Before the likes of Michael Essien, Patrick Vieira and midfield powerhouses alike, the blueprint for an animalistic presence in the centre of the park was created by one of French football’s most successful Serie A exports – Marcel Desailly. A European Cup, UEFA Super Cup, two Scudetti and of course the World Cup all within five seasons at the San Siro are unprecedented accolades, but these just scratch the surface.
Born, like Essien, to Ghanaian parents in the capital Accra on September 7th 1968 but raised, like Vieira, in French surroundings. Desailly was to become part of the majestic Milan sides created by Fabio Capello during the mid nineties. A name drop of the then Rossoneri personnel says enough: Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Ruud Gullit, Demetrio Albertini, Marco Van Basten, Roberto Donadoni, Zvonimir Boban, Dejan Savicevic, Frank Rijkaard. This was a squad deemed the finest of its generation. And at the heart of it all was the French man mountain.
At 6’2 with a build more suited to a boxer than a footballer, Desailly began life christened Odenke Abbey, whose name was changed following immigration to France aged four and the marriage of his mother to a French diplomat who adopted all her children. It was in 1986 that as a powerful young defender he signed professional terms aged 18 at Nantes where he went on to make 164 appearances in six seasons and develop into a potential star of French football. The efforts of the resolute and tenacious ball winner were not unnoticed as in 1992, Bernard Tapie took him to the Stade Velodrome and it was here, in roles between defence and midfield, Desailly came of age as a talismanic member of the then considerable Olympique Marseille squad that boasted a brim of players familiar to Calcio followers: Rudi Voller, Alen Boksic and Didier Deschamps to name but a few. On May 26th 1993, just a year into his career with Marseille and with a French Ligue 1 winners medal already gained (although it was later rescinded due to match-fixing investigation) the soon to be amassed trophy collection had a centre piece, a European Cup winners medal, that came about following a 1-0 victory over Fabio Capello’s star studded AC Milan.
Sat deeply as a defensive shield to repel the threat of Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten and co, Desailly proved his potential at the highest level against stellar opposition. Beaten Milan coach Capello had taken note as had French national coach Gerard Houllier – the latter handed the 25 year old his international debut in a 1-1 draw against Sweden in 1993, while the former signed him for Milan as Gullit and Rijkaard made way. If Marseille was to be Desailly’s transition from boy to man, then his elevation from the height of French football to the pinnacle of European football all but sealed his status as the global star he was about to become.
Desailly joined the roster with a reputation as a solid, immovable centre back, quick on the ground, powerful in the air and with an uncanny knack of reading the game. He was equally adept as a defensive midfielder and considering the company he would keep within the Milan back four it was no surprise that the success story continued.
Making his Serie A bow in the 2-1 victory over Napoli, Desailly quickly settled into a team that were ruthlessly taking apart all those put before them. A first Rossoneri goal came in January, the decider in a 1-0 win over Reggina. It would be fair to say the stopper hit the ground running and alongside Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi or Alessandro Costacurta in defence, or Demetrio Albertini and Boban in midfield stood the 25-year-old Frenchman in one of the meanest defences ever formed. He took much of the credit when Milan broke all defensive records in his first season, conceding only 15 goals in 34 games. Such form saw il Diavolo crowned Serie A champions and for the second successive season, Capello’s men were into the Champions League final. This time, Desailly would appear wearing the Milan colours and the moniker “The Rock”. Once again, Desailly would emerge a winner.
Much hype had been made of the fixture as Milan, as Scudetto champions, were to take on Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, tough enough opposition that could match Milan man-for-man all over the pitch, with Ronald Koeman, Pep Guardiola, Romário and Hristo Stoichkov. Cruyff made no attempts to play down his team’s belief that they could secure victory over their Italian opponents, and with Costacurta, Marco Simone, Gigi Lentini and Baresi suspended and key players Florian Raducioiu, Jean-Pierre Papin and Brian Laudrup forced to miss out due to UEFA regulations on non-national players, Barcelona were strong favourites for the tie having just won La Liga. A shrewd tactical reshuffle saw a depleted Milan side run riot beating the Spanish champions 4-0. Desailly was a European Cup winner again for the second consecutive season and this time had a goal in the final to put into the history books.
Many believe that was the mid-nineties Milanese finest hour. Arrigo Sacchi, Capello’s predecessor and arch rival saw it as confirmation of Desailly’s capabilities claiming “Capello transformed Desailly from being a great centre back into a fabulous defensive midfielder for that match” and judging by Capello’s celebration of the midfield powerhouse’s goal, it would be fair to say the bespectacled tactician had acknowledged the graduation himself. In his debut season at the San Siro, Desailly had won the Scudetto and Champions League and shortly after had a Super Cup winner’s medal to revere too.
A second season in Milan promised further celebration but the Rossoneri struggled to hit the incredible heights of their previous campaign. The Scudetto was surrendered to a Marcello Lippi-led Juventus but there was still silverware to play for as for the third consecutive season, Fabio Capello’s men had made the Champions League final. Unlike the fairytale of Athens a year before, there was to be no victory. Coming up against former Rossoneri legend Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids – all of whom would move to the San Siro – Milan went into the clash having already lost twice to Ajax in the group stages, while the team from Amsterdam had yet to drop a game in the competition that year. A resolute and efficient performance by the Dutch masters saw them snatch a late victory, with Kluivert grabbing the only goal of the game six minutes from time after being slotted through by Rijkaard.
By 1996 Desailly had become a mainstay for both club and country. Milan was domestic champions once more, with a new plethora of international superstars such as Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Following the French national team’s disappointment in failing to qualify for the World Cup two years previously, the European Championships of that summer in England saw Marcel mixing it with the continents finest. Part of a squad that included Laurent Blanc, Youri Djorkaeff, Christian Karembeu, Didier Deschamps and a 23-year-old Zinedine Zidane, France progressed through t to the semi-finals before losing 5-4 on penalties to eventual runners-up Czech Republic. Turbulent times lay ahead in Milan however as Fabio Capello, by now with a reputation as one of Europe’s leading coaches, defected to Spanish shores to take charge at Real Madrid. The Rossoneri, in his absence, endured a disastrous period of three unsuccessful coaching appointments as Oscar Tabarez, Giorgio Morini, Arrigo Sacchi failed spectacularly to fill the Capello-sized void. Poor team performance domestically saw Milan slip out of title contention and into mid-table mediocrity. With Juventus stealing their crown and showing no signs of giving it back, Capello (after leading Madrid to La Liga success in his sole year there) was reinstated at the helm but unable to stop the slide. In 1997 Milan finished 11th in Serie A and the Bianconeri once more were Scudetto kings. As Desailly prepared to enjoy inclusion into the French squad for a first World Cup appearance on home soil, ‘The Rock’ had played his last game for Milan.
Prior to the tournament, all talk had been of Brazil and the sheer strength of their squad. With Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Aldair, Denilson and Ronaldo, the South Americans really looked the team to beat. A simple group phase was completed with ease, Desailly and Blanc ruling the roost at the back for Les Bleus alongside Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram. The final pitched the home nation France against the favourites Brazil in what promised to be a spectacle. True to form, the drama began before a ball had been kicked as in mysterious circumstances, the Inter Milan forward and global superstar Ronaldo suffered an unspecified seizure. Ronaldo played, albeit as a general spectator, and Zidane took control and drove the French towards the gleaming Jules Rimet trophy with two headers from set-pieces. Two goals to the good, the opposition preoccupied and there for the taking, Desailly was to endure one of the darkest footballing moments, a 69th minute dismissal in the World Cup final, before hitting the zenith of his career and lifting the trophy as a winner as France ran out 3-0 victors.
Following a series of outstanding defensive displays the 1998 success reaffirmed Desailly’s position amongst the top echelon of European football and no sooner had Desailly removed his World Cup winner’s medal, the superstar decided to call time on his days in Milan. ‘The Rock’ was to wear the blue of English Premiership side Chelsea as former Juventus rival Gianluca Vialli, who was installed as Chelsea Player/Coach, made Desailly one of his first major signings at £4.6m.
The Frenchman proved to be worth every penny as sandwiched between even more international success with France, winning Euro 2000 (against none other than Italy in the final), and as skipper, lifting the Confederations Cup, he went on to make 222 appearances for the Blues, captaining the side on 94 occasions and remaining a key performer in one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, winning the UEFA Super Cup and FA Cup. When talk of a possible move to Manchester United materialised during his time at Chelsea, Jaap Stam, United s Dutch centre back in an almost identical mould to Desailly, summed up the Frenchmans greatness in one simple sentence: “He’s powerful, he’s fast, he reads the game well.”
As captain and integral cog of the newly formed Chelsea machine, Desailly led the team which secured two top-three finishes in the Premiership and reached the quarter-finals (2000) and semi-finals (2004) of the UEFA Champions League. Ultimately, following the sacking of Vialli, his well publicised spats with new coach Claudio Ranieri, loss of form, the emergence of John Terry and William Gallas, personal problems, retirement from international football after Euro 2004 and of course, age catching up on him, Desailly ended his contract with Chelsea by mutual consent – becoming the second high-profile departure under new boss José Mourinho after Juan Sebastian Verón.
The lure of Middle Eastern riches ensured he wound down his illustrious career by joining Qatari outfit Al-Gharafa in the summer of 2004. Under French coach Bruno Metsu, who immediately appointed him club captain, Desailly had added yet another league success to his armoury in 2005. He then joined Qatar S.C, leading them to a second placed league finish before retiring completely from professional football in 2006 with 611 professional club appearances, 116 international caps (a figure only surpassed by Lilian Thuram), and 14 major trophies.
Desailly remains open and honest upon reflection of his career, once famously stating the Arsenal ‘invincible’ side of 2004 as the only team to have come close to that of his Milan a decade earlier: “I can’t remember a group who play with such zippiness and pizzazz. Van Basten, Boban, Baresi – we had some fantastic players and achieved a lot, but the pace of the game, even that recently, was different.”
The mild mannered giant, husband and father of four remains in football offering punditry during international tournaments for the BBC and is also a UNICEF ambassador role for Ghana as well as membership of the Ga District and Laureus World Sports Academy, for which he has been particularly active in supporting the work of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, both in France and in Africa. Following a distinguished career that saw him enjoy domestic, continental and international success during the past two decades, Marcel Desailly is still considered one of the most accomplished players ever to grace the game.
Past Lessons in Calcio