, we can never mispresent ourselves, we can’t pay people for information because they might do it differently there. So, we went through the whole list of things I wanted and needed and what my vision was for the story, which can always change as the story unfolds, and at the end of the day we’d go back to my hotel room and we’d translate. I’d be the secretary and type it out.
How long were you in Senegal for?
I was probably out there for 12 days. Because you always factor in time for unexpected developments. You have to do that because imagine if my flight back was on the day I was supposed to go back and meet his parents, can you imagine that?
And you’ve got to find out who are friends. What became really clear during a course of talking to people, especially the mother, and this again is another cultural thing, is they wanted him to be something more. They’re academics and they couldn’t figure out why this guy was fiddling away his time and the fact that it caused – I don’t know if global embarrassment would be fair to say because in the States nobody knows who Ali Dia is – but certainly it was a pretty big swathe of the world knew of it.
The pain that it caused, especially with the mother and the mother/son dynamic , the friends were talking about Ali like he just wanted to prove to his parents, and he wanted to buy his mother a house. To me it’s clear that’s where the real tension of the story was.
How long was the time between commissioning and the published work?
I had about two months. I had to get shots [jabs], they have to take 10 days for them to kick in before you can even go, for yellow fever and typhoid and that stuff. Then planning and logistics. And when I say planning it’s not only journalistic – am I covering everything I need here? Do I have all the appropriate materials? – it’s like who’s taking care of the dog while I’m gone and that kind of stuff.
The biggest thing is having a fixer and a driver that you can count on. The fact that this guy was also a freelance journalist – he knows about storytelling, which was important to me – and because he’s from the area you feel like you’re safe. It’s not like you’re figuring everything out, that would be exhausting.
The writing was so brutal. I swear to god just remembering that just is so painful. I’d say it took probably five days, but it would be five intense days, lots of coffee maybe not a shower! I can’t say for sure, but maybe no showers. Maybe the dog didn’t get three walks a day!
Two months is a very swift turnaround for everything…
It felt quick in terms of writing of it and it was really long, 8,000 words or so. It was organising all the material that was tough. You have a lot of elements and it’s trying to decide what doesn’t make the cut, what does make the cut. But this is what you wish for; when somebody says, “ok go find someone” and they don’t give you any direction and you just go, they trust you to do it, you come back and submit your piece.
You want to surround yourself with really smart people because otherwise when you do an assignment that’s intense like this you can’t have energy taken away from you by co-workers. Everyone has to be pitching in, and that’s the way it’s worked with Bleacher Report for every single assignment I’ve done for them, it’s great.
Were you ever worried the story would lead down a dead end?
You know what, I didn’t go down that dark road. I just figured I would have had to confront it at some point while I was in Africa and to make a decision. But it was once we had located the parents and she had given me the information of the siblings I was like “we’re good, we’ve got something.”
Had you contacted the family before you met them for the first time?
No, we just were on the ground and one of the guys who had gone to school with Aly thought that his family had lived years ago on the other side of a particular football field that he had described to my translator, who knew the area enough to know the place where he was talking about. So we just started walking the streets. I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, and we were just asking people “hey do you remember Aly Dia?”. Then we’re told to go see this council chief of this village. So we go in, sat in his home, he’s chatting and I have no idea what he’s saying but I know he knows what I want to find. Then he recommends another person, and then they say “yeah they still live here, that’s their house just at the end of the street.” It was just unbelievable.
So, we knock on the door and she invites us in. My husband’s family is from India and they’re Muslim and so I’m very familiar with how to greet Muslim men traditionally; how not to sit on the same sofa and keep both feet on the floor and don’t extend your hand. So, my biggest concern was to ensure that I culturally showed respect and knowledge. But she’s a mother, just like every other mother, so she showed pictures of Aly, she got his diploma, but only when we started talking about his football that she got really sad and the mood just complete changed.
Did the cultural differences affect your reporting?
When you’re doing print you’re just sitting there and absorbing the energy, the interaction, the tension. You’re trying to feel what they’re feeling, you ask them what they’re feeling to bring the reader into it. So, I kept pushing my translator a little bit, and I could tell he was uncomfortable. Afterwards I asked him if it was a cultural thing and he said that we stayed too long. I said, “here’s the thing, you have to get what you can get, while you can get it, because you don’t know if you’re going to be able to revisit”. And sure enough, when we went back Aly had shut them down. So, you’ve got to push the line maybe a tad over to get all you can get and then go from there, but he was really uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing, something that transcends cultural boundaries. You’re reading body language and you’re reading the vibe of the person, and I know the mother genuinely liked me. But I’m sure that Aly was furious that they had let us in and had chatted about him and gave me the contact information of his sisters. The mother, she told me that I seemed nice, which I kind of am, but you don’t necessarily know that, and Aly’s like “they always seem nice they’re just trying to get the story.” You know this is perspective, I understand. He’s been crushed, quite frankly, so I don’t blame him for having that perspective, but I think he was ok with the story.
You must have been surprised when Dia finally contacted you by phone?
I couldn’t believe it! I just started laughing. Then after it I grabbed my pen and I was writing as quickly as I could. And I remember emailing Will, who at the time was in America, and the subject line was “you’re never going to freaking believe it” and then underneath “he just called me”. I knew that Will would know who “he” was, so he just called me and I was like “well, I think we’ve got to update the ending”.
Had you already written the piece in full before he called?
Yeah, so I just added that last part in. Aly initially told me that he was going to do a longer interview with me because I think he was on his way to the airport when he was calling me. Then he decided against it. Again, you get as much as you can while you can because sometimes you give people time to think and they change their minds. A few days later, he pocket-dialled me. I thought he was calling, I was so excited, and then I texted him: “hey I’m sorry I missed your call”. He responded, “oh sorry, it was an accident.”
Did speaking to him and his family change your view of the story?
The biggest lesson I learned was Aly should be applauded for raising himself up and taking this chance, working on his own and getting out of Dakar and finding his way. He did what every kid would dream of but don’t always have the gumption to do. I truly don’t believe the narrative that Graeme Souness had no idea and just threw him in.
Obviously social media wasn’t around at the time, but I think Souness had seen him for a while. He wasn’t a neophyte coach, it doesn’t make sense and I think that the story was a little closer to what Aly said to anything else, but at this point I think he’s so beaten up he just wants to blow it off entirely. The funny thing is people just kept repeating Le Tissier’s line over and over again, about him looking like Bambi.
Did you try reach out to Souness or Le Tissier for their take on it?
Yes, but it’s hard. I was trying to reach other footballers on the team to see how many people would corroborate that, but I couldn’t track them all down. But it was probably more to do with the timeframe than anything else.
Souness wouldn’t speak to me, and what I found really interesting is in his book there’s no mention of this. That’s the biggest question for me, is why would he put him in there not knowing? If he had a really solid reason and he was hoodwinked or whatnot, why wouldn’t he put that in the book? I know his life story isn’t just that, he has many football credentials and stories, but is it that he didn’t want to admit and open the scab that he was a little more culpable for putting him in there?
How intense was Bleacher Report’s editing process?
The people here are insane football fans, they can quote every single thing off the top of their head. At Bleacher Reporter, ESPN or anywhere, you’ve got to have an editor, an extra set of eyes and fact-checking. Also, when you get too close to a story sometimes stuff really gets interesting to you that only you might be in love with it because you’ve lost perspective, because you’re in deep. But I don’t recall them changing too much.
You must have been delighted with the reaction?
Yeah. Because I had written for TV, you connect soundbites; two or three sentences and voiceovers. I’d maybe written around three longform stories for ESPN, but I mostly just did the TV parts, so the fact that they saw me as a writer – not just a TV person but a real writer – that’s the part that made me really happy. Will was really funny. He brought me in for a meeting afterwards and he said, “I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little surprised!”.
Because of that, and since then, I’ve written a couple more pieces for them and honestly all I do is get out of the way of the story and let the information flow. The thing to me is, if you have really great information it’s just the matter of organising and structuring it. I’m never going to be a Wright Thompson. He’s a writer for ESPN and I worship him. He’s brilliant and I will never be that kind of a wordsmith, it’s just not in my nature.
But the only thing I can do is just dig and dig and get as many facts as I can, and organise them as well as I can, and just write it pretty simply. I think I write like I talk mostly. If you don’t try to be part of a story but let your characters be the story, then it’s not intimidating at all.