Saint Michel, Notre Homme
Last Sunday, as St Etienne were getting ready to host Marseille in Ligue 1, my friend and colleague at BT Sport James Richardson asked me, in the build up to the match, to describe to the viewers what the Stade Geoffroy Guichard was about, and what it meant to French football.
It has one of the best atmospheres in Europe. It is also a ground where some top players have run out down the years. On Sunday, though, I named just one: Michel Platini. Thirty years ago yesterday, on 23rd February, 1985, the Juventus number 10 won his third and last Ballon d’Or, becoming the first player ever to reach such a milestone.
It’s very easy for people to forget that Platini played anywhere else before Juve. With a name like that (his granddad, Francesco, emigrated from Agrate-Conturbia, near Novare, to Joeuf, near Nancy in the north-east of France before the First World War, while his mum, Anna, was born in Piccinelli), growing up with posters of Rivera and Mazzola on the walls of the family-owned Café des Sports (where his dad, Aldo, and granddad, along with other members of the area’s big Italian community, would always be talking about Italian clubs or players) and as a regular holiday visitor to Agrate-Conturbia, 100 kilometres northeast of… Turin, Platini’s destiny was always to play for Juventus. In many ways, he was more Italian than French, and more Piedmontese than anything else.
It was a fact that certainly annoyed the Italians, since he could so obviously – and easily – have represented them. And just imagine the Squadra Azzurra of 1982 or 1986 with Platini in it. But it never bothered the French. At the end of the day, we are all from somewhere else. That’s how our nation has been built. Kopa’s family was from Poland, Zidane’s from Algeria, Pogba’s from Guinea, mine from Spain.
When I was growing up (I was born in 1980), Platini was the King. Prior to becoming the best player in Italy – and, later, Europe – and cementing his position as the darling of international football, he was the best French player we had seen since Raymond Kopa, back in the fifties. Platini had started his career at Nancy in 1972, before moving to St Etienne seven years later, and everybody wanted to be like him. Men like my dad had the same haircut as him. People wanted to play like him, take free kicks like him.
I remember my dad showing me, early on, videos of how Platini played – his vision, his incredible goalscoring ability, his passing, his natural leadership qualities. He was just a genius, the likes of which you see only a handful of times in a generation.
Platini is a fascinating character. He was always cleverer than the average player. He knew how to manipulate team-mates, managers, journalists. And he still does it now – more than ever, in fact – at UEFA. He was the boss everywhere he played, even at a very young age. He was always full of ambition and, with such a strong personality, he would always – and still does – get his own way. You don’t succeed the way he did at Juventus and in the Calcio without those qualities. I am not here to judge his work at UEFA as either good or bad. It is probably somewhere in between. But the thing to always keep in mind is that Platini is a lone shark. Throughout his playing career, and now his political one, it was all about him and his interests. To get there, he would of course play for the team, but without ever losing sight of what was in it for him.
That much is clear from his goalscoring record: a number 10 who managed 354 in 655 games during his career. Of course, ‘Platoche’, as he is nicknamed in France, could pick a pass and assist a goal. But whereas Zidane would always go for an assist ahead of a goal, Platini would choose a goal every time.
I don’t think it is a bad thing, though, to be so self-centred. Often, it could be quite funny. Take his cameo as head coach of Les Bleus between 1988 and 1992. He had just retired from football a year earlier and it was still all about him. Colleagues at Le Parisien, who were covering France at the time, always have plenty of stories about Platini as a manager. But the best one by far was when he interrupted a training session to take the ball and show the 23 internationals he had called up and were on the pitch how it should be done!
For me, Platini was the first truly egotistical superstar. The greatest players in footballing history are the greatest precisely because they brought something special to the game. Platini invented the idea of a nine-and-a-half: not really a number nine, but more of a striker than a number 10. He played on his own, up front, or behind a striker – but wherever he was on the pitch, he was always the main man. And what a man he was.