Legends Revisited: Michel Platini - France's Greatest Player?

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Legends Revisited: Michel Platini - France's Greatest Player?

In the first of (hopefully) a new series, I will attempt to take a retrospective view of some footballing greats, highlighting their achievements, measure their influence and identify their legacy to the game. And along the way, try to introduce them to a new audience.

With football's popularity rising exponentially Stateside and with new African, Asian and Australian devotees it would be my honour to share some of European and South American football's rich history with you.

There's not a lot that modern followers of Football will know about the Frenchman. The first mainstream exposure he got in twenty years was during the 2006 World Cup when he made a CGI cameo in Adidas' delightful Jose +10 advert.

Don’t remember? Well even then, picked by a small child to rival Franz Beckenbauer, you were probably one of many people just went 'who!?' and let it slip, rather than immediately write-up an article on B/R, outraged about Jose's managerial naivety.

Platini then forced his way into everybody’s long-term consciousness when he won the UEFA presidency, probably on the back of his publicity in Jose's advert. Since then he has been almost constantly annoying everybody by employing a method of arguing some good policies very poorly.

It's not surprising then that most of us don't know and probably don't care about Platini's playing days, but as I hope to demonstrate, that's a real shame.

For as far back as I can remember, France has always been a footballing power. One of my earliest memories is their absolute domination of Brazil in a World Cup final in 1998. The list of France legends runs deep with big names which hasn't yet been exhausted: Deschamps, Cantona, Blanc, Desailly, Petit, Zidane, Henry, Pires, Vieira, Ribéry, Benzema...

As an Arsenal fan, I suppose I have always been fond of French footballers as a matter of course but as an Englishman I have always been in awe of their technical ability compared to my compatriots. But this wasn't always the case. Continue that list of French legends above to it's start and you will find only one name, that of Platini.

Before Platini, France was one of Europe's great underachieving teams, without any previous honours, their greatest achievement was reaching a respectful 3rd in the 1958 World Cup. French players weren't really known for their technical ability but rather for a basic and unstylish playing style, this was the environment the Platini was raised in.

Michel Platini came to national repute playing for AS Nancy in the late 70s by scoring 98 goals from 181 appearances in midfield, during a particularly torrid time in French football. The national team had ceased to even qualify for the World Cup since those 1958 glory days, except once, in 1966 when they had been eliminated almost immediately.

He first made his name as a dead ball specialist, with majority of his goals coming from finely struck free-kicks. But many were amazed by the young man's array of talents, amongst which was sublime dribbling. In this respect Platini was like Figo, he could not rely on pace to beat his opponents with the ball, but only exquisite control which would render him virtually impervious to being tackled.

In 1976 he became one of the youngest players to win the French footballer of the year award at the tender age of only 21. He then repeated the feat as Nancy captain the next year.

By the time the French had qualified for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, many of his countrymen had pinned all their hopes on the 23-year old talent. Hoping that he would be the man to finally announce their country to the world. However, the young Platini, close to burnout fromm a full season captaining Nancy to French Cup victory never really realised his talent on the world stage and the team was a dud.

After first round exit by Les Bleus, Platini was immediately turned into a scapegoat and became a national villain. It was probably one of the worst times of the Frenchman's playing days and had befallen him at a criminally early stage of his career.

A spate of injuries during the next season only served to further frustrate Platini's chances of redeeming himself. Ironically he picked up the worst when, jeered on by the hostile crowd at Saint-Étienne, he was challenging for every ball and received a bad ankle injury as a result of a tackle.

It was an undeniably low moment for Platini, as he was painfully stretchered off in front of the vitriolic crowd and knew his wound would mean his hopes as part of Nancy's Cup Winner's Cup European campaign were over.

This was a crucial time for Platini as he had to decide whether to shrink away from harsh condemnation or to grow in the face of criticism and realise his wealth of talent as a player and still become the talisman French football so critically needed.

As you can probably guess, Platini chose to face up to his demons. In the summer of 1979, when his contract with AS Nancy expired Platini felt like it was time for a fresh start and a new challenge.

He decided to join forces with his former tormentors at Saint-Étienne, since this was the only team in France with a realistic chance and ambition to win a European Cup. This was exactly the kind of platform Platini, then 24 needed. He would be able to take on Europe’s elite and test his mettle, learn from it, adapt and to show his ability to the world.

Unfortunately, like the national side, Saint-Étienne never managed to live up to their potential and although Platini won the French League and some memorable European games during his time with Les Verts, they never won the European cup and lost two French cup finals.

However, Platini's plan had worked in attracting attention and after seeing out his contract by the eve of the 1982 World Cup finals, he was admired by all of the continent's greatest clubs. Finally, it was Juventus, who snapped him up and Platini could look forward to football in the world’s (then) most demanding league. Things became even better for Platini when he became France captain for the oncoming World Cup campaign.

Platini's playing style was virtually unseen from a French player beforehand. His gift was his precise understanding and handling of a football, which enabled him to play astounding passes, or try audacious shots both from open play and dead-ball situations. His ability was such that Bobby Charlton remarked, "What a playmaker. He could thread the ball through the eye of a needle as well as finish."

The 1982 World Cup would become the Frenchman's tournament and he used the time to make his nation stand up and finally realise just what a fantastic player he was. He was involved with either the start or the end of almost every French attacking move in which they finished unexpectedly and in very controversial circumstances bowing out to West Germany in the semi-finals.

At both the club and international level, Platini had stemmed his run of bad fortune by carving out his own good luck. He had helped rejuvenate a beleaguered France team and had come home as a hero. No longer was he the villain in anyone's eyes but instead he was already being hailed as the greatest French player ever. But Platini's best was yet to come.

When he arrived in Italy, it was to a hostile audience and he was forced to try and compete for places amongst many of Italy's world cup winning stars, by then already set fan favourites. Juventus' poor start meant that it would become almost impossible to win Serie A and lead to heavy criticisms from the demanding Italian sports press. Very quickly Platini, the new boy, became their target.

Platini must have been reminded of the bad times at AS Nancy when he was unfairly vilified and forced to sit out of the most important matches injured, unable to silence his outspoken critics. The situation became so bad that the Frenchman admits he was considering leaving the Old Lady that same winter.

However, as with all the greats there is an extra ounce of grit which will never accept defeat, no matter what it’s form. Platini stubbornly chose to stay put and rectify the situation, rather than turn tail and run to another top side. Instead he rallied his team-mates, successfully lobbying for a change of tactics which suddenly transformed the Juventus into one of the most formidable clubs in Europe.

By the season's close, Juvetus ended winning the Italian Cup, as European Cup runners-up to Hamburg. Individually, Platini was Serie A's top scorer with 16 goals and won the Ballon d'Or, European Player of the Year.

His seminal season came in 1984, during which he was the undisputed best player in the world. An integral part of Juve's Serie A and Cup Winner's Cup championship sides, he finished once again as top scorer in Serie A with 20 goals. But he left his greatest achievement with the revitalised national team.

Platini ended up lifting France's first major international trophy in the form of the European Championship, as the tournament's top scorer with a record 9 goals, miles in front of nearest rival, Dane Frank Arnesen, who could only muster a meagre 3. Once more, he was awarded the Ballon d'Or for his efforts on all stages winning a memorable treble of trophies.

Platini continued his form in 1985, by winning Juventus their first European Cup (although he regarded this as the greatest low of his career after the Heysel Stadium disaster) and as if was now a matter of routine he again finished as Serie A top scorer and won a record third Ballon d'Or. In 1986, he once again help Juventus to another Serie A title.

By the time Platini had retired in 1987 he had cemented his place as a legend of World Football and fulfilled his place as the messiah of his compatriots with the winning of the European championship. He had transformed French football from the metaphorical backwaters into one of the strongest teams in the world. Future France great and Platini-esque player Zinedine Zidane would admit to Platini as his idol, stating that "When I was a kid and played with my friends, I always chose to be Platini. I would let my friends share between them the names of my other idols."

As if to reinforce his place as a one of the all time greats, both Juventus and the French national side felt the full impact of his retirement, failing to win another championship for nine years or qualify for the world cup for another eleven years respectively after his departure.

Perhaps the controversy he has attracted as UEFA president has detracted people's attentions from one of the greatest players World football has ever seen, but he undoubtedly stands, with pride, amongst the best.

 

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