Samba Diakité heads into 2016 with a renewed sense of optimism after a 2015 that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
On the pitch, the Malian midfielder continued his struggles at QPR where a succession of managers have remained unconvinced that he has what it takes to hold down a regular first team place.
“I am Muslim and it’s not Islam that teaches us to do that. It has got nothing to do with the Islam but unfortunately it has now tainted our reputation beyond repair”
Off the field came the horrors of the Paris terror attacks in November which claimed the lives of 130 innocent people. They happened in and around the Saint-Denis district, close to where Diakité did most of his growing up.
“It is so sad, it still haunts me,” he said. “It happened just 10 minutes by car away from where I grew up. It could have been me or someone I know who passed away.
“I don’t have words left for what happened. I was in Paris that weekend to visit my family as I had a few days off. I saw police and ambulances everywhere. Then I saw the incidents on television. I could not believe my eyes.
“I am Muslim and it’s not Islam that teaches us to do that. It has got nothing to do with the Islam but unfortunately it has now tainted our reputation beyond repair. There are good and bad people from every religion. Hopefully we can find a solution and live happily.”
Of course, the northern suburb of Paris has known happier days. When his idol Zinedine Zidane scored a brace in the World Cup final 1998 against Brazil at the Stade de France , Diakité was nine years old and celebrated wildly with his family in Saint-Denis.
A bomb exploded outside the stadium during a friendly game between World Cup 2014 winners Germany and Euro 2016 hosts France during the November attacks, and Diakité fears this summer’s tournament will be a target.
“There will always be risks, unfortunately. There are many bad individuals in the world so it can happen at any time,” the 26-year-old told me when we met in Chiswick, west London.
As for his prediction for the tournament itself? “France and England won’t win it. Their teams are not good enough. In my opinion, Germany will win Euro 2016. They are still the team to beat.”
Ligue 1 on the rise
Diakité honed his skills at FC Nancy between summer 2010 and January 2012, the time preceding Paris Saint Germain’s Qatari-funded rise to become one of Europe’s strongest teams.
“The differences between football in France and England? In France it is tactical, technical and physical at the same time while here it is just physical with a lot of spaces for creative players. In France games end 1-0, 1-1, 2-1 most of the time, while here they often end 3-0.
“QPR decided he was the man to run the midfield for years to come. Ever since, however, Diakité has drifted off the radar at elite level”
“The Premier League is one of the best in the world but the Ligue 1 is on the rise, thanks to PSG. It is broadcast almost all over the world. Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Silva… there are many world-class players in France now.”
In the winter transfer window of four years ago, Diakité’s star was on the rise as clubs such as Olympique Lyonnais, Arsenal and QPR competed to sign him from Nancy.
The Loftus Road outfit won the race and turned his initial six-month loan into a permanent deal that June following his mouthwatering contribution to the team’s Premier League survival that season.
The club’s hierarchy decided he was the man to run the midfield for years to come. Ever since, however, Diakité has drifted off the radar at elite level.
Loan spells at Watford and Al Ittihad, and a lack of consideration by QPR managers Harry Redknapp first and then Chris Ramsey, plus a series of injuries have all seen his career on a downward spiral.
A fairytale 2012
How different things seemed in 2012, when Diakité hit the winning goal against Arsenal in March and played a big part in helping Mali to reach the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations.
“The goal against Arsenal in March 2012 was the most important goal of my career,” he recalls fondly. “Firstly because it gave us the three points which at the end proved vital for us to stay up.
“For Mali, he was the catalyst and the leader of a very young and inexperienced side. Against all odds, they reached the final four”
“Besides, that goal earned me a new four-year contract at QPR. Wherever I go now, people recognise me because of it and always speak to me about it.”
For Mali, he was the catalyst and the leader of a very young and inexperienced side. Against all odds, they reached the final four.
“I got first called up by Mali when I was still at Nancy. It was a great moment for me and my family. Representing Mali was a dream that came true.
“I was very disappointed when we got knocked out by the Ivory Coast in the semi-finals. It’s like a derby match, but we were very happy to have gone that far. Who would have expected it?”
Heart beats for Mali
Who would he would support if France and Mali ever met at the World Cup? “That’s actually a really good question. I would say Mali because I feel Malian. But I owe everything to France.
“However I can’t see it happening that an African team will ever win the World Cup. There are Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria, very good teams, but are they good enough to go all the way in the world’s greatest tournament? I doubt it.
“Africa has produced some of the biggest strikers ever like Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor, Didier Drogba, Adel Taarabt and George Weah but it’s more difficult to produce world-class teams. Eto’o, for me , is the best African player ever.”
The Taarabt enigma
A hero at AC Milan in Italy during the second part of the 2013-2014 campaign, Taarabt could not keep his promise in England and got shipped off by QPR to Portuguese giants Benfica last season, where he is currently struggling for game time as well.
“Benfica are a big club where you have to prove yourself all over again, but I’m sure that once Taarabt learns Portuguese football he will be the difference”
Diakité, a former team-mate and close friend of the Moroccan regards him highly both as a player and as a man. “I have played with many top players in my career but Taarabt is the best of all,” he insisted.
“What he could do on the pitch was incredible. Only he could do certain things. Off the pitch he is a great guy too. We are great friends and he is someone who cares about you off the pitch if you have a problem. He is a fantastic guy.
“I’m surprised that he does not play at Benfica, he has what it takes to be one of their best players. But Benfica are a big club where you have to prove yourself all over again but I’m sure that once he learns Portuguese football he will be the difference.”
New year, fresh hope
Like his friend Taraabt, Diakité has a point to prove in 2016. He turns 27 this month and his contract runs out in June.
“Who knows, maybe Diakité will earn his chance to once again let his skill and talent do the talking for him on the pitch”
As things stand, few teams would be prepared to take the risk of signing him after languishing on the margins for most of his last three seasons.
However, Diakité firmly believes that better days are around the corner. “I would like to stay in England and in the Premier League and preferably also in London. I love life here,” he told me. “I also have the level to play in the top flight. I am sure better days will come.”
With QPR now managed by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who knows? Maybe Diakité will earn his chance to once again let his skill and talent do the talking for him on the pitch.