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Marcel Desailly: One-on-One

You were born in Ghana, but came over to France when you were four. Had you already developed an interest in football or was this something you picked up in France?
Paul Bailey, Tunbridge Wells
I was a kid of four when we moved to France. My father was a diplomat and he thought I would be a student for a long time, deep in my studies. He tried to keep me away from sports in general. I discovered football naturally at school and I got hooked, for better or for worse. For better for me, but maybe for worse as far as my father was concerned [Laughs].

When you came to France, your parents changed you name from Odenke Abbey to Marcel Desailly. What were the reasons for this?
Andy Bishop, Market Harborough
My parents didn’t really change my name. Odenke is my Ghanaian name – my biological father is from Ghana. And my adoptive father gave me his name, Desailly. The Odenke is still there, I never actually changed my name even if Desailly has become the name people know me by.

Who were your heroes growing up?
Carl Lymna-Dennis, Peterborough
Diego Armando Maradona! And Bernd Schuster, strangely. The blond German – I used to like him. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson the two basketball heroes. And then there were Nantes players I looked up to when I was coming up through the ranks, legendary Canaries like Loic Amisse – ah, the calf muscles of Amisse! Maxime Bossis, too, The Giraffe! Tremendous.

Your father-in-law was a French diplomat. How did your parents feel about you going into football? When you were starting out, would have preferred you to follow an academic path?
Josh Martin, via e-mail
My father always used to say: “why do you want to play football? What do you think you’re going to get out of football? There’s nothing in football! You’d be better off looking for a proper job rather than running around after your egg!” He used to call the ball an egg! I still regret that he never came to see me at training or anything. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to try to become a manager or anything straight after my playing career. I wanted to succeed in other areas first. Maybe because of what my father used to say to me.
You were at Nantes six years before Marseille signed you. Why did it take so long for the big clubs to take notice of you?
Joel Green, Lincoln
Because, for a start, at the time we respected our contracts much more. Bosman hadn’t yet happened and it was difficult to imagine young players moving abroad as easily as they do today. And Nantes also had a policy of holding on to their best players for as long as possible. Indeed, I might well have stayed longer at Nantes but the club had a few financial worries and were obliged to sell me.

But maybe it was because I wasn’t such an exceptional player, either. I was a good young player, with a lot of potential, but I hadn’t yet got into the France side because I was barred by the likes of Casoni, Basile Boli, Franck Silvestre, who were a bit better than me. Which meant I hadn’t quite proved my worth to the big clubs like Marseille, Bordeaux or PSG.

At Marseille, you joined a team that was expected to win league titles for the first time. How did you cope with this pressure? Did the initial success you had there play a part in the success you would have later in your career?
Alex Martin, Bromley
I nearly signed for Monaco because it was a much more stable club. My family were in favour of Monaco. At Marseille everything is more crazy and there’s a lot more pressure. But that’s what appealed to me. I’m the kind of guy who needs the pressure of a big challenge to fully express myself. I needed a move like that, a big club like that with all the pressure that applied. Signing for Marseille was an end in itself as far as I was concerned, a dream come true. Everything that happened to me afterwards was magic. Sometimes I still have trouble explaining it all to myself today!

I know you can handle yourself Marcel but who was harder – you or Marseille team-mate Basil Boli?
Alex Burtenshaw, Brighton
Oh, Basile, for sure. He was clumsier than me on the field, with the ball at his feet, but he was harder than me, let’s say [Laughs]. I adore Bas. He was an inspiration in the energy that he put into being better than the man he was marking.

How did you feel when you found out that Marseille had benefited from match-fixing during your time at the club? Did it in anyway devalue the team’s achievements?
Will Cook, via e-mail
I do think we won the title in 1993 on the field, even if they never attributed the crown to us. There’s such a particular atmosphere at Marseille, all the different people who mill around the club. It seems that certain people went too far and certainly corrupted players, as the inquiries have shown. But that’s all part of the mystery of Marseille, the murky things that sometimes occur.

Where does beating Milan with Marseille in the 1993 European Cup Final rank in your list of achievements? Were you trying extra hard in that game in an effort to earn a move? If you were, it worked.
Richard Little, Birmingham
I didn’t know I would be joining AC Milan afterwards. In my mind, I was happy to finish my career at Marseille. I can’t choose between the different trophies I’ve won, it’s like asking me to choose between my children. But the 1993 victory was a special occasion. It was the first time a French club won the competition. The first time for a club which is a bit crazy, with fans who are a bit mad, too, but in a positive way.

And we went and won it at a delicate time for the club, a delicate time for our chairman, Bernard Tapie, so it was something special. It was unique. It’s funny, when I think back to my time at Marseille I have the impression I spent five or six years there but in reality it was only one year and two months!

When you joined Milan, you were walking into a dressing room with Maldini, Baresi, Van Basten, Rijkaard, to name a few. Was this daunting? How did the players receive you?
Joe Lucas, Harlow
Fine, though I think the players were wondering what I was doing there. I’m not sure they knew who I was. I was close to wondering what I was doing there, too, because it all happened in such a funny way, such a set of circumstances. Braida had come to see Marseille-St Etienne to observe Alen Boksic but I played really well and he put a little tick next to my name that day. It was my best game of the season!

When Boban got injured in the Milan derby at the start of the following season, Braida said “I’ve got the guy we need – Desailly!” Everybody looked at him like he was mad and said “Who’s he?” Fabio Capello didn’t know me, or at least not very well. As for Franco Baresi… I’m not sure he even knew how to pronounce my name! [Laughs] But they were top professionals and they greeted me as such. On top of that, I had the good fortune to have Jean-Pierre Papin there, and he looked after me, showed me the ropes.

Is it right that at Milan you and some of the other players were obsessed with watches? Did this passion ever get competitive? What would’ve happened to anyone that rocked up to the dressing room in a Casio?
Lee Jelley, Milton Keynes
Maybe not a competition as such but it’s true there’s a real culture around fashion. A real exchange. The Italians know how to share these things. They do it to show off, sure, but also to talk about it, share their passion. It’s true we used to take the mickey out of each other. The Italians have an eye for detail, and for colours and they spot any faux pas! Things were different in England where the players might buy themselves nice cars and such but maybe less to show off and more just for their own pleasure.

Going into the 1994 European Cup Final with Milan against Barça, was there trepidation in the team. They were, after all, heavy favourites? Was that the most complete team performance you’ve been involved with? How did this compare to winning as underdogs with Marseille against Milan?
Nick Stone, Southampton
Let’s put things into context: Milan were the underdogs but we knew we had a very solid game-plan, even if it was less appreciated by your average football fan. But we were very, very solid and aware of our ability to contain a team like Barcelona. But Barcelona were so magic, so creative – a bit like today’s Barcelona side – that it was easy to imagine a Barcelona victory.

We really had it in for Cruyff, though, and for the media because they ridiculed us in the build-up to the final, saying we had no chance and explaining that Barcelona would mystify us. But we knew our strengths, even if they were built around our defensive organisation. We had a real team spirit. Capello was raging mad at everything that had been said about him and about the club and he got that anger across to us. We wanted to show right from the off that we could be creative too, and we beat them well and truly, with an incredible Savicevic that day.

Milan is where you earned the nickname ‘The Rock’. Who first coined this name? How do you think it compares to these other footballers nicknames: ‘The Wardrobe’ (Papa Bouba Diop), ‘The Little Witch’ (Juan Sebastian Veron), ‘The Tractor’ (Javier Zanetti)?
Mary Godbeer, Piner
It was thanks to a sponsor, Adidas. Different players like Paul Gascoigne, Alessandro Del Piero, Fernando Hierro and I were all given nicknames for these adverts. Mine was The Rock because I was controlling this huge boulder on my chest, I’m not sure if you remember? I was smacking this boulder as if it was a table-tennis ball! The Rock started there. To be honest, I think it could have been much worse!

As someone who’s played under Capello, what would you say is the secret of his success? Were you ever on the end of his notoriously bad temper at Milan?
Tom Rough, Stevenage
I adore Capello. When he was standing on the sidelines watching us train, you could feel his stare. He put you under pressure. I needed that. The best period of my career was at AC Milan and that’s because I was confident and able to express my talent to a maximum. I had the pressure of Capello on me, and I needed that! He’s an extremely demanding manager. He’d organise these incredible video sessions that could go on for hours, detailing the game and the different errors we’d made. As a manager Capello’s exhausting. But I needed that and he brought out the best in me. I think he’s magnificent!
Rudi Voller and Frank Rijkaard: two team-mates with two choice perms. But whose was the worst?

Dom Smith, Dulwich
Rudi! It was awful! But what a great player! What you guys like to call a fox in the box!
Considering that they still weren’t a top club, what made you decide to join Chelsea after Milan? Surely you could have gone anywhere. Wasn’t there an offer from Manchester United?
Dave Ambridge, Chelsea
In 1996, I signed a pre-contract agreement with Manchester United. I spoke to Alex Ferguson on the phone. I was free! Bosman had just happened. So I was a free transfer! I won’t go into why it didn’t happen but if I had joined them I would have won several more titles! The challenge at Chelsea was interesting, though. The club was building, looking to go places and needed big-name players. Liverpool had come in for me, too, but I needed to have a French school nearby for my children. So I opted for London for Chelsea, for family reasons and for the quality of life.

As a man who owns a restaurant that serves fine French cuisine, what did you make of English food when you first arrived at Chelsea? Ever have fish and chips or toad in the hole?
Joe Ellis, Epsom
At John Terry’s wedding they served traditional English food and I wasn’t at all shocked by it! [Laughs]. There are some unusual mixtures in English cuisine but I never found it too disgusting. Particular, yes. But fortunately London has lots of very fine Italian and French restaurants. English food is not really my thing.

At Stamford Bridge, you went from defensive midfielder to central defender. Why? Which position did you prefer?
Tom Penney, Manchester
The game is much more tactical in Italy and I was in a different phase, too. I managed to get by in midfield. In England I was in a period when I needed to get back to my original position, my real position, at centre-back. The game is so much quicker in England, there’s no time to turn and you are fouled much more. I was heading towards the final years at the top level and I needed to be playing in the position where I was most comfortable.

Despite being a table tennis fanatic, I hear you used to take a bit of a pasting from the players at Chelsea. Is this true?
Chris Watts, Birmingham
Nobody beat me really bad, oh no! Celestine Babayaro maybe, he was pretty useful. And John Terry’s quite handy at table tennis. Sylvain Wiltord in the France side was good, too. But I was one of the best! Gustavo Poyet was unbearable, a real pain to play. Whatever you sent him he’d smash everything! But otherwise I was one of the best!

You were in the same Chelsea squad as Winston Bogarde. As a professional, could you understand his willingness to sit out a career on the bench for money? Did you ever speak to him about it?
Wilson Law, Swindon
He was signed by Colin Hutchison who was director of football at the time. Vialli and Ranieri didn’t really want him. He was left out, pushed aside. He was a nice lad, but a bit aggressive in the way he communicated. In the end, ignored by the managers, he ended up settling for the easy option of taking the money while not playing. It’s a shame because he’s a mate of mine and he really missed out on three or four years of emotions and the pleasure of playing.

Who’s the best manager you have played under?
Mike Blom, via e-mail
Don Fabio! And Jean-Claude Suadeau at Nantes, though I’m not sure you’ll know him in England. I liked Gianluca Vialli but unfortunately the job of managing was perhaps incompatible with his demanding nature. He was such a great player – I think he couldn’t bear to see players making errors he wouldn’t have made. It drove him mad! He used to get so angry!

How did you react when you first heard Ron Atkinson notorious on-air description of you after Chelsea’s defeat to Monaco in the Champions League? Have you met him since then and if so, what was said?
Matthew Sheehan, Cardiff
He made a public apology. But he never came towards me. I was asked if I would meet him but the harm was already done. I feel sorry for him. It was done in a moment of anger. He was unlucky that the microphone was turned on. Racism exists in many places. I don’t know if he’s really racist deep down. I couldn’t tell you. But it certainly ruined his career.

When it comes to international football, did you ever consider playing for Ghana, the country of your birth?
Tom Cranfield, via e-mail
No, I never imagined playing for Ghana. I played for France from the age of 13. But I did dream of playing against Ghana for my international retirement in 2004. A game had been organised but it ended up being cancelled, which was a shame for me. That would have been something special.

What was going through your mind as you were being sent off in the 1998 World Cup Final? Did you think you might have jeopardised France’s chance of winning?
Clare Christie, Spalding
It was in an attacking position so it wasn’t as if I had committed a foul in the penalty area and given away a penalty. I was caught up in my momentum, hoping for a slice of history! [Laughs] There was only one defender left, Cafu, and even though I knew he was going to get there first I kept going with my challenge, hoping for a lucky rebound that would have left me with the chance to go on and score and get a bit of World Cup glory, make history! Afterwards, in the dressing room, waiting for the game to end, for the final whistle, I wasn’t laughing, I can tell you. I realised that if France went on to lose it would be blamed on me and I would never be forgiven!

In the build-up to the 1998 World Cup Final, were you and your team-mates aware of the goings on surrounding Ronaldo? You were defending against him during the match, did he appear ‘different’ in anyway?
Benjamin Russell, Stoke-on-Trent
No, not at all. He vomited, but that was probably nerves. Unless he went out on the town the night before! [Laughs] No, I didn’t notice anything untoward.

At Euro 2000, Zidane was simply sublime. What was it like to play in the same team at the time?
Sam Beesley, Portsmouth
We were really the best team in the world in 2000, even if we did have a fright against Italy. And Zidane was sublime! At the top of his form. At training it was a great thing to see, he was magic. It was as if everything went into slow motion all around him whenever he had the ball, he seemed to have so much time on the ball. Brilliant!

What’s the secret to a team winning back-to-back international tournaments? As players, did you do anything to retain your performance and motivation? Did you lose this motivation for the 2004 World Cup?
Jeff Bryan, Coventry
We had a team that had been born in 1996, with a good run to the Euro semi-finals. Then we won the World Cup and added a European Championship to that. By the time 2002 came round we were at the end of a cycle. There was a lot of negative pressure on us, which ended up destabilising us. Plus there was Zizou’s injury. The expectations were huge and we just couldn’t live up to them. We had a pretty good run, though, up to then!

Who is the toughest opponent you’ve ever faced?
Mark Day, Bristol
Alan Shearer has to be up there. Because you knew before the kick-off you were going to take some knocks and that however you replied, be it with violence, malice or brute force, he didn’t care. He’d get on with his job. But he’d make you pay for it. He’d catch up with you! [Laughs]

Baresi, Maldini, Terry and Desailly? How do these different defenders compare?
Martin Ball, via e-mail
Franco Baresi is my idol. The way he ran his back-line, what a player. You can’t begin to imagine to what a high level he took the art of defending. Impeccable. Class.

I hear you’re a bit of a wine buff. Which is your favourite wine and why? Were you able to indulge in this passion during your playing career? On your website, you say there are a couple of vintage bottles you would like to buy; well, I have a bottle of Blue Nun 1996 if you’re interested?
Mike Corefield, Liverpool
I like lots of little‚ wines, from lesser-known domains – one of the pleasures in life is discovering new ones. But I adore Chateau Haut Brion, a wine with a very particular unctuousness which is really to my taste. But a nice little Australian Shiraz or a Chilean can do. The pleasure comes from sharing. The Blue Nun? No thanks!

In 2007 you declared an interest in the taking the Ghana national team job. Is this still the case or have you changed your mind?
Tim Harris, Wolverhampton
It’s true, but I wasn’t ready before. Also, I wanted to do something different after my long playing career, something outside of football. But I am still very interested in becoming manager of Ghana’s national team. Very interested. It’s really something I would like to do one day. I may not have played for the Ghana team but I do seriously envisage it. When the time is right.

Zidane, Van Basten, Papin, Zola, Maldini, Baresi, Gullit, Rijkaard, Weah, Henry, Sutton. You’ve played with some great players, but if you could only have one of them in your team, who would it be and why?
George Thorpe, Leytonstone
Van Basten. The complete player. He really impressed me. When I was at Marseille I dreamed of playing alongside Van Basten. What a player! Sensational! Some of the other players I played alongside when I was already an established player – it was different. Zola and Zidane were tremendous players, too. Amazing creativity.

Marcel, who would win a rant-off between Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill? Is your own expressive style of punditry inspired by either of these two loons?
Barry Goosen, Cheltenham
I like Martin O'Neill a lot. He always contradicts everything I say! [Laughs]

Interview: Darren Tulett. Portraits: Jill Jennings. From the June 2009 issue of FourFourTwo