In a career that spanned twenty years, Marcel Desailly made over 500 appearances for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, played 116 times for France, and won the lot. He won the bloody lot, did Marcel. A glorious human manifestation of defensive solidity, Desailly really didn’t let very much past him. We sat down in a very small room for an *extreeeemely* short time to talk about Ó Fenómeno worrying Maldini, the cultural importance of the World Cup, and how much he’d hate to mark Luis Suárez…

MARCEL ON RONALDO

There’s a video. It’s at the French training camp a couple of days before their ‘98 World Cup final against Brazil. Against Ronaldo. All the boys are there, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Frank Leboeuf, and Bixente Lizarazu. They’re imitating him. They’re saying “You look down, and the ball is just gone”.  They’re saying that “He uses you.” They’re four kids talking about how to stop the good kid from the other school. They’re four of the best professional footballers talking about how to stop the greatest striker on the planet. It’s my favourite video, and stop him they did.

“In the history of football, you have a small number of players who were the best—the best of their generation. You have to choose Pele, and then you have to choose Maradona. But after that you have Ronaldo, not Zidane—it has to be Ronaldo. I was playing at AC Milan when he was at Inter. I was probably at my strongest, and I was playing alongside Paolo Maldini. But playing against Ronaldo was the only time I ever saw Maldini worried. He said to me ‘Marcel, you have to stay around me—I need your help here. You have to stay close to me. We have to double up on him. When he takes the ball away and when he runs, we have to double up on him.’ He was amazing. He was a magician. Wow—the impression on everyone playing and everyone watching—wow. When Ronaldo got the ball, it was like—wahhh! The whole stadium was buzzing. He was the only player at that time who made such an incredible mark on people who saw him.

“It was so unfortunate that he got his injury, it probably restricted him to 70% of his potential. Had he not have got it, he could have done anything.”

MARCEL ON MARSEILLE

Marcel was part of the emphatic Marseille side that brought home the Champions League title in 1993—still the only French side to win the European Cup.

“Around that time, Bernard Tapie was building a new team every year, and our side in ‘93 was probably weakest during the Tapie years. Chris Waddle, Carlos Mozer, and Jean-Pierre Papin, who were all the star players at Marseille, left the year before. Nobody, including ourselves, was expecting Marseille to win the Champions League that year. We had fantastic players—Rudi Völler and Alen Bokšić for example—but nobody expected us to go that far. And, because we didn’t have that individual star, we had to work collectively. And we did. It will stay in history—it was the first for a French side. But it will also stay in the history of that incredible city, Marseille. It’s a crazy place. There’s no rationality—people will love you one moment and hate you the next. What an exciting place.

“There isn’t a city like it in England really, nowhere with a similar type of civic behaviour. It’s quite similar to Napoli in that it has a sort of Latin mentality. There are lots of immigrants, lots of people who don’t have a lot of money. But it’s such a special place, and football has the capability in these places to really change things—to make a city feel magnificent. Even if you are sat in your room with a TV and a beer and the kids are running around, these football moments can give you the ability to forget any problems.”

MARCEL ON THE WORLD CUP

Marcel won the World Cup with France on their home soil in 1998. Marcel, who was born in Ghana and is the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the country, sees that the World Cup is more than just football.

“The World Cup is important in its ability to develop sport across the world. In terms of taking the tournament to different places, Blatter hasn’t done too bad. He brought it to Asia in 2002, Europe in 2006, Africa in 2010, South America in 2014, and now it’s coming to Russia. You can see that the government have really put in a huge effort to develop the infrastructure —there’s going to be a million people coming into the country. Hopefully, so many foreigners coming into the country will be met with an open mind. People from all sorts of different places will be there at the same time, mixing with each other, and this is the magic of the sport—the magic of football.”

MARCEL AT THE BACK

Marcel steadied defences at Nantes, Marseille, Milan, Chelsea, Al-Gharafa, and Qatar SC. He won the Champions League title at Milan as well as at Marseille, the World Cup and European Championships with France, the Serie A title with AC Milan, and the FA Cup at Chelsea. Nicknamed ‘The Rock’, Desailly was an exceptionally reliable footballer. But who in today’s game would he like to play alongside, and hate to play against?

“I think Ramos is the best central defender playing football at the moment. He’s a leader, he’s clever and he scores important goals. I would have loved to have played alongside him. He sometimes makes too many fouls, but you can’t be perfect. He might have had a little bit more technique than me—he can play with his left and his right—but I could have been the tougher one to his side. A lot like the relationship I had with Laurent Blanc.

“I really, really would not have enjoyed playing against Luis Suárez. He’s a bit like Inzaghi. It was awful to mark him. It was 90 minutes of awfulness. Suárez has the skills and knows how to dribble, but against Inzaghi it was awful—no skills, nothing. I’d hold the line, look across to see where he was, touch him very faintly and he’d fall down out of nowhere. And then suddenly, you’d lose him, look around and he’d scored—like a magician. There’s a lot of tension when playing against these kind of players. You know that at any time they can take advantage of you. And you know they won’t give you any physical return. I was in need of players who could give me a return on a physical battle. Suárez won’t do that, he won’t give you a point of reference—he’ll nip and duck out of the way. There’s never a moment in the game where you think “I took advantage of him” and suddenly you’ll see that he’s off running because he’s scored a goal and he’ll look at you out of the corner of his eyes like haha, I’ve done you.”

Marcel Desailly was speaking at an event to celebrate the end of the UEFA Champions League group stage, where he and Nissan put football fans through the ultimate challenge.

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