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FEATURE | Lassana Diarra – a perennially under-appreciated midfielder who shattered racist stereotypes

In football, stereotypes are applied to almost every player. If you are a tall, lanky striker, chances are you will be used as a target man and your role in a team will either be to hold the ball up for your teammates or to get into the box for crosses and to score headers. If you are a small winger, you will only be seen as someone who can out run everyone else and that’s your only function.

Perhaps the worst of the stereotypes is that if you are a black player – particularly a black central midfielder – the lazy football pundit and ignorant fan view has been that you must only be good for one thing – an underlying racism hard to pinpoint but you know its there: physicality. Wrongly, a stereotype has been propagated that black central midfielders are not very good on the ball and are only good for being holding midfielders who run for 90 minutes and barge opposition players off the ball.

Despite the fact that this simply is not true and there are many, many cases over the years that should warrant the end of this stereotype, it continues. Claude Makélélé? Michael Essien? Yaya Touré? At the peak moments in their career these three were all elite level central midfielders who would all have walked into any team in Europe, yet they get overlooked as simply “holding midfielders”.

Amongst the Makélélé’s and Essien’s in the Premier League during the mid 2000’s was another central midfielder who was written off by many as simply a ‘destroyer’ when that was not the case. In fact, this player would go on to play important roles for big clubs and proved to be an intelligent player on the ball as well as off it.

Growing up in Paris – but supporting Marseille – Lassana Diarra always stood out. Whether that be for his hard work, high-energy play style or his composure on the ball, Diarra was always one that caught the eye yet flew under the radar. He showed that in pressure situations, he was calm and composed enough to use the ball effectively, showing that pressing from opponents did not faze him and yet clubs did not seem interested. Nantes released him because they thought he was too small and lightweight, while he quit Le Mans because he felt like they did not care about him enough. A huge theme that followed Diarra throughout his career was hard work and determination.

He showed determination to prove Nantes wrong about being too small and when he arrived at Le Havre following his time away from football, his confidence shined along with his talent and his hard-work. He was not an unnecessarily flashy player, but to those who were watching, they never failed to ignore him. At Le Havre, his role as a defensive midfielder was incredibly important to the way their team played, with his knack for interceptions, energetic style of play and serenity on the ball earning him a move to Chelsea and then later Arsenal, all while earning the Young Player of the Year award with the Blues in the 2005/06 season.

When Diarra was scouted, comparisons were made between him and his Chelsea team-mate Claude Makélélé and while to the untrained eye that may be a simple comparison to make due to the position and nationality, their play styles were very similar. Diarra would be able to break up play and move the ball on with ease – as could Makélélé – but Diarra did it more as an all-round role.

When he signed for Arsenal, Arsène Wenger described him as a “multi-functional player”, adding that “not only is he hard-working, he has a creative edge and is comfortable playing in the middle of the pitch or at right-back.” Diarra’s versatility was often underplayed in his younger years but he was clever enough to play both roles efficiently, yet it probably was not until he joined Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth where he realised his true potential.

Alongside Sulley Muntari, Diarra was incredible. He was allowed to play his game on the ball while Muntari would roam forward as Diarra, who was determined to show why Chelsea and Arsenal were wrong to sell him, sat deeper to protect the back four and to kick-start moves.

He was the first line of defence in the Pompey team and the first line of attack when getting the ball off of the centre backs, with his intelligence on the ball and foresight in reading the play demonstrating just how good he was. Those traits carried him on to Madrid where he was described as a “todocampista” – a jack of all trades – when he was brought in by Juande Ramos. By no means was he a “Galactico” kind of signing, but he was more important to their side than anyone realised (sound familiar?).

As he grew older, his spells in France showed a different side to him than many had realised he had before. For a lot of his younger years he was a small fish in a big pond, but when he returned home it was like a new Diarra had emerged from the Russian wilderness. He was more experienced, more of a leader and more aware of how to help others around him, seemingly not missing a beat on or off the ball in the process either, proving to be an incredibly important player for L’OM when most people thought “Lassana Diarra? I thought he retired?”

His brief stint at PSG was not by any means a hugely successful one but it almost summed his career up poetically. Coming into the squad without any fanfare, providing enough talent and ability to help the squad then move on quietly – his next mission is to take his sports drinks brand Heroic Sport global. A fitting brand name, for an understated footballing hero.

Lassana Diarra was the kind of player who broke the stereotypes labelled at midfielders of the same colour skin as him, with his quality passing complimenting his energetic play. Sure, he was a physically impressive player in his prime, but the defining characteristic to his game was his guile. Hopefully now when people look at how important he was to Portsmouth when they won the FA Cup and Real Madrid when they rebuilt before Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival, they’ll understand how underrated he truly was.

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