Sunday 25 September 2016

Cruel twist of fate in Paris ruins Diarra's France return

Ian Hawkey

Published 16/11/2015 | 02:30

Lassana Diarra battles it out with Mario Gomez during last Friday’s friendly in Paris
Lassana Diarra battles it out with Mario Gomez during last Friday’s friendly in Paris

It ought to have been a landmark night for Lassana Diarra. More than five-and-a-half years had passed since he last wore the blue jersey of his national team at the Stade de France.

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Nobody on the field last Friday night for the friendly against World champions Germany had taken such a circuitous, long route to be among those selected.

Diarra, the stoic, tidy anchor of midfield, went about his work as if he had never been away.

By the next morning, when the France players all knew what was behind the three explosions heard from within the stadium and about the terrorist attacks across Paris, the irrelevance of a mere football match would be felt by nobody as acutely as Diarra, or 'Lass' to his friends. He learnt that among the 129 killed was his cousin, Asta Diakite.

They were close. He described her as "an elder sister to me", "a rock", "a support".

Diarra was given leave to make his own decision about whether to travel with the France squad to London for tomorrow night's scheduled match with England at Wembley.

Important

That trip had felt important, when he first put in his diary, another milestone in what has been an unusual comeback to pre-eminence for player who seemed to have drifted to very margins of his profession.

Diarra's last match at Wembley? In 2008, an FA Cup final, a happy occasion, as a member of the winning Portsmouth team. He was 23 at the time, and that medal gave him a form of compensation for what looked like a step downwards in his career trajectory.

The midfielder joined Portsmouth before the club's rapid spiral down the divisions of English football. He wound up there after neither Chelsea, nor Arsenal, were able to give him the regular first-team football he felt he needed.

Diarra's story over the following seven years would leap and plunge through peaks and troughs far steeper than the gap between top‑four Arsenal and rickety Pompey, and his defiant attitude through the low times has begun to make him more appreciated by the French public.

He joined Olympique Marseille last summer, returning to Ligue 1 after 11 years away, and after 12 months out of the game altogether.

With Diarra, it will never be the beauty or delicacy of his football that is applauded, but what followers of France have responded to is his spirit, under testing professional circumstances.

This time last year, Diarra's career had run into a cul-de-sac. He was 29, living in Moscow, and had fallen out with the executive hierarchy at Lokomotiv, his club. An attritional dispute between player and employer dragged on, with claim and counter-claim about breaches of contract still under investigation by FIFA.

The effect was that for a full year Diarra did not kick a ball competitively. He admits that there were moments when he doubted he would do so, at least in an elite division, ever again.

When Marseille signed him, they had some reservations. He was a wild-card addition to their squad, a man returning from a sporting wilderness, his fitness uncertain, and his character thought somewhat inscrutable, at least by fans.

Deschamps, who saw enough energy, poise and gumption in Diarra's first half-dozen matches for Marseille to call up him for Les  Bleus more than five years after his previous cap, describes him as "reserved".

One or two team-mates at Real Madrid, where he spent a successful three years before his career went into its Russian deep‑freeze, used to think him remote. Last week, he opened up.

Ahead of his Stade de France comeback, Diarra gave a long interview to L'Equipe magazine, outlining the trials of his 12-month limbo, and reflecting on how an unfavourable image of him had, in his mid-20s, developed among parts of the French public.

He heard what people used to say of him: He used the word "mercenary" five times in the interview.

He is not one, he insisted, but knows that some of his hopscotching between clubs - Le Havre to Chelsea to Arsenal to Portsmouth in three years - generated that idea, and his transfer from Madrid to the briefly superwealthy Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala in 2012 endorsed it.

Indifferent

There had been talk around the time of that move that he seemed indifferent to the then France head coach Laurent Blanc's interest in taking him to Euro 2012 as a understudy central midfielder.

Diarra drifted from the radar from then on, reappeared in the news in 2014 when a bizarre, false rumour spread across social media that he had gone to Syria and privately put himself to work to overcome the setback of his Lokomotiv deadlock.

He did some training at West Ham United, he looked up Jose Mourinho, his manager at Chelsea and Madrid and was encouraged by the vote of confidence given him by the Portuguese.

Others recognised that resolve, like the amateur five-a-side regulars who Diarra joined for game after game in the Paris suburb of Créteil, to keep himself fit, competitive, engaged in a sport he felt determined to resume at the level that had won him major titles, in England and in Spain, and gained him respect but not much glory with France, for whom he now has 30 caps.

That drive, as well as his qualities as a refined midfield scuffler was recognised by Deschamps, who has lately been opening a number of doors into the France squad that looked firmly bolted.

Besides Diarra's comeback, there is Hatem Ben Arfa's. A year ago, Ben Arfa, thriving at Nice, was being pointed towards the exit at Hull City.

Six months ago he, like Diarra, was without a club at all. For both, returning home, after several years away, meant rediscovering a role with Les Bleus, and living in a country much more threatened than the France in which they grew up. © Daily Telegraph, London.

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