From Clasicos to the Cottage - How former Real Madrid man Mahamadou Diarra ended up at Fulham

The Malian looked destined for greatness following his move to Spain from Lyon, but after his demise at the Bernabeu, the 30-year-old is looking to get back on track in England
By Andrew Kennedy

Martin Jol’s assertion in his pre-match press conference on Friday that new signing Mahamadou Diarra has nothing to prove following his arrival at Fulham was in itself an admission as to how far the 30-year-old has fallen.

"The trick with players like him is not to start telling them they need to prove something," the Dutchman pondered, well aware that despite the midfielder’s dip in recent seasons, prior to that he won six straight titles in Ligue 1 and La Liga, playing a key role in each success.

Having begun his senior career in the Greek Super League with Crete, the Malian soon secured a switch to the Eredivisie with Vitesse. Not only did Diarra get his first taste of European competition in three short-lived Uefa Cup campaigns, but in Netherlands the Bamako-born player caught the eye of Europe’s elite as he continued to develop into a major force in the centre of the park.

A switch to Serie A with Juventus was touted, but Lyon stole a march and secured the €3.8 million signing of Diarra in the summer of 2002 – in hindsight a token fee for a player who would go on to play a key role in the side which dominated French football throughout the first decade of the new millennium.

Diarra won four straight Ligue 1 trophies at Stade Gerland, forming a powerful and energetic partnership with Michael Essien in the heart of midfield, which in turn gave attacking license to creative talents such as Juninho, Florent Malouda and Sylvain Wiltord.

Despite such promise, Lyon failed to progress past the quarter-finals of the Champions League during Diarra’s stay in Ligue 1, with group stage victories over Manchester United and then Real Madrid failing to result in strong showings in the knockout rounds – but Diarra’s stock only continued to grow.

Fabio Capello made the midfielder his top target upon his return to Santiago Bernabeu, with Real Madrid beating off competition from Manchester United to land the Malian in a €26m deal in August 2006.

Life in the Spanish capital began well for Diarra, as he helped los Blancos to a La Liga title during his first season at the club under Capello, before again proving influential as Bernd Schuster guided Madrid to a consecutive Primera Division trophy.

Yet the following season the defensive midfielder suffered a knee injury when playing for Mali against Chad, and despite a quick return to action after a month on the sidelines, an aggravation to the problem would see Diarra miss out for the remainder of the campaign – and in turn permanently fall out of favour at the Bernabeu.

In the summer of 2009 Madrid signed Xabi Alonso from Liverpool, with the former Real Sociedad man’s technical ability quickly exposing the limitations of Diarra’s ball-winning game in the eyes of supporters.

The managerial merry-go-round may have no let-up at Madrid, but Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho were both consistent in their lack of confidence in Diarra’s abilities, with the midfielder eventually frozen out at the club, making just 20 appearances under the Chilean and eight under the former Chelsea boss.

"Diarra departed for Spain seemingly destined to become a star. By the time he returned five years later, he looked a completely different player."

- Robin Bairner, French Football Editor

The African returned to France, five years after his initial departure, a different player, with an initially promising La Liga career having flickered out as Diarra’s contract was cancelled by Madrid, leaving Monaco to gamble on the midfielder’s experience to salvage their top-flight status.

However, his demise would only accelerate on the Mediterranean coast, and by the end of his stay at Stade Louis II he would struggle to even make the matchday squad, with his time blighted by injuries and poor form as Les Rouge et Blanc were relegated to the French second division.

Diarra’s stay in the principality ended on a sour note, with the midfielder released by Monaco and he spent much of the early part of the campaign training with Lyon.

However, his former club shunned a man who had formerly been such a star at Stade Gerland, despite a shortage of talent and experience in the area in which he tends to thrive – arguably the most telling sign of Diarra’s fall since his days amongst Europe’s best.

The 30-year-old has now been handed a fresh start in west London, as he looks to re-establish his footballing career in the Premier League after six months without a professional contract, and, in-turn, earn a long-term stay at Craven Cottage.

"I consider the 12 remaining matches as 12 finals for me," the Malian said. "It's up to me now to prove that I can do well and satisfy the team with good performances on the pitch."

Indeed Martin Jol may not believe Diarra has to prove his worth, but the midfielder is well aware that his time at the Cottagers may be his last chance to resurrect a career that originally looked destined for the stratosphere.

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