Marcel Desailly, June 2016

(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)


After the semi-finals of France’s last major football tournament, as the country’s whole population belatedly got behind their ethnically diverse 1998 World Cup team, Marcel Desailly felt relief and even elation – but not for the reasons that might be expected.
“I remember when the Dutch got eliminated by Brazil in the semi-final, we were happy,” the 47-year-old explains, his voice rising in excitement at the memory. “Everyone had been watching in their rooms and suddenly we were all in the corridor, discussing it. We were happy. Brazil were one of the three top teams… but the Dutch. They had a tactical set-up that could cause us problems.”
In other words, the French were far more fearful of the Netherlands than they were “the phenomenon” of the Brazilian Ronaldo. The story of how the 21-year-old sensation suffered a seizure but still played in the 1998 final has come to dominate all memories of that greatly resonant World Cup, but he never dominated the minds of that French team in the same way. Once the Dutch were out, Desailly and his team fully believed they could claim a World Cup win many thought would be a transformative moment for the country’s uncomfortable relationship with race.
The little anecdote is far from the only time over the course of a 45-minute interview that Desailly punctures perceptions, or puts a more complex and nuanced perspective on things – and not just football or Euro 2016. The former world and European champion is an easy man to talk to, so often laughing and joking, but he does not settle for easy answers. Take when the conversation naturally moves towards the context of this summer’s tournament, and whether France actually needs victory amid so many recurring racial politics and the awful terrorist attacks in Paris last November. Many footballers would take the easy option and offer a platitude to get out of the discussion. Not Desailly. As a migrant born in Ghana, he feels such issues are important to properly engage with, and a lengthy answer on French racial integration ends with a statement of real impact.
“It will bring a positive environment at that moment,” he says of a potential Euro 2016 victory, “but it will not last.”
Desailly knows this too well. France’s 1998 win didn’t change the country. Eighteen years on, the political issues that clouded that World Cup have grown even more complex. Euro 2016 comes at an even more challenging time.
There is obvious excitement and hope for a joyous international party in a perfect setting for a tournament, but every aspect of it – right down to whether the hosts can actually succeed the 1998-2000 team and end up champions – is under-layered with significant debate. Having led the team from centre-half through that golden era, Desailly is the perfect man to speak on the build-up, and notices many parallels with 1998: a highly talented team expected to end over a decade of acrimony, a difficult climate around it, and a country getting to grips with both. It makes it even odder France is not a ‘football nation’ in the way somewhere like Brazil was for 2014. That is something else that hasn’t changed. Ireland will be going to a big party where only part of the nation are interested.
“In France, we say the football is [open itals] populaire [close]: the working class and middle like it, but the wealthy class? It’s not like in Spain, Germany or Italy, where every single one loves the games. It’s changing a little bit because the wealthy class discover football through business… but it’s not that high, so we need time in France to build up the hope and the craziness around our team.”
That was precisely what happened in 1998 but, in a strange way, the relative apathy from some areas deepens the tension around the team.
“We don’t know how the French players will handle the pressure,” Desailly says of his 2016 successors. “In 1998, the training session before the first game was terrible – terrible. Everyone was under pressure. It locked us up, and was the same for the game. Luckily, we were much better than South Africa.”
France won that 3-0, with a soft group stage then allowing them to harden, and cohere. It became the classic story of how a team grows with a tournament, as Desailly explains.
“It was similar to what is happening now. The team was not fully ready, the tactical set-up strange. Everyone would have loved to have seen the French team from the beginning believing they could win but it took very long, probably from the quarter-final. The key element is getting luck. So we have South Africa first, then [Zinedine] Zidane got the red card [against Saudi Arabia], Thierry Henry takes over and it still works, Laurent Blanc scores the golden goal against Paraguay to make the difference, Italy on penalties, [Lilian] Thuram never scores and he suddenly comes from nowhere to score two against Croatia. The same for the final, Zidane – who did not appear – then bang, brings the extra. Every single player has been able to be at his best.”
It also brought out the best in the country. The team was fully embraced and individual players put forward as symbols of successful integration, with much talk of “a new France”. It didn’t take long to return to old debates.
Eric Cantona detonated one again last week when he suggested Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa may have been left out of the French squad due to political pressure because “their origins are north African”, despite the Real Madrid striker being embroiled in a blackmail scandal. The many strands to the story illustrate the complexity. Desailly defends the decision of manager Didier Deschamps, who he says is still a good friend, insisting “it pains him to leave out Benzema”.
Even aside from the rights or wrongs of that case, does it disappoint Desailly that France 98 did not erode such discussions?
“No,” he says, pausing before offering a longer answer he has evidently pondered a lot. “We know that, for a long-term positive change, it’s just not possible for football to do this. For a moment, yes. When you see someone of African origin or a North African guy taking the French flag, it’s a real moment of communion… but after?”
“France is advanced in terms of social protection – health care, workers’ rights – but the [structure] makes it very hard for people coming from outside to succeed and build up that social respect. You cannot succeed by your motivation alone. There are more barriers.
“In England, we have difficult areas but you still have a little bit of respect throughout the immigrant community. Why? Because many have succeeded and, socially, they’ve brought some kind of respect [for immigrants] into the system. We don’t have this in France and, if we have it, the level is very small.
“It’s not easy for French people to be fully positive towards immigrants because of the lack of integration, by the type of administration we have.
“That’s why immigrants did not have the opportunity to show they have talent and through talent they gain respect so it has not really changed… football cannot resolve that.”
A Euro 2016 victory can help, though?
“It brings a positive attitude, hope, energy, motivation… but it will not last.”
He also feels it’s far too simplistic to place any attempt to win the competition in the context of the November attacks. In any case, putting that expectation on players can be counter-productive. It turns into an enlightening answer on the nature of sports psychology and concentration.
“Through the perception outside, through your friends and family, the crowd, you build up your responsibility. But, as a player, as soon as you put on that responsibility, you put on pressure. When your brain is starting to go into that responsibility, we wash away. We try every time to kill it, to be able to concentrate on ourselves and get into our bubble to perform.
“Sometimes the journalists asks you questions, ‘you must feel this’. It’s different for us. In France, we had a big polemic, asking why the footballers are not singing the Marseillaise. They took the example of the rugby man. The rugby man, they grab [each other], ready to die, there eyes are there… but we are not the same. The rugby man needs to build up energy and aggression to be able to perform. We don’t need that. We have to keep calm, think about what we have to do, we cannot build up that energy.
“I could have been like the rugby guy and at the beginning of the game I would have gone crazy, tackled everyone, so I have to reject that emotional part. I have to kill it to be able to deliver my performance.
“It’s very difficult to explain.”
That is like much with France and these Euros. Desailly has successfully done his best. Now, his successors in the team just need to follow suit. France could do with a similar festival as 1998 – even the effects are not as lasting as will be pronounced.

Euro 2012 final report: Spain 4-0 Italy

A version of this originally appeared in the Independent, June 2012

Now, there can be no more questions.

Not only might Spain be the greatest team of all time after winning an astonishing third successful trophy. They may well be the most innovative. Not to mention, at this exalted level, unbeatable.

After four years in which Vicente Del Bosque’s side have had to face a series of teams who have dropped deeper and deeper against them, his solution has been to start with three attacking midfielders up front rather than a nominal striker. He did it again last night.

It has created a lot of debate. It also, however, created the platform for history to be made.

Indeed, this entire coronation effectively served as a culmination of their possession, pressing-based approach.

Most of all, it was anything but boring. It was brilliant.

By the quarter-hour, Spain had made a mockery of so many of the debates.

Indeed, the opening goal was almost the perfect illustration of Del Bosque’s entire rationale with the system.

After a kaleidoscopic passing move, the three rotating attackers combined to produce a goal that was at once exhilaratingly complex but also supremely orthodox.

First, Andres Iniesta played a divine through ball for Cesc Fabregas. He went around the outside while David Silva went around the inside, with the latter then very simply heading in Fabregas’s chip.

This has been the whole point of Del Bosque’s system: for the interchanging attacking midfielders to confuse opposition defenders and thereby create extra space.

The key difference between last night and previous matches, though, was that Spain simply looked so much sharper and so much less fatigued. Unlike the four days between the quarter-final and semi-final in which they did so much needless travelling between north-west Poland and south-east Ukraine, the same time period here set up this performance. In a way that they didn’t against Portugal, all of their passes were coming off.

It wasn’t the only difference though. Italy were pressing much more aggressively – in terms of both position on the pitch and physicality – than pretty much any other side that has played Spain.

It also, however, created much more space for Spain; the kind of space they thrive in and which so many other teams have sought desperately to deny them.

Here, it must be said that Cesare Prandelli took a big risk. Having previously been the most tactically astute manager for the vast majority of this tournament, he was shown exactly why so few teams actually take this risk against the Spanish. They tend to get ripped apart.

There were a few moments, it must be said, when they could perhaps have done with a more orthodox forward: not least on six minutes when Alba crossed from the left with no-one there to meet it.

As a result, once Italy finally got to grips with the game after Spain actually scored the first, they were still in it. And, for a 15-minute spell, they put the Spanish under real pressure.

Then, however, Spain simply stepped up again. And, after a largely indifferent tournament for someone of his quality, so did Xavi.

With Jordi Alba thundering forward, the player that has defined this generation played a ball of equal quality to Iniesta’s for the left-back to slide past Buffon.

Xavi didn’t exactly define this tournament though. And, in the end, neither did Pirlo.

That was Iniesta. When it mattered most, too, he had the biggest influence.

As if to add insult to injury, then, Spain did bring on a forward and he did score. What’s more Fernando Torres became joint top scorer.

It was yet another sign of their utter domination. By then, though, any argument was long over.


A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, June 2012

All of the arguments, all of the debates, all of the questions around Spain are now irrelevant – except one. Is this Spanish team now the greatest of all time?

After an exceptional, exhilarating, crowning performance that was anything but boring, it’s very hard to argue otherwise. By finally beating Italy in such a comprehensive manner, they have become the first ever team to win three international trophies in a row.

Not only that, there is the very strong possibility that, at this very top level, they might well be unbeatable.

Certainly, this entire game served as the culmination of their possession and pressing-based system.

This is what Vicente Del Bosque intended. This was the point of it all. This was perfection.

The build-up to this final, and indeed Spain’s entire tournament, had been framed by the ongoing debate over Del Bosque’s 4-3-3-0 formation.

As expected, however, he did the same last night. For the third time at Euro 2012 and the second time against Italy, he featured Cesc Fabregas in the false-nine role.

By the quarter-hour, though, Spain had made an absolute mockery of so much of the debate.

Indeed, the opening goal was almost the perfect illustration of Del Bosque’s entire rationale.

After a kaleidoscopic passing move, the three rotating attackers combined to produce a goal that was at once exquisitely complex but also brilliantly orthodox.

First, Andres Iniesta played a divine through ball for Cesc Fabregas. He went around the outside while David Silva went around the inside, with the latter then very simply heading in Fabregas’s chip. Brilliant.

One of the main reasons that Spain were able to pull that off in such a magnificent manner, however, was because they simply looked so much sharper and so much less fatigued. Unlike in the match against Portugal, all of their touches and passes were coming off.

That, of course, was because, this time, they didn’t spend the four days between games needlessly travelling from the south-east of Ukraine to the north-east of Poland.

It told.

To be fair, the scoreline could have even be more telling by then. For a few isolated moments, you could see the reasons whySpain’s formation has caused so much debate.

After just 50 seconds, for example, Iniesta innovatively flicked through for Fabregas. The midfielder, however, didn’t quite have the acceleration to reach it. Had it been a more direct, pacier frontman – such as Fernando Torres – on instead, an opportunity might have been forced.

There was a similar moment on six minutes when Jordi Alba burst down the left. He crossed… but no-one was there to finish as Silva was on the far end of the box. Here, had it been a player with more of a striker’s instinct – such as Fernando Llorente – the opening goal might have come much earlier.

As it was, it meant that Italy were at the very least still in the match by the time they finally appeared to get to grips with it onceSpain had gone ahead. And, for a good 20 minutes, they produced some good football to make life a lot more uncomfortable for the Spanish.

With Andrea Pirlo – typically – getting things going and making the Spanish work from every set-piece, Iker Casillas and his backline had to be fully focused.

Sergio Ramos certainly seemed fully focused on Mario Balotelli. The Real Madrid centre-half reacted to an abrasive early challenge from the Italian with a series of assured challenges of his own.

But, just as it looked like Italy might force a proper opening, Spain stepped up again.

Even more importantly, after a largely indifferent tournament, Xavi stepped up. Just like the Spanish team as a whole, he was saving his best for last.

With Alba thundering up the flank, the player who absolutely defines this generation hit a pass every bit as exquisite as Iniesta’s for the left-back to easily slide home.

Again, this wasn’t boring. It was simply brilliant.

A clear factor in this, it must be said, was that Cesare Prandelli effectively took a risk to try and go and win this game rather than just contain Spain. Having held Del Bosque’s side with a more conservative approach in the opening game, Italy were much more cavalier in the final.

And, while it created a few problems for Spain – not least when the lively Antonio Di Natale came on – it also gave them the space they thrive in. This was another difference between this match and the performances that were perceived as dull in the past.

Spain had a big enough canvas. As did Iniesta.

With a performance like that, he should probably steal the player-of-the-tournament award from Pirlo.

And, as if to add insult to injury, then, Spain did bring on a forward in Fernando Torres and he did score to become joint top scorer.

It was yet another sign of their utter domination. So was Torres’s assist for Juan Mata to make it a perfect four.

By then, though, all of the arguments were long over.