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From FA Cup winner to training-ground rebel: Madrid's jack of all trades Lassana Diarra had no ordinary career

11:00 EAT 15/05/2021
Lassana Diarra Cristiano Ronaldo Harry Redknapp Kylian Mbappe Real Madrid Portsmouth PSG GFX
The Frenchman impressed at some of the world’s biggest clubs – yet was never a star for any of them and often had to make way for bigger names

Sol Campbell, Niko Kranjcar, Nwankwo Kanu – the Portsmouth side that claimed FA Cup glory in 2008 featured several names who would either be stars at leading European clubs in the future or who had played at the highest level in the past.

However, the player often regarded as the best of the bunch was Lassana Diarra, who was imperious in the Pompey midfield for a 12-month spell which culminated in that famous Wembley win over Cardiff.

FA Cup glory, though, would prove just one of many notable moments in an extraordinary career.

Diarra impressed for some of the world’s biggest clubs – yet was never a star for any of them and often made way for bigger names.

He also shined for slightly lesser lights in top European leagues but always seemed to get caught up in controversy and chaos.

Primarily a defensive midfielder, Diarra played for – among others – Chelsea, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain.

Hard-tackling and hard-working, the Frenchman was also composed on the ball, had a good eye for a pass and would often make forward runs to support attacks from deep.

He was described in his time at Real as a 'todocampista' (jack of all trades) but what was his best role? And did we ever see the best of him?

Having made his professional breakthrough at Le Havre, Diarra was still only a teenager when he joined Chelsea for £1 million ($1.4m) in 2005.

He was named the Blues' Young Player of the Season at the end of his first year at Stamford Bridge but always remained on the fringes of the first team, despite having many of the same qualities as Claude Makelele, who was aging gracefully but inexorably in the heart of midfield.

Diarra was sold to Arsenal in the summer of 2007 but he spent only five months in north London, after failing to dislodge Mathieu Flamini from the defensive midfield position.

Rather than try to prove his worth to Arsene Wenger, he moved to big-spending Portsmouth in January 2008 and finally began to prove himself in the Premier League.

Diarra also played every minute of Pompey's triumphant FA Cup campaign and scored their first ever European goal in the following season's UEFA Cup.

His fine form earned him a sensational €20m (£17m/$24m) switch to Real Madrid in January 2009.

Diarra, who began wearing 'Lass' on the back of his shirt to differentiate him from Blancos team-mate Mahamadou Diarra, was now mixing it with superstars such as Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, but he held his own, becoming a first-team fixture for two seasons.

He even earned a place in the 2009 Goal 50, ranking a highly respectable 27th. We said at the time: “The ease with which the French international continued to look the most outstanding player in midfield, game after game, almost made the transfer seem like a bargain.

“Still just 24 years of age, the battling midfielder will only get better, and when Benzema, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo are living free and easy playing their champagne football, it will be Lass who brings it all together. Not bad for a reject.”

At the peak of his career, Diarra was also included in the France squad for the 2010 World Cup.

However, at the pre-tournament training camp, he suffered terrible stomach cramps and was diagnosed with sickle-cell anaemia, forcing him out of the tournament – which, given France’s implosion in South Africa, may have been a blessing in disguise.

His three-and-a-half year spell at the Santiago Bernabeu would ultimately prove to be his longest with any club, with Liga and Copa del Rey honours earned.

However, he eventually fell down the pecking order and was moved on so Real could offer improved financial terms to Kaka.

The manager who sold him was Jose Mourinho, who had also got rid of him at Chelsea and never fancied Diarra as a first-team option.

In 2012, he moved to another ambitious and free spending outfit, this time Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, but, just like Portsmouth, they suffered financial turmoil and he had to be sold to Lokomotiv Moscow in August 2013.

There, he faced strife of a different kind, falling out with manager Leonid Kuchuk in summer 2014.

He eventually stopped turning up for training and Lokomotiv responded by sacking Diarra and persuading FIFA to ban him for 15 months, causing Diarra to miss the 2014-15 season, and pay a €10m (£8.6m/$12.1m) fine.

After stints with Marseille and Abu Dhabi outfit Al Jazira, he made a surprise return to France with PSG, as they looked to solve a depth problem in defensive midfield.

"I am very happy to have signed for my hometown club," Diarra told the club's website after his move: "Paris Saint-Germain represents a lot to me and, with the international dimension the club has taken in recent seasons, it is every player's dream to play here."

However, he was unable to secure a starting spot and, after just 13 league appearances across a season and a half, Diarra was released. 

As result, he retired from professional football, aged only 33 – although with a domestic treble won in his final full campaign at the Parc des Princes.

Diarra may have had a shortened career but he packed more in than most could have done in two decades.

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