Enriching or nomadic; how to judge Lassana Diarra’s career?

Words By Alex Hess Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 29, 2018

Not many footballers move from Abu Dhabi’s Pro-League to one of Europe’s moneyed heavyweights, but then not many footballers will be able to hang up their boots and look back on time spent in London and Le Havre, Madrid and Moscow, Dagestan and Fratton Park.

Lassana Diarra, it’s fair to say, has had an odd career. To call it nomadic would be like describing Piers Morgan as irritating, or Ed Sheeran as dull. Paris Saint-Germain, for whom Diarra signed this week, will be his 10th club, and at 32 he’s got a few more seasons in him yet. Among team-mates present and former he can count Samuel Eto’o, Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Thierry Henry, Neymar and David Nugent – the makings of a future quiz question, if nothing else.

He was, famously, heralded as heir to the throne of Claude Makelele, not only bearing the same hallmarks as the canonised defence-shielder in terms of position, physique, playing style and nationality, but even breaking into the Chelsea setup just as his forerunner was beginning to creak. The similarities were eerie, and in theory the passing of the baton was perfectly set up.

As tends to be the case, though, theory didn’t translate so neatly into practice. Impatience took him to an Arsenal side in the early throes of the great late-Wenger-era collapse, from where, after just six months, he jumped ship to Portsmouth, won the FA Cup and made haste for the Bernabeu.

Three years there was as close to settled as he’s ever been, and after that he jumped aboard the Anzhi Makhachkala gravy train, disembarked after a season, and saw his time at Lokomotiv Moscow meet an ugly end when – with an impressive three red cards under his belt in his first three months – he was sacked for refusing to train under coach Leonid Kuchuk.

Now, via France and Abu Dhabi, he’s at PSG – the club, funnily enough, where Makelele himself saw out the latter stages of his career. With Diarra having also spent time at Chelsea, Real Madrid and Marseille, perhaps that “new Makelele” wasn’t so wide of the mark after all.

So what to make of it all? The first thought is to look at it as a career somewhat squandered, not least the seasons spent in the moneyed backwaters of Anzhi Makhachkala and Lokomotiv Moskow. Certainly with a career that’s also taken in mid-noughties Chelsea, Mandaric-era Portsmouth and Qatar-owned PSG, Diarra is not a man who can stand accused of failing to monetise his talents.

Instinct tells us that there’s is a problem with this. We tend to hold these whistle-stop careers as not just the literal opposite of the one-club men but the moral opposite too. Whereas Gerrard, Totti and Le Tissier are loyal and humble servants, the Diarras of the world are fickle guns-for-hire, one eye forever on their next signing-on fee.

Perhaps there’s a note of truth in that view, but it conveniently ignores the fact that those players lucky enough to forge a career at their boyhood club tend not to play for free. Most people change job from time to time – indeed, most people’s jobs are a means to an end, something that enables them to live their life: to have fun, to provide for their family, to travel. There’s no reason why we should hold footballers to different standards and looked at from that angle, Diarra, who has so far lived in five different countries, has had an enriching career in more ways than one.

In fact, if you’re able to look past the distaste that the current PSG project inspires, Diarra will have played in some seminal teams, too: Mourinho’s Chelsea, Wenger’s Arsenal, the Madrid side that pipped Pep’s Barcelona to La Liga. Factor in what his current side might go on to achieve, and it’s not bad way to squander a career.

Of course there will always be people who, perhaps with some justification, will paint him as a dead-eyed mercenary. But the point is that such a binary viewpoint ignores the nuances of reality: all footballers want to win things, and all footballers want to earn money doing it. And besides, plenty of greats have been dismissed in similar terms in the past. It’s worth remembering the description given by one broadsheet writer in the summer of 2003, to a player who had gone on strike to force through a transfer to noveau riche Chelsea: “A man shaped by money, envy and perhaps an inflated sense of his own worth”. The player in question? Claude Makelele.

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