PSG strike, Still a Mystery, ended two Women’s World Cup dreams

Aminata Diallo was escorted from her smelly holding cell to an interview room inside the Hôtel de Police in Versailles the first time she heard the name Tonya Harding.

Harding’s name is, of course, infamous in sports. A decorated American figure skater, she was a central figure in the infamous case involving the assault of her biggest rival just weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics. The scandal – a sudden and violent attack by a mysterious man; accusations and denials; tabloid headlines—led to worldwide attention and, years later, a feature film about Harding. But to Diallo, a 28-year-old French soccer player being led up a stairwell at a police station, her name is mentioned – “Have you heard of Tonya Harding?” — produced only a blank look.

However, Diallo would quickly learn that the police had reason to ask.

Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan, had been attacked by a man who beat her on the legs in an attempt to prevent her from competing. Now, in France, a generation later, police suspected a similar motive in an attack on Kheira Hamraoui, Diallo’s teammate at French club Paris St.-Germain. Hamraoui had been dragged out of Diallo’s car on a cold November night in 2021 and, like Kerrigan, was punched on her leg in a clear attempt to injure her.

It would take nearly a year, and another stint in detention for Diallo, before the police officer’s direct questioning turned into a formal charge. Prosecutors last September charged Diallo with aggravated assault in the attack on Hamraoui. Documents in the case and leaks to the French news media have accused Diallo of masterminding a premeditated attack. The aim, according to the theory, was to eliminate a rival from Diallo for a place in the ranks at PSG, one of the best teams in women’s football, and on the roster of the French national team, which will be among the favorites at the Women’s World Cup, which begins on the 20th. July.

“A lot of people would like it to be me, but that’s not the reality,” Diallo said in an interview in Spain, where she had been trying to revive her career. “Tonya Harding, she did it. I didn’t.”

With its parallels to a decades-old scandal; its themes of race and professional rivalry; and its unlikely cast of elite female athletes and shadowy characters, it’s no surprise that the case continues to attract interest, or that it has spawned competing documentary projects.

Diallo’s guilt or innocence is no clearer today than it was that morning at the Versailles police station. A trial date has not yet been announced. But the consequences continue to ripple outward.

Friendships have ended just as it has at least one marriage. Two changing rooms were shared. Diallo was banished from Paris. Hamraoui was also exiled in his own way, ostracized by some of his teammates and eventually forced out of his club.

The police case apparently rests on text messages sent by Diallo, some suspicious web searches and a claim by at least one of the men charged in the assault that he had acted on Diallo’s behalf, although he admitted the order had not come directly from her.

Diallo and her legal team insist the charges are the actions of a desperate police force seeking to secure a conviction in a high-profile case, one built on tenuous connections and unreliable sources.

Diallo said she sees the documentary offers as a kind of compensation for everything she has lost, such as the privacy and anonymity she once enjoyed as a faithful, if unspectacular, soccer professional, but more materially for the new contract with PSG that she insists she was almost certain before the attack changed the direction of her career and life.

“I think it’s interesting to them whether I’m guilty or not,” Diallo said of the filmmakers who have approached her.

The charges she faces – three counts of aggravated assault and criminal assault – came after her second stint in custody and were accompanied by an order not to enter Paris or engage with her former team-mates at PSG. That’s how she found herself in Spain this spring, sipping patatas bravas and garlic prawns at a beachfront restaurant in Valencia, her career saved only by a short-term deal to play for Levante, which has now ended.

Hamraoui has also left PSG; she was released at the end of the season after not being offered a new deal. Her departure was not quiet: on the way out, she accused the club of ostracizing her by treating her differently from her teammates, of victimizing her again.

“In addition to the trauma I suffered that night, I would face this indifference, this cruelty, not to say a form of abuse towards me,” Hamraoui wrote in a book published recently, which is was serialized in the French sports newspaper L’Equipe.

“The squad no longer speaks to me and PSG has only one goal: that I leave as soon as possible,” Hamraoui said. “They treat me like a victim of the plague.”

In Spain, Diallo’s life became a stripped down version of what went before. Besides training sessions, she spent most of her time alone in a rented apartment. (Qatar-owned PSG had provided a home and a car to the one involved in the attack.) She was not a standout for her new team and was often brought on as a substitute, a role she was grateful for and accepted.

“I’ve had a hard time finding the top, top level,” she said as the now-concluded season wound its way to a close. “I have lost the pleasure of playing. I play with injustice.”

Diallo claims that she has been wronged, that she is also a victim in the Hamraoui case. Investigators in France claim she is at the heart of the conspiracy.

Details of their case, leaked to the French news media, paint Diallo as the driving force behind the attack on Hamraoui. The men, who have been charged with the assault itself, reportedly told police they believed they were acting on behalf of Diallo, who was driving the car when it was stopped and when Hamraoui was pulled out and hit on her leg with a iron rod. Text messages from Diallo disparaging Hamraoui were discovered after police seized her cell phone and computer, as were online searches for phrases like “cracking a kneecap” and “deadly cocktail of drugs.”

In an interview last November with her lawyers in Paris, shortly after she was formally charged, Diallo offered explanations. Police had ignored all the positive comments about Hamraoui she had made to friends and colleagues, she said. The online searches were not unusual, she argued, for an athlete concerned about injuries and health.

But she also claims that her race and background – she is a black woman from a working-class neighborhood in Grenoble – had not only led the police to draw conclusions about her, but others as well.

“In France, when there’s a case like that, the media is quick to assume you’re guilty,” she said. “They’re going to bring up where you’re from right away, which is an argument to show that you’re capable of doing it.”

Now, in Valencia, Diallo produced his phone and brandished a screenshot of a diagram published by French daily Le Parisien that used arrows and boxes to indicate links between the men involved in the attack, Diallo and unknown intermediaries. The fact that after all the investigations, wiretapping and listening devices placed in Diallo’s home, police still had found no direct connection between her and the arrested men highlighted the weakness of the case against her, Diallo said. She has, she added, “more hatred” for the investigators than Hamraoui, who fell out with Diallo and other teammates after they suggested she and others at PSG may have been involved in the attack.

“She’s not trying to find a case against me,” Diallo said of Hamraoui. “I don’t care about her.”

Among her protestations of innocence, Diallo pointed to messages sent by her former agent, Sonia Souid, who also represents Hamraoui. Diallo argued that those messages undermine police’s belief that she orchestrated the attack out of professional jealousy.

In one, a voicemail sent about two weeks before the attack and played to a New York Times reporter, Souid told Diallo she had met with PSG’s sporting director. The club were pleased with Diallo’s performances, Souid reported, and were keen to make an offer to extend her expiring contract by two seasons.

Souid, who is one of the most influential agents in women’s football in France, said in an interview that although negotiations had not started, the club had made its intentions clear.

But weeks after the November 2021 attack, Souid’s relationship with Diallo ended in a tearful meeting. The player informed the agent that she could no longer be represented by her due to her ties to Hamraoui. In March 2022, Souid said she met with police investigators. She declined to reveal what she was asked, but said the meeting had left her shaken.

“The questions they asked me made me think something very wrong has happened,” Souid said.

She suggested that the police had secretly listened not only to Diallo’s conversations, but also to hers and others during the course of their investigation. “They knew everything,” Souid said. “They knew the exact moment calls were made and what was said, and not just by me.”

Souid said she had always found Diallo to be polite, respectful and serious in their interactions. But as the details of the case filtered out and as she processed the questions she had been asked by police, she said she began to wonder if Diallo had “another side.”

As the investigation continues and as Diallo and Hamraoui – now both out of contract – await the next development, the football world rumbles on towards what will be the biggest event in women’s football this year, the Women’s World Cup.

Diallo will not be there; she had been a fringe player in the France national team at the time of the attack, and the notoriety of her case and her lengthy layoff – not to mention the court orders to stay away from her former PSG teammates – effectively ended her international career.

Hamraoui, who appeared for France as recently as February, had hoped to play her way into the France squad heading to Australia and New Zealand, although her presence in the squad would not be universally welcomed by some, including a group of PSG players close to Diallo and still furious at Hamraoui’s early insinuations that other players from the club might have been involved in her assault.

Souid, Hamraoui’s agent, had harbored similar optimism. “The Americans are multiple world champions and all the players don’t like each other,” she said this spring.

But when France’s new coach, Hervé Renard, announced his provisional list for the tournament, Hamraoui’s name was not on it. The decision prompted a French newspaper to run a poll asking whether the decision to leave her out was “really a sporting choice.” Hamraoui suggested in a radio interview with France Inter shortly after the announcement that it was not: She called her omission “an injustice.”

However, the story is not over. That’s why, Souid said, filmmakers were interested in telling Hamraoui’s side of it. “It’s not easy to understand what happened to her,” she said.

Diallo, driven and impatient, might say the same.

For now, both players are waiting for clarity about who bears the ultimate responsibility for what happened that dark night in the narrow street, for the end of their association with the case and with Tonya Harding. Until then, Hamraoui will continue to pursue his football career. And Diallo will continue to defend her name.

“I’m not hiding,” Diallo said before leaving for another evening in his quiet apartment, alone with his thoughts and his rages.

Tom Nouvian contributed reporting in Paris.

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