It was the late 1970s when France finally began to emerge as a true world power, the likes of Paris Saint Germain and, especially, Saint-Etienne in those evocative emerald green shirts, serving notice that something was happening in their game. A poor World Cup in 1978 was a setback, not least for a 23 year old man who went to that competition in Argentina with the hopes of the nation on his shoulders. Midfielder Michel Platini, then with AS Nancy, was already a footballer of great vision and intelligence but he had an ordinary tournament and returned home to the kind of savage criticism that might have ended the career of a lesser man.
Indeed, it took him a year to shrug off that disappointment and re-emerge as the player he had always promised to be, energised by a move to Saint-Etienne. By 1982 he was the centrepiece of a French side that was the equal even of the teams that were to come in the future. With players such as Giresse, Tigana, Six, France had flair aplenty, and in Platini in the number ten shirt, they had the general that could pull it all together for them, orchestrating, dictating, changing the tempo, passing the ball with the accuracy of a mathematician and the finesse of an artist. Like all the great players, the likes of Di Stefano, Cruyff, Puskas, Platini had twice as many touches of the ball as any other man on the park, an expression both of his monumental ego and of the way in which other huge individual talents were willing to suppress their own needs in recognition of his supreme talent.
In what was a genuinely great 1982 World Cup in Spain, one that featured the magnificent Brazilians under the similarly imaginative direction of Socrates, France were the side that thrilled, coming back from an opening defeat to England to march on to the semi-finals, playing football with a verve, a modernity and a joie de vivre that captured the imagination. Platini was the auteur at the hub of it all, producer, writer, director, actor, covering all the bases with breathtaking mastery of them all.
Perhaps France would have won the trophy but in the semi-final with West Germany, Battiston was all but decapitated by goalkeeper Schumacher when clean through, the goalkeeper allowed to remain on the pitch as the game edged to penalties and, in those circumstances, the inevitable West German win.
After the World Cup, Platini moved to Juventus, where not even the straitjacket of Serie A football could contain his talents. After a stuttering start, he flowered in the city of Turin, topped the goalscoring charts in Serie A for three seasons, won a hat-trick of European Player of the Year awards, was World Soccer’s Player of the Year twice, won two titles, the European Cup, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup as the “Old Lady” came to dominate European football, largely thanks to his guile and the explosive partnership he forged with Poland’s Zbigniew Boniek.
But still there was a crowning glory to be had on the international stage, and it came when France hosted the 1984 European Championships. The injustice of 1982 burnt bright within the nation and within Platini and on home soil, their captain was not going to let the nation suffer again, understanding full well too that the greatest players end up by putting trophies on the table. He’d seen Cruyff, watched his genius, but saw too that he had never delivered a trophy for the Dutch, a void in an otherwise magnificent career. He was not going to end empty handed.
We talk of Maradona winning the 1986 World Cup single handed, but was his performance in Mexico any greater than Platini’s in France ’84? Hardly. The skipper scored the winner in the group opener with Denmark, than scored two perfect hat-tricks, an almost unthinkable achievement, as they laid waste to Belgium and Yugoslavia. The semi-final pitted them against Portugal in a cracking game won, inevitably, by scoring the dramatic winner in the last minute of extra time, and then in the final, his free-kick set France on their way to a victory over Spain. Destiny had been served.
Platini continued to touch the sky through to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, guiding his country to another semi-final and another defeat at the hands of the West Germans, before, a year later, he was gone, announcing his retirement from all football at the age of just 31, a typically Gallic gesture that would be replicated later by Eric Cantona, neither man willing to peddle their wares any longer once the kiss of genius had been withdrawn, once the ravages of time had just begun to nibble at the edges, once the drive of ambition had started to weaken, and to call them into other areas of life.
Platini took his exit from the game in the way in which he had played it. With style, with timing and with an extraordinary grace. He had adorned it while he could and refused to smear the memory of his ebullient, elemental game with a series of gradually diminishing returns. Would that we all had such self awareness.
© Nigel Molesworth for @awaycolours 2014