Mention Modibo Diarra, and the face of Lutfi Benzarti, the Emirates coach, lights up.
Emirates will 'not regret choosing' the Ivory Coast striker
Given his years of experience in football, especially in this part of the world, Lutfi Benzarti usually does a good job of masking his emotions.
But mention the name of Modibo Diarra, and the Tunisian's face lights up and you can see the pride in his smile.
"Diarra is my player," Benzarti said as he sat, with a cup of tea in hand, watching his Ivory Coast striker train with the rest of his Emirates teammates at the Ras Al Khaimah club. "He was with me in Baniyas for almost two years. He is like a son to me."
The bond between Benzarti and Diarra does indeed seem to be strong. The trust is evident, for the first man Benzarti turned to after arriving at the struggling Emirates club was his former ward, who was playing in the French Ligue 2 with Le Mans.
Diarra immediately answered the SOS and hit the ground running, scoring two goals on his Emirates debut against, ironically, his last UAE club, Al Wahda. He scored a brace in the following two Pro League matches as well, against Dubai and Al Ahli, as Emirates lifted themselves off the bottom of the league table.
It was an excellent return for a man who had been struggling at Le Mans, but the trust Benzarti has in his abilities must give the 28 year old plenty of confidence.
"I brought him here because I know the quality he has and the value he brings to the side," Benzarti said. "He is a player who can do anything on a pitch. He makes a difference and he has already shown that. We need such players. For me, he is a very good player."
Not many other coaches in the UAE have shown that kind of faith in Diarra. That explains his nomadic existence in UAE football since he first arrived here in 2006 when he was signed by Al Nasr from Abidjan club ASEC Mimosas.
A year later, Diarra was at Ajman where he topped the scoring charts, helping them to get promoted to the Pro League.
Ajman decided against continuing with his services and Diarra was packed off to another Division One side, Dubai, in July, 2008. Six months later, Benzarti signed him and put him to lead the Baniyas attack. Diarra played a big part as Benzarti's team finished at the top of Division One.
Diarra was the top scorer for Baniyas in their first season in the Pro League with 13 goals and his performance earned him a deal with that season's champions Al Wahda. With Fernando Baiano spearheading their attack, Diarra had few opportunities, He was soon on the move to France.
"I have played for a lot of teams here," Diarra said. "I was happy in every team I played, so I have good memories at all the clubs. Thanks to God, I finished as the top scorer for the team at most of those clubs. That means I have done my best at every club.
"Now, I want to do the same for Emirates. I will do my best to bring happiness to the club and the fans here. I will make sure they do not regret choosing me.
"Le Mans was a bit difficult in the beginning because I did not play much at Al Wahda. I spent almost eight months virtually without any matches. … So it was a bit difficult at the start, but I managed to bounce back and score some goals there. But I was not feeling as comfortable as I would have liked, so I decided to come here."
Diarra's desire to return to the UAE is understandable. This country was his first home outside Ivory Coast and he has spent more than five years here.
Growing up in the streets of Abidjan, Diarra had never even dreamt he would play professional football someday. And since the UAE gave him that opportunity first, he says he has a soft spot for the country.
"I started very young, but I never thought I would become a professional like this," he said.
"When I started playing, it was just to enjoy. Later, as he we started training, my quality was up there with the other players. That's why I was picked to play in Division One in Abidjan. After that I came here and became a professional."
Difficult financial conditions meant studies were the first priority for Diarra. Football was just an after-school activity. "We went to school and we were good students, so our parents were not upset about our football," Diarra said. "Our focus was always on finishing school and trying to get a job after that. We never really thought about football as a career.
"But after school, we decided on giving football a chance. It was a difficult choice to make and we had to struggle, but thanks to God, we succeeded. We have managed to bring joy to our family through football and we have been able to help them and many other people through football."
Diarra thanks Franco Cochinita, a Swiss coach who worked with him through his youth, for giving him the confidence to pursue football as a career.
"It was very difficult for us in the beginning," Diarra said. "But one European coach [Cochinita], he helped me a lot. He taught me a lot of things. Through his efforts, I grew in confidence.
"He was with me when I was young. He saw some quality in me and he helped me to grow. … He made me work very hard. And today, thanks to God, I am a professional and scoring a lot of goals."
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