Ten years ago this summer, Alou Diarra was a whisker away from becoming a legend – because that’s what a World Cup triumph transforms you into.
Even a fairly ordinary career can be turned into a memorable one if you are part of a team that sews a new star on the country’s football jersey.
“We dominated but Italy resisted and won which was tough to stomach for us because even at 11 v 10 we played better”
But it wasn’t to be for the French squad that Diarra was part of in 2006 final in Germany, with the finger of blame pointed firmly at Italy’s star defender Marco Materazzi.
His insults goaded France talisman Zinedine Zidane into getting himself sent off, damaging his team’s hopes of being crowned World Cup champions for a second time.
Sure enough, the legendary number 10’s dismissal saw the Italians grow in confidence as extra time ticked by, and they went on to win the deciding penalty shoot-out.
“Before Zidane’s expulsion, we were in control of the game and the better side,” said Diarra, now 34 and plying his trade at Championship outfit Charlton Athletic. “His sending off complicated things.
“Looking back, the despair of losing the World Cup is of course bigger than the joy of winning it, obviously because if you reach the final you want to win it also.
“We rose as the tournament progressed as we started off badly with two draws [against Switzerland and South Korea]. But our win against Togo in the last group game set the tone for the knock-out stages as we got a confidence-boost and managed to reach the final.
“In the final in Berlin, Italy were more efficient and their way of playing [defensive-minded catenaccio] did the trick.
“Italy were tough to beat anyway, but I’d have preferred if we hadn’t been a man down, 11 against 11 it would have been another story.
“I think hatred is a strong word… if Materazzi walks by I’d shake his hand because football is just a sport”
“We dominated the encounter… but Italy resisted and won which was tough to stomach for us because even at 11 v 10 we played better. We would have won it with Zidane on the pitch.”
Whatever Materazzi said to Zidane that day, it made the Frenchman plant a headbutt squarely into his chest.
“Still today we don’t know what he told him word for word,” Diarra said. “But it was enough at the time to make him lose his mind.”
Given his antics, the French nation still holds a grudge against Materazzi, but midfielder Diarra, who came on for Patrick Vieira on 56 minutes that night and saw the incident at close hand, dismisses talk of hatred.
“I think hatred is a strong word… if he walks by I’d shake his hand because football is just a sport and you can’t mix the two things.”
Diarra concedes that he had a sleepless night on the eve of the big game, such as Filippo Inzaghi and Gennaro Gattuso had for the Azzurri.
“They didn’t sleep? I didn’t sleep either,” he told me. “I had a difficult night and I struggled to close an eye… it was a unique game awaited and watched by the whole world.
“When I was a kid I always dreamed of playing in a World Cup final. Thanks to a lot of work, dedication and ambition, I managed to fulfill this dream, so the tension before it was double.”
Vintage years in Bordeaux
After putting his World Cup disappointment behind him, Diarra went on play a leading role in Bordeaux winning the French title in 2008-09.
“Blanc created a great unit and a team spirit. Together we were afraid of nothing”
With him as their captain, Yoann Gourcuff as their midfield architect and Fernando Cavenaghi tormenting defences, Laurent Blanc guided them to their first league crown in a decade.
“That season was the peak of my career,” Diarra recalls. “I have so many great memories as we won the league and did well in the Champions League.
“At that time, Bordeaux were a well-respected side in Europe. On paper, we were probably not impressive, but with Laurent Blanc everyone progressed as he managed to get the best out of every single player.
“He created a great unit and a team spirit. Together we were afraid of nothing.”
Diarra believes that his old boss Blanc – who earned 97 caps for France and helped them win the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 – has what it takes to steer Paris Saint-Germain to unpredecented European glory.
“Blanc? As a player, a legend. And since he took over, PSG have never played as good as now. I faced PSG numerous times when they had other managers but thanks to Blanc there’s a great unit in the team now.
“What strikes me is how he can handle big egos and personalities like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Edinson Cavani. He was not the first choice when he arrived but we have to concede that he is a great technician who has made the whole team progress considerably.
“In my opinion he has the skills to guide PSG very far in the Champions League… even if I see Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the driving seat to clinch it. But PSG can win it too.”
The one thing holding PSG back, Diarra believes, is the quality of Ligue 1 – seen by many as second-tier and way behind the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A, despite PSG’s money and star-studded injection of talent in recent years.
“If I have to give my career a vote from one to 10, I’d say that before West Ham it was seven or eight and after my time at Upton Park four or five”
“PSG’s problem is that Ligue 1 games don’t prepare them enough for the big Champions League clashes,” he said.
“PSG is too strong for the French league, they are heads and shoulders above the rest and the excitement in France is gone, unlike at my time in Bordeaux when teams such as Lille, Marseille or us won it in the years building-up to the Qatari era at PSG.
“Now I don’t think it’s possible [other teams winning Ligue 1].”
Life at the Valley
Diarra is currently preoccupied with life at the foot of the league, with Charlton rock bottom and their fans protesting against Belgian owner Roland Duchatelet.
Despite the club’s struggles, Diarra doesn’t regret opting for a move to the Valley a year ago, especially after failing to make the grade in England, first at Liverpool in 2000 and then at West Ham 12 years later.
“After my negative experience at West Ham from 2012 to 2014, I lost two years of career,” he said.
“Here at Charlton I have the chance to live in London and play for a good squad. Let’s say it, it’s a life choice that I made.
“When I played for Liverpool at the age of 19 I was very young, my position at the club was uncertain. I wanted to play and not just in cup games.
“After being marginalised for some time I took the decision to return to France to play regularly because as a young player you only progress when you play and not when you sit on the bench.
Now in the final years of his career, Diarra says he remains hungry and motivated to play despite his “seasoned passport”.
” I think I could have established myself at a top European club… this is my regret”
“I want to keep on playing for a few more years and then I’d like to become a manager. I think I have a lot of things which I learned in my career to pass on to young players, and also many things to learn.
He offers a frank assessment of his career, saying: “If I have to give it a vote from one to 10, I’d say that before West Ham it was seven or eight and after my time at Upton Park four or five.
“Going to West Ham and not having had the opportunity to feature for a top European side in Spain, Italy or England are the biggest regrets of my career.
“I had the potential to do so because if you are a regular starter for France for many years and if you see the list of players for Les Bleus… then I think I could have established myself also at a top European club as well. Yes, this is my regret.”
As, of course, is the 110th minute of the World Cup final in 2006. Without that ill-fated episode, we’d probably be speaking about a legend now.
Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.