Michel Platini: One-on-One

Ballon d'Or hat-trick grabber, Euro 84-winning captain, France 98-organising linchpin, UEFA chief - Platini is all these things and more, but he still finds time to answer readers' questions...

“It’s not that I regarded myself as the best player in the world; I was the best player in the world,” Michel Platini tells FFT over a cup of tea at UEFA’s Lake Geneva headquarters. “What else do you want me to say?!” Well, since you mention it Michel, how about answering a few questions from our readers? And the Gallic maestro needed no further invitation… But then Platini has never been shy about expressing with his views on the state of the game.
Now – as Europe’s football supremo – he has the platform to bring his vision to bear. Elected UEFA President in January 2007, the Frenchman is embarking on a mission to protect the game he loves from becoming a business asset. Some might say that’s mission impossible, but then Platini is, by his own admission, a man who doesn’t accept defeat lightly. 
He is also a man with the Midas touch: the three times Ballon d’Or winner, won honours galore with Juve, captained France to the European Championship title in 1984, coached them in 1992, and then went on to organise of one of the slickest World Cups in recent memory in 1998. Taking time out from his latest grand venture, the 51-year-old recalls how the prospect of playing on Boxing Day put him off a move to North London, why losing to the Germans was his greatest moment in football and why the Premiership’s plans for an international roadshow must never be allowed to happen.
I read in FFT that you used to drag your sister to school an hour early just so you could play football before class. Is this true? Do you now feel guilty about this? 
James Horncastle, Leeds
That’s not quite true – and I certainly don’t feel bad about it! What happened was this: we used to have an alarm clock in the kitchen and I would change it at lunchtime so that she thought we might be late back to school and so we would head back early. I had set it half an hour out and that gave me an extra 30 minutes to play and perfect my technique! And my sister could hang out with her friends – and maybe a boyfriend or two, as well… so she didn’t feel bad about it, either!
Zidane always played as Platini during his school kickabouts. Do you ever remind him about this? Who did you try to emulate in the schoolyard? 
Caroline Barron, London
I’ve heard that, but I’ve never spoken to Zizou about it. He came to my football camp at St. Cyprien as a child, so maybe that influenced him. But now, although we see each other often enough, it’s always at formal occasions and there’s no time for a proper chat about that kind of thing. 
As for me, as a kid, there weren’t really any great players that I could pretend to be; if anyone, I’d pretend to be Nestor Combin, who played for Metz. But with not much football on television back then, apart from the European Cup final, it was hard to get to know the players well. Later, of course, my idol was Johann Cruyff - and he still is - but by then I was already well into my career.

Combin: swollen from fisticuffs (he lost)

I couldn’t believe it when I was told you were a bit of a practical joker during your playing days, sometimes setting off firecrackers then pretending to be dead or squeezing toothpaste into team-mates’ beds. What’s the best prank you ever played or were on the end of? 
Ben Myers, Hampstead
What do you mean was a practical joker? I still am, whenever I get the chance! There are three important things in my life: my family, my friends, and having a good laugh. I’ve always loved playing tricks on people. It’s all harmless fun - I don’t think I’ve ever really upset anyone. I’m not sure about the best one – it’s usually just simple things, nothing too elaborate. But I’ve had just as many played on me – and that’s the point, really - you have to be able to take it as well as give it.

Your trials at Metz were scuppered after you were diagnosed with an abnormally large heart and you fainted during another trial. Did you think this would stop you from making a career as a footballer or did it only make you more determined? Did your condition ever affect you later on in your career? 
Rupert Rogers, Hammersmith
It wasn’t that I had an oversized heart. I went to Metz for two days of trials, and it was hot, they worked us hard, and I wasn’t very strong. After the trial they did these cardiovascular tests, and because I was tired and not used to so much hard work, my heart was going like the clappers. So they sent me off to Nancy for some more tests and there they even said it was so dangerous I should give up sport altogether! But they didn’t have the same kind of sports medicine knowledge in those days so I didn’t take too much notice and, in fact, I have a perfectly normal heart, an athlete’s heart, and it’s never been a problem.
When you left Nancy, you could have joined some big European clubs. So why did you go to St Etienne? 
Ajay Makan, Watford
Don’t forget that St. Etienne was a big club then. They’d played in the European Cup final against Bayern Munich, they’d reached the semi-finals the year before and had those epic games against Liverpool. There were other clubs who wanted me. When I was 19, Alfredo di Stefano came to see me when he was coach at Valencia, then I signed a pre-contract with Inter Milan, but there were restrictions on player movements back then. So I was more than happy to go to St. Etienne. When the ban was lifted and Juventus came in for me, Inter said they were no longer interested. 

Platini at Saint-Etienne

English clubs dominated European football in the late-70s and early-80s. As a great emerging player, did you ever have a chance of joining an English club? Is this something you would like to have done? 
Brian Stretton, Solihull
Two clubs – Arsenal and Spurs – came after me in 1980, but I wasn’t keen on going there. My wife, Christelle, wanted to go for the shopping, but maybe that only served to put me off even more! The main reason, believe it or not, was that there were too many games in England. I couldn’t face playing at Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and so on – I wanted to be with my family. 

At St Etienne, you scored two goals against Bordeaux to win the title in the last game of the season and always seemed to do well in big games after that. Why did you always rise to the big occasion? Did you prepare differently for big games? 
Pete Carey, Sunderland
Funny you should say that because, in fact, I’ve always felt that I missed out on the big occasions. I suffered in such matches – often they would man-mark me so tightly that I couldn’t play my game, but I’d also get nervous, because so many people expected so much of me. I certainly didn’t do anything special in preparation for big games; I just tried to stick to what I did best. 
You didn’t have the best of starts at Juventus. How close did you come to leaving? What happened to turn it around? 
Julian Barnes, Gillingham
It’s true, I didn’t start well, but that was entirely due to injury. I had a bad groin strain from the World Cup – I could hardly walk up stairs between matches and couldn’t train at all -- and that kept me out until December. I simply wasn’t fit. And don’t forget that Juventus had half the Italian World Cup side in their team at that time, so I had plenty of competition. 
Then Gianni Agnelli told the coaches he hadn’t bought me to have me sitting out games all the time, and once I got into the team I was OK, I started scoring goals, and my confidence picked up, simply because I felt better physically.

Lifting the European Cup in 1985

For most players, winning the European Cup final would be the high-point of their club career. Is this how you view yours, given the tragic circumstances surrounding that game at Heysel Stadium? How did you feel at the time? 
Jemma Brown, Yeovil
[The mood turns sombre] Oh, Brussels …. It’s complicated, complicated. People always ask me to talk about it, but I don’t want to. When I decided I wanted to be a footballer it was because I wanted to enjoy the game, score goals, not to cause 30-odd people to lose their lives. The day after the game I went to see the survivors… then I went on vacation to clear my head. [Pauses] But please, let’s move on.

For a period between 1982 and 1986 you won almost every team and individual honour going and seemed invincible. Did you consider yourself the best player in the world? 
Jeff Bell, Newcastle
It’s not that I regarded myself as the best player in the world; I was the best player in the world. What else do you want me to say?! I was full of confidence in myself: I knew I could run the game, I knew I could score goals. 1986 was the turning point: Diego [Maradona] took over as the best, but not before then, not while he was at Napoli. By 1986 I was beginning to feel the strain; I played five games with an injury, limped through them and hoped nobody would notice…