Mahamadou Diarra arrived at Real Madrid in August 2006 with a very impressive CV, having won four successive league titles and two French Cups with his previous club Lyon. Yet in spite of his track record, the ever-demanding Madrid public were not overly enthused with their new defensive midfielder. After three years without a major trophy and having just said goodbye to Zinedine Zidane, the club's fans were fiercely critical of new coach Fabio Capello's plans for the team, central to which was Diarra's role as a holding midfielder.
Now, ten months after his move to the Bernabeu, FIFA.com caught up with the Malian international to chat about his career to date and life with the Spanish giants.
After coming through a difficult settling-in period, which coincided with a poor run of form by his new side, Diarra says he is now happy at the club and thoroughly enjoying the team's late surge to the top of the league table.
"When I decided to come to Madrid I already knew the fans were very demanding, as I'd previously played at the Bernabeu with Lyon. But I wanted a new challenged after winning four league titles in France. Every player in the world wants to play for this club, and so when the opportunity arose, I thought, why not?"
A Spanish adventure
Recalling his first few games for losMerengues, Diarra says: "Spanish football is one of the toughest environments in the world, and it took some time for me to adapt. There was also a new language to learn. Now though, things are going well, and I'm very happy."
The player has every right to feel pleased given the recent turnaround in his side's fortunes. After playing catch-up in the league for most of the season, Madrid are now level on points with Barcelona at the top of the table and holding onto top spot by virtue of a better head-to-head record against their Catalan rivals. With just two matchdays remaining, the stage is set for one of the most thrilling climaxes to La Liga in years. "We've worked hard this season, and we strive every day to win the title. Right now we're top of the standings and I hope we're still there when it finishes," said Diarra.
"We had a difficult start to the season and found it hard to get going. There were quite a few new arrivals and we had several key players injured. There were a lot of different languages being spoken in the dressing room and that manifested itself out on the pitch. However, little by little we managed to change that mentality and create a good atmosphere. Now there is much more determination in the team, and we've found a way to work that has seen us progress, as shown in our recent games. With this kind of attitude and hunger for victory, I hope we can go on to achieve great things."
Accustomed to regular silverware at Lyon, Diarra hopes it is a sensation he can continue to enjoy in Spain but accepts that titles will be harder to come at his new home. "There is a big difference between playing for Lyon and playing for Real Madrid," he explained. "OL are the best side in France, but here is Spain the level is much higher. The league championship is harder in every respect: physically, technically, tactically... If you want to win you need to be great on the ball and run your socks off for 90inutes. There is much more parity between the sides. Any team here could beat you on their day."
The road to success
Diarra's return to form has not only silenced his critics at the Berbabeu, it has also earned him the trust of Capello - he is the Madrid player with the sixth-most playing time this season. For all of that, it has been a long and sometimes bumpy road from the Malian capital Bamako to Madrid. "When I started out playing football, I never envisaged it changing my life. I was devoted to football simply out of love for the game. Later luck would play its part, of course, and today I'm very proud of what I've achieved."
For the people of Bamako he was simply Djila - a nickname given to him by his friends in honour of that other Malian great, Djila Diarra, with whom he shares a surname as well as a playing style. The player first made a name for himself at home town side CSK Bamako, helping them back to the country's first division, before moving to OFI Crete at the tender age of 17 years and four months. After one season with the Greek club, he was on his way to Dutch outfit Vitesse Arnhem.
"The first year in Holland was very tough, and I really struggled to adapt," Diarra recalls. "I was coming from a warm country to one with freezing temperatures, in which I couldn't speak the language. On top of that, the food was completely different to what I was used to, and they had a very different mentality. To cap it all I was far away from my family.
"In my second season there Ronald Koeman was appointed coach, and that helped me a lot. He advised me on nutrition and training practices and corrected my mistakes. He took a very close interest in me and helped me grow in confidence and realise I could make an impact in the world of football. You could say Koeman is my European father. I have a lot to thank him for."
After benefiting from the tutelage of Koeman, Diarra impressed during his third season in the Dutch league, so much so that French giants Lyon came calling in 2001. "Moving to France wasn't difficult because Mali was a French colony. I spoke the language and had many compatriots there. My formative years were the ones spent in Holland. It was there I adapted and learned how things worked in Europe."
A passion for the Eagles
At 26, the player admits he still has much to learn and win in the word of football, not least with his beloved national team. "People are football-mad in Mali: it's pure passion," says Diarra, who proudly sports a Malian-coloured wristband every time he takes to the field. "Every time the national team plays, the stadium is packed to the rafters with enthusiastic fans. Unfortunately, to date we haven't been able to meet their expectations."
The current national team squad is certainly not short on talent, boasting, among others, Diarra, Frederic Kanoute, Seydou Keita and Mohamed Sissoko. So what is stopping them from being more successful? "We need the same thing Real Madrid did," says Djila, "a change of mentality, and also attitude perhaps. We players must be prepared to fight and show more audacity to achieve things for our country. I think we sometimes forget how to really fly the flag - you know, how to represent our country properly."
"On paper we have as much quality as this Côte d'Ivoire side or the Nigeria team of '98. We have a lot of players in Europe, but we must learn to play as a team. We don't know each other well enough and don't have sufficient opportunities to train together. That means we lack that a bit of unity on the pitch, and that only comes with time spent playing and training together."
The team's short-term goal is qualification for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2008, and they currently lie second in Group 9 just a point behind leaders Togo. Further down the road, though, the thought of helping the Eagles make it to their first FIFA World Cup™ is an even greater motivation, even more so with the next edition in 2010 being held on African soil.
"It's fantastic that the World Cup is coming to Africa. Here, there is a genuine passion for a football and a devotion to the World Cup. Our hosting it will help the development of football in our continent, and I'm sure it will be a very well-organised tournament."