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Words: James Bird
Image: Offside Sports Photography

I had five minutes with actual Marcel Desailly. He's an absolute joy. Here's what we spoke about.

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 big boys are there. The big defender boys. Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Frank Leboeuf, Bixente Lizarazu. They’re imitating him. They’re drawing imaginary lines of shifting the ball. They’re making the noise of his legs drawing circles in their brains. They’re saying “Whether he goes left or right, you don’t see the ball”. They’re saying “You look down, and the ball is just gone”. They’re saying “You know what he does? He uses you.” They’re four kids talking about how to stop the good kid from the other school. The one they’ve all heard about leaving defenders on their arses and balls in the back of the net. 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 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."


Bernard Tapie, the son of a French fridge maker and a hyper-successful businessman, was the president of Olympique de Marseille from 1986 to 1994. Tapie led the club to four successive Ligue 1 titles and, eventually, the Champions League trophy. Tapie ended up being found out to be pretty bloody dodgy—he was found guilty of bribing Valenciennes in the league match before their Champions League final not to injure his Marseille players and to allow them to win, and their ‘92 league title was taken away from them. Tapie ended up serving as Minister of Urban Affairs and being cast as the lead in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Odd bloke. But, either way, that Marseille side was emphatic, and Marcel was at the heart of it.

"Our ‘93 winning Champions League side is still the only French side to win the Champions League. 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 Voller 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 has a sort-of Latin mentality. There’s 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 won the World Cup with France on their home soil in 1998. This was the first time the French had hoisted the Jules Rimet, and they followed it up two years later with a win in the European Championships. Marcel reckons 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. People from all sorts of different places will be coming into the country at the same time, mixing with each other, and this is the magic of the sport—the magic of football."


During a career that spanned twenty years, 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, the Serie A title, the FA Cup. He won the bloody lot, did Marcel. Nicknamed ‘The Rock’, Desailly could play as a defensive midfielder too. He was class.

"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."

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