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With only 311 minutes of competitive football in his legs over the previous 12 months (309 of which came in the UAE Pro-League), Lassana Diarra could have been forgiven for feeling apprehensive about his recent return to action with Paris Saint-Germain.
But if his peripatetic career has equipped him with anything, it’s an ability to hit the ground running after long periods of standing still.
Prior to joining Marseille in 2015, he had spent 15 months on the sidelines due to a contract imbroglio with Lokomotiv Moscow, yet he made such an impressive comeback that, within two months, he had been recalled by France.
He fought through similar difficulties early in his career. Rejected by Nantes for being too small, a teenage Diarra contemplated turning his back on the sport, but within a year of making his professional debut for Le Havre in 2004, he had been recruited by Chelsea. In January 2008 he left Arsenal for Portsmouth because he was being kept on the bench by Mathieu Flamini. Twelve months later, he signed for Real Madrid.
Such has been the career of Lassana Diarra, one that has taken him to such improbable outposts as Portsmouth’s Fratton Park, Anzhi Makhachkala’s Anzhi Arena in Dagestan and Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Driven by a streak of impetuousness and a stubborn sense of his own worth, he has belligerently burrowed his way from club to club, somehow contriving to find a doorway each time that he appeared to have reached a dead end.
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Having seemingly been drifting towards retirement in the sun-baked and sparsely populated stadiums of the Emirati top flight, the 32-year-old midfielder now finds himself gearing up for a Champions League reunion with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu following a return to the city of his birth thickly swathed in personal poignancy.
Diarra was on the pitch at Stade de France when the terrorists murdered his cousin.
The forensic manner in which modern-day terror attacks are picked over means that the events on the pitch that night in November 2015 and the awful carnage that unfolded in Paris can be overlaid with harrowing precision. It was in the 26th minute of France’s friendly with Germany, and the home side were settling themselves with a spell of possession after a German counter-attack, when three men carrying assault rifles leapt from a black Seat Leon and sprayed bullets at people sitting outside a bar and a Cambodian restaurant either side of Rue Bichat near the Canal Saint-Martin in eastern Paris.
Diarra’s cousin, Asta Diakite, was shot and killed. She had popped out to go to the shops. One of her cousins, writing on Facebook (h/t Le Figaro), said that she had “given her life to save her nephew.” A grieving Diarra wrote on social media (h/t the Guardian) that he had lost “a big sister.”
In a final insult, the men who carried out the attacks claimed to have acted in the name of Islam, the religion of Diarra and his family. “In this climate of terror,” Diarra wrote, “it’s important for all of us who are representatives of our country and its diversity to speak out and remain united against a horror that has neither colour nor religion.”
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Diarra grew up a 15-minute walk from the spot where his cousin lost her life. He shared an apartment with his parents, emigrants from Mali, and his six brothers and sisters on Rue Ramponeau in the rough-edged Belleville district, where French, Jewish, North African, Sub-Saharan African, Caribbean and East Asian communities live cheek by jowl on the gentle inclines of Belleville hill.
He learned to play football on a small, sloping pitch flanked by trees on Place Alphonse-Allais, where he would attempt to perfect the feints, driving runs and thunderous strikes that he witnessed his idol, George Weah, perform on his trips across the city to watch PSG at Parc des Princes.
It was to Belleville that Diarra returned during the long months of inactivity that followed his acrimonious departure from Lokomotiv Moscow in August 2014.
“I’ll always represent Belleville, my neighbourhood, my mates,” Diarra told Le Parisien in 2007. “I’ll never renounce my roots. I had the best moments of my life in Belleville. I had nothing, but I was happy.”
Announcing his move to PSG last month, Diarra wrote on Twitter: “It’s here that everything started. From the heights of Belleville to PSG: a return to Paris, the city of my heart.”
Diarra’s recall by France, after a five-year absence from the international game, was reward for his striking start to life with Marseille, where he belied his lengthy hiatus from top-level football with some superlative displays of midfield organising. As ever, though, it couldn’t last.
In spite of his excellent form, Diarra’s first season at the Velodrome was a complicated one. Marcelo Bielsa walked out on Marseille after the first game of the campaign, and it was only after his successor, Michel, had been sacked and replaced by caretaker coach Franck Passi that OM succeeded in securing their Ligue 1 status. Diarra, one of the few shining lights, was nominated for Ligue 1’s Player of the Season award (eventually losing out to Zlatan Ibrahimovic).
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Diarra had signed a private deed specifying that if a Champions League club showed an interest in him, Marseille would allow him to leave, but when the big clubs began to circle, a change in circumstances conspired against him. In August 2016, with Frank McCourt closing in on a takeover of the club, the man he had designated to become club president, Jacques-Henri Eyraud, informed Diarra that he would not be leaving.
In a lengthy television interview with beIN Sports in March 2017, Diarra said that he had felt “betrayed” and likened his situation to a “hostage-taking.”
As it happened, Rudi Garcia, who became OM coach in October 2016, decided that he would happily do without Diarra and stripped him of the captaincy that his team-mates had conferred upon him at the beginning of the season. Diarra made only four league starts under Garcia before the club released him on Valentine’s Day last year, his final appearance a two-minute cameo in a 2-0 home win over Guingamp. He was jeered by Marseille’s fans.
Diarra revealed in that beIN Sports interview that he had settled his dispute with Lokomotiv, to whom he was ordered to pay €10.5 million by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for breach of contract in May 2016, and said it was “possible” that his career was over.
He resurfaced a month later at Al Jazira in the United Arab Emirates. The impression that Diarra was beginning to look beyond his playing days deepened last July when he launched his own energy drink, Heroic Sport, and announced that he had “other projects” in the pipeline. Starting with that fleeting run-out against Guingamp, he would play in only six competitive football matches in 2017.
Enter PSG, who made their move after being alerted to an opportunity to acquire a proven international footballer who was not cup-tied in the Champions League.
Al Jazira’s decision to terminate Diarra’s contract enabled PSG to pick him up on a free transfer—a crucial detail, given the club’s precarious position with regard to Financial Fair Play following this season’s mega-splurge on Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
“We don’t know where he is [in terms of fitness],” Diarra’s former France team-mate William Gallas told L’Equipe last month. “It will obviously be less easy than two years ago at OM, but Lass has such strength of character.”
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Diarra has started PSG’s last two games and is competing with young Giovani Lo Celso for a starting place in Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 first leg against Real Madrid, which falls a year to the day after his departure from Marseille.
With Thiago Motta sidelined, Unai Emery has been scratching his head over who to align in front of PSG’s back four. Marco Verratti’s addiction to risk-taking makes him unsuitable for the role and Adrien Rabiot has made it clear that he would prefer not to play there. Lo Celso, a converted number 10, has put in some impressive performances and Diarra’s displays to date have been little more than solid, but he knows the position and—perhaps just as importantly—he knows the Bernabeu.
In a corner of his mind, Diarra will almost certainly be dreaming about going to the World Cup with France. He was a non-playing squad member at Euro 2008 and having been ruled out of the 2010 World Cup because of a genetic blood disorder before a knee injury robbed him of a place at Euro 2016, he is still to grace the pitch at a major tournament.
The chances are that he will not make it to Russia, but after so many previous expeditions, after London and Madrid, the north and south of France, Makhachkala and Moscow, the Hampshire coast and the Arabian Peninsula, Belleville’s footballing nomad has finally come home.