The kick that killed a career: the sorry decline of France star Reynald Pedros
They made a clear offer, but Pedros’ wife didn't want to go to Catalonia, preferring instead to stay in France
Pedros may not have had Zidane's status in France at the time, but he was on the way up. He'd won the league title. He'd reached the Champions League semi-finals. He'd played almost an hour for his country in the European Championship semi-final. And then he missed that penalty. Just like that, his career went in the totally opposite direction.
After he’d stepped down following France’s World Cup heroics at home in 1998, Jacquet said Euro 96 had, in his eyes, been preparation for that tournament. He was assessing the players, working out the best combinations and personalities for what would prove to be France’s first World Cup triumph. None of the players had the same thought. Pedros had other things on his mind – mainly his future.
He'd decided to leave Nantes that summer and wanted to find his next club before Euro 96 began. Monaco had been first to make him an offer. He said yes. But then president Jean-Louis Campora told the French press of the interest and said: “I don’t know if it’s a good idea – I don’t know if he’s the right fit.” Pedros phoned the coach, Jean Tigana, and said he didn’t want to make the move. Tigana told him to ignore the president’s comments – “That’s just the way he is,” he said – but Pedros didn’t feel wanted.
Barcelona were the next club to come in for the midfielder. They made a clear offer, but Pedros’ wife didn't want to go to Catalonia, preferring instead to stay in France. “I said no to Barcelona for family reasons,” he says. “I tried to convince her but she would not change her mind. I should have gone there.”
There was a Plan C available to him, however. Marseille were back in Ligue 1 after their relegation caused by the Bernard Tapie bribery scandal two years previously. Sports director Marcel Dib and coach Gerard Gili both wanted him. “We are going to build a big team to get back into Europe,” Gili told him. Pedros went for it. Now, he says: “I think it would have been better if I'd broken my leg.”
Misadventure in Marseille
He understood why he was dropped, but hoped that things would improve at Marseille and that he could force his way back in
Pedros was on holiday after the European Championship when he got a call from Gili saying he needed to come back and join the squad early. He went, but was immediately surprised at the lax training sessions. While at Nantes he'd had personalised training regimes to get the best out of him. “At Marseille,” he says, “I barely worked: no pain; no real effort.”
He kept his place in the France team, but only in the short term. Pedros played against Mexico in Paris and was whistled every time he touched the ball. Either he couldn’t hear it or he blocked it out, because he has no recollection of it happening. When one of the backroom staff said to him after the game: “That reaction to you – it’s just not normal”, Pedros had to ask what he was talking about. “I couldn’t believe it was all about the penalty,” he laments. “As far as everyone else was concerned, including myself, it was old news.”
Pedros’ last appearance for France came against Denmark in November 1996. He brought his Marseille form to les Bleus. He understood why he was dropped, but hoped that things would improve at Marseille and that he could force his way back in.
The side were meant to compete for Europe, but ended up closer to the relegation zone. The big names the club had promised would join Pedros never materialised. The supporters made their displeasure quite clear, and the pressures off the pitch affected performances on it. Within six months, Pedros wanted out.
And so began an itinerant career packed with choices that never quite worked out. The player who had Barcelona knocking at his door in the spring of 1996 ended up playing for eight different clubs in four different countries over the next eight seasons.
La dolce vita
He liked the atmosphere at Parma, and the squad was strong, featuring Gigi Buffon, Hernan Crespo, Fabio Cannavaro, Roberto Sensini and Dino Baggio
In January 1997, Pedros moved to Parma in Italy (by this stage, he had split up from his wife so was free to move abroad). He had to get used to tougher training sessions: from a friendly one-hour workout with Marseille to an intense two hours at Parma. He liked the atmosphere there and the squad was strong, featuring Gigi Buffon, Hernan Crespo, Fabio Cannavaro, Roberto Sensini and Dino Baggio. He became good friends with Lilian Thuram and Daniel Bravo, who is now his punditry colleague on French TV station Canal+.
Thuram gave Pedros some advice that he struggled to get his head around. “When you are in the box in a good position, you just have to shoot,” the defender told him. “Your team-mates will never pass to you even if you’re in a better position, so you should do the same.”
That wasn’t in Pedros’ nature. “Unbearable” is the word he uses to describe that attitude. “To think only of myself on the pitch would be to deny my true self,” he says. “If someone is in a better position, I make the pass.”
As well as the different mindset, Pedros’ body wasn’t used to the change, either. He tore a thigh muscle, limiting his appearances. Parma finished the 1996/97 Serie A season in second place, and Pedros returned for the final three matches of the campaign – just in time, in fact, to be one of the 40 players summoned for France coach Aime Jacquet’s end-of-season get-together. In Tignes, Jacquet announced that his World Cup selection would be based on players who were playing regularly for their clubs.
Pedros wondered what that meant: “If I’ve played one game out of three, is that enough? Does it need to be every game?” At the beginning of the next season, he spoke to the Parma coach Carlo Ancelotti about his situation. The Italian said he couldn’t promise a game every week, but would find a loan deal to a club that would play him: Napoli. “It’s just what you need,” said Ancelotti, “and they have a fierce crowd who will love you.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Napoli coach didn’t want Pedros; nor did the sporting director. “It was a catastrophe,” the Frenchman sighs. “In two months there, I didn’t play a single game.” The Partenopei changed coach twice, five new players came in, and Pedros just watched it all unravel.