If you were a native of Lyon and had just got back from holiday, the headlines in the local press would probably have you rubbing your eyes. After all, what possible turn of events could explain the bold title "Diarra bids fond farewell" on one page and "Warm welcome for Diarra" on the other? For anyone out of touch with the world of football, the journalistic silly season might seem to have reached bizarre new heights.
Instead, it is that time of the year when Lyon traditionally crank their gears into motion in the transfer market. The Rhone club have made something of a habit of securing last-minute deals as the August window is about to close. They captured Sylvain Wiltord just before the deadline in 2004 and compensated for the late departure of Michael Essien the following year with the speedy signings of Tiago and Fred. This summer is no different, although it does have its own peculiar flavour with not one but two Diarras at the heart of the action: Mahamadou and Alou. The former left the five-time French champions for Real Madrid, with the latter taking his place after joining from Ligue 1 rivals RC Lens.
This odd merry-go-round began when Fabio Capello took over the reins at Real in the off-season. Impressed by Mahamadou Diarra's performances against AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals back in April, the former Rossoneri and Juventus boss made it his business to bring the defensive midfielder to the Bernabeu.
He was not alone in coveting Diarra's services either, following the Malian's powerful showing in both legs, crowned by a goal at the San Siro that almost took Lyon through to the last four. The offers understandably flooded in, leaving club President Jean-Michel Aulas fending off propositions from Manchester United, Milan, Fiorentina and, of course, Real. The Spaniards eventually got their man, due in no small part to the sheer determination of their new coach.
"He's a very strong player who'll bring us a lot of qualities," commented Capello after Diarra finally signed. "For us, he was target number one." Considering the Merengues have also recruited Emerson, Ruud van Nistelrooij and Fabio Cannavaro this summer, that is quite a statement.
Real or nothing
After taking his first steps in the game with CSK Bamoko, the club founded by Mali legend Salif Keita, Diarra enjoyed spells with OFI Crete (Greece) and Vitesse Arnhem (Netherlands) before moving to Lyon in 2002. Four seasons and four French titles later, he says he feels immense pride at wearing the celebrated Madrid shirt. "It's every footballer's dream," he explained at his official unveiling. "For me personally, I've dreamt of this since I was a boy. I realised that if Real Madrid were interested in me, then I'd rather quit football altogether than not go there." The capital outfit's demanding fans could not have hoped for a more heartfelt beginning.
There is no reason to suspect that Diarra's performances on the pitch will not match up either, given that his strength, technique and precise passing made him indispensable at the core of Lyon's midfield. Indeed, Madrid officials will be hoping for more of the same as they aim finally to fill the hole left by Claude Makelele's departure in 2003.
Losing Essien and Diarra in the space of a year does not seem to have blighted the French champions' prospects. Portugal international Tiago proved a more than adequate successor to the Chelsea star last term, and Gerard Houllier's side have already lined up a replacement for the Malian. And while he may have cost £4.7 million from RC Lens, new arrival Alou Diarra will not cost Lyon a penny in new shirts.
Like Mahamadou, Alou operates in the middle of the park. Like Mahamadou, he is 25-years-old and, again like his namesake, he has his sights set on taking his game to a new level and collecting titles. "I want to win trophies, make a name for myself and earn a place in the France team," he told reporters after signing. "Lyon is the club I needed to join for that."
Comparisons with his predecessor are inevitable, but the young France international remains undaunted: "I don't feel any pressure or fear, just a huge determination. I know that 'Djila' left his mark here but I've come to establish myself in the side with my own qualities." Those qualities have already served him well, of course, with Les Bleus boss Raymond Domenech taking him to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ and sending him on as a substitute in the Final itself. Patrick Vieira was the man he replaced that day and, as tempting as it is to draw links with Mahamadou, Alou's career has more in common with that of the new France captain.
Signed at a young age from his initial club Louhans-Cuiseaux, Diarra spent two seasons at Bayern Munich without seeing a single minute of action with the first-team. That disappointment looked to be a thing of the past when Gerard Houllier's Liverpool came calling, but once again the youngster never got his chance. Loaned out to Le Havre and then Bastia, Diarra eventually made his way to Lens in the summer of 2004 and it quickly proved to be the perfect move. One of the first names on the team-sheet, his displays for the northerners soon caught Domenech's eye and, with 11 caps to his name including that FIFA World Cup Final appearance, he brushed aside interest from AS Roma and Galatasaray to pursue his ambitions with Lyon.
Now installed at the Stade Gerland, Diarra can look forward to his very first UEFA Champions League contest on 13 September. As in 2005-06, the Rhône side take on Real Madrid in their opening fixture, and they would love nothing more than a repeat of the 3-0 victory they registered that day, thanks largely to a blistering performance from a certain Diarra. One year on and Lyon still boast a Diarra in their ranks… but this time so do Real.