Lassana Diarra revealed long-term friend Ibrahim Diaky convinced him to join Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira.
The 34-times capped French international left French giants Marseille in the summer and was officially unveiled as a Jazira player yesterday – along with fellow summer signings Ahmed Khalil, Sardor Rashidov, Romarinho and Mohammed Ali Ayed.
A deal for the former Real Madrid, Arsenal and Chelsea anchorman was concluded very early on and Diarra admitted speaking with veteran former Pride of Abu Dhabi midfielder Diaky – now at fierce rivals Al Ain – had persuaded him to try something new in the UAE.
“I have some friends here who have played here for a long time and we have been in contact for many years, I come here on holiday too with my family a lot so I think it was the right to say ‘OK, let’s do it’,” said Parisian Diarra, 32, who is of Malian descent.
“Diaky, he told me. We are friends. He is from the Ivory Coast, I am from Mali, we’ve been friends a long time, since 2008 or 09. I come here sometimes to watch his games and that’s how I had contact with the club. I think this year was the right time to move.
“I’ve been travelling around a lot, different countries. Today I’m at an age where I can decide what I want to do and see something else.”
Pocket dynamo Diarra has often been as explosive off the field as much as he is on it during his career – with Jazira his ninth club.
He had been with Ligue 1 royalty Marseille for the last two seasons but he denied testing out the AGL was a step down for him.
“No. It’s like you say, I am more closer to the end than the beginning so this is where my age can help the team,” he said, having signed a one-year deal at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
“Last season the team were champions and I think it’s a good challenge for me. I have to be realistic. At my age I wanted to do something else.
“I was in France, England, Spain, Russia and now I want to find something else for me, my family. Then we will see what I’m going to do at the end of the year.”
Henk ten Cate’s side begin the defence of their league crown – a first in six seasons – at home against promoted Ajman tomorrow, and Diarra insists he has come here to extend the club’s success rather than ease into retirement.
“I think it will be a tough game, especially as it is the first game of the season,” he added.
“Last year we were champions so the expectations are higher and everyone will want to beat us, so it will be a big game.
“I think the eyes will be on the team (rather than me), I’ll just try to bring my qualities that I have to the team. I just have to be normal and do my best. I will try to add to the team.
“Everything’s been very good since I got here. Now the league starts and I want to perform. It’s my first game in this league. I would like to feel the atmosphere and I’m ready to start. I want to win and I want to play.”
A grateful nation in need requires one last act of stellar service from Ismail Matar.
In the absence of waylaid 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, the timeless 117-cap veteran stepped into a void few of the faithful at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium believed could be filled during Tuesday’s night critical World Cup 2018 qualifier against Saudi Arabia.
Defeat in just his second start of this lengthy campaign would have ended the dreams of the ‘Golden Generation’ he inspired, more than anyone else. Instead, and in typical fashion, the 34-year-old living legend orchestrated a clutch 2-1 triumph as playmaker which means another miracle act awaits in next week’s rousing third-and-final-round finale against eliminated Iraq.
A heavy win allied with a sizeable slice of good fortune will send the Whites on their way into next summer’s tournament in Russia.
With unstoppable Al Jazira front man Ali Mabkhout now joining the esteemed ‘Amoory’ on the sidelines for the defining Group B-clash in Amman, Matar’s role is to be amplified even further.
At an age when most footballers have just the comfort of club football to keep them busy, injuries and suspensions which have decimated the UAE’s ‘big three’ ensure the hero of the historic 2007 Gulf Cup-success on home soil is the main man once again – and after all these years.
Eyebrows were raised in Al Ain an hour before kick-off when the expected news of Abdulrahman’s absence was joined by the unexpected choice from Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza in his second math at the helm to plump for Matar as his replacement. The hands of time and rise of the ‘Golden Generation’ had made Matar an increasingly-peripheral presence.
Any dissenting – and ungrateful – voices were soon silenced as the Al Wahda icon slotted seamlessly into a new 4-3-1-2 formation which, belatedly, delivered a display of refined calibration.
The player who first shone when winning the Golden Ball as the best player at the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship was central to this success.
Unnerving accuracy and incisive vision was on show throughout his sterling 77 minute on the pitch. Whether unleashing striker Ahmed Khalil’s pace on the break with long balls or linking up with the likes of rampaging Al Nasr tyro Tariq Ahmed in close quarters, the Saudis could not quell him.
His success while opposing attacking stalwart Taisir Al Jassim fruitlessly toiled was a key component of this success.
In Jordan, Matar will need to engineer a minimum swing of eight in goal difference for his country to stand any chance of advancement. But on this evidence, his powers to produce footballing drama remain intact.
In the Pantheon of UAE football greats, he is rivalled only by World Cup 1990 stars Khalid Ismail, Ali Thani and Adnan Al Talyani.
Provide the bullets on Tuesday for 16-goal joint-global top scorer Khalil and one of Middle East football’s finest careers will bequeath a priceless, potential, parting gift.
Al Wahda defender Ahmed Rashid and winger Suhail Al Noubi of relegated Bani Yas were the only new faces selected on Monday by UAE coach Edgardo Bauza for a predictable 30-man squad, which faces a mission impossible in the imminent finale to World Cup 2018 qualifying.
The Whites critically sit fourth in Group B for the third-and-final stage, six points and one place outside the progression spots. They must hammer third-place Saudi Arabia in Al Ain on August 29 and eliminated Iraq in Amman, Jordan on September 5 to hold a slim chance of contesting for the inter-confederation play-off, on goal difference.
Despite the parlous situation caused by June 13’s 1-1 draw on debut in Thailand, the recently-dismissed Argentina coach has resisted calls to widely raid the youth ranks.
Rashid, 20, and Al Noubi, 21, both impressed when the junior Whites last month failed to make the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship. But Al Jazira forward Ahmed Al Attas, 21, was overlooked despite then scoring three goals in three games.
Another surprise absentee from the Pride of Abu Dhabi was electric playmaker Khalfan Mubarak. The 22-year-old was an unused substitute in Bangkok under El Paton.
Al Ain’s players have been excused from meeting up with the rest of the squad on Friday in the Garden City because of Monday’s 2017 AFC Champions League quarter-final, first leg against Riyadh giants Al Hilal.
Khalid Essa, Mohammed Ahmed, Ismail Ahmed, Mohaned Salem, Ahmed Barman, Omar Abdulrahman, Mohamed Abdulrahman (Al Ain); Suhail Al Noubi (Bani Yas); Ali Khaseif, Mohammed Fawzi, Fares Juma, Ahmed Khalil, Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira); Ahmed Shambieh, Mahmoud Khamis, Tariq Ahmed, Salem Saleh (Al Nasr); Majed Nasser, Abdulaziz Haikal, Mohammed Marzouq, Walid Abbas, Abdulaziz Sanqour, Khamis Esmail, Hassan Ibrahim, Habib Fardan (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club); Ahmed Rashid, Tariq Ahmed, Khaled Bawazir, Mohamed Al Akbari, Ismail Matar (Al Wahda)
World Cup 2018 qualifiers
20:30 UAE v Saudi Arabia
16:10 Iraq v UAE