How was Michel Platini’s legacy tarnished?


In recent times, the very mention of the name Michel Platini is sufficient to at least polarise opinion, and at worst provoke a string of invective and bile. However, was not always this way and there was a time when Platini was simply lauded for his footballing ability and the grace and guile he brought to the game.

Although there would be few who would argue against the notion that Platini’s fall from grace is anything other than self-inflicted, the deterioration his playing legacy has suffered remains a shame.

Before retiring from playing in 1987 at the relatively young age of 32, Platini enjoyed a fifteen-year career in France and Italy. Seen as perhaps the best-ever French player, and one of the top players of all time, Platini had a star-studded career in which both club and individual honours came fast and furious.

Born in 1955 to parents of Italian descent, Platini did not initially shine as a youngster. Failing to impress at Metz on trial, he eventually joined AS Nancy where his father was a director and had also enjoyed a modest playing career.

His early time at Nancy was successful for neither himself nor the club, as he suffered personally from a string of injuries and the side struggled on the pitch.

After making a breakthrough at the end of the 1972-73 season, and then being in and out of the side due to injuries the following term, Platini suffered relegation with Nancy to Ligue 2.

This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as away from the limelight and pressures of playing for a club struggling in the top flight, Platini was able to find himself. Establishing himself as a playmaker in the heart of the Nancy midfield, Platini was dominant in a side that swept to an instant return to Ligue 1.

A successful first season back in the top flight followed, only for Platini’s career to be temporarily disturbed by the onset of military service. Although still available for selection for matches, Platini was beholden to his military responsibilities also. This meant that he actually played as an amateur for the first two full seasons of his career.

Whilst in the military and playing as an amateur, Platini represented the French military team, the French under-23s, the France Olympic team in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and the full international side for whom he made his debut against Czechoslovakia.

The Olympics afforded him his first taste of the international limelight, and Platini impressed in a French team that made it to the quarter-finals before being trounced 4-0 by a full-strength East Germany.

In that summer of 1976, Platini signed his first professional contract and returned to his midfield role at Nancy. Three solid years of improvement saw Platini pick up his first trophy in club football as Nancy won the French Cup in 1978 and 22 full international caps come his way.

In 1978, Platini appeared in the first of three World Cups as France qualified for the finals in Argentina. The competition went poorly for Les Bleus, though, and they were eliminated at the group stage following defeats to Italy and the hosts.

After one more season at Nancy Platini’s contract was up. By this time his status had grown in the game to the extent that he was a hotly sought-after property. The chance to go to Italy was afforded him as Inter made a solid bid for his services, as did French side Paris Saint-Germain.

Deciding against a move abroad at that point, Platini opted to sign for Saint-Etienne where he played for the next three seasons. Saint-Etienne had been one of Europe’s strongest teams in the mid-1970s, reaching the European Cup final in 1976 and losing an epic quarter-final to Liverpool the following season, and the signing of Platini was expected to herald a return to those halcyon days.

The reality, however, was slightly underwhelming. Although the Ligue 1 title was secured in 1980-81, European success remained elusive.

Meanwhile, France qualified for another World Cup, to be held in Spain in 1982, and were drawn in the same group as England, here was another chance for Platini to showcase his talents.

This time, Platini took the opportunity with both hands as he and his teammates embarked on a thrilling ride to the semi-finals. England and France met in the opening group game, and in an absorbing contest, England prevailed by a 3-1 scoreline. A subsequent victory over Kuwait combined with a 1-1 draw with Czechoslovakia saw France squeak into the second group stage and further matches with Austria and Northern Ireland.

Both matches were won and so France progressed to the semi-final where they met West Germany in Seville. In what has widely been acknowledged as one of the greatest World Cup matches of all-time, France led 3-1 with less than twenty minutes of extra time remaining only to be pegged back to 3-3 and a penalty shootout.

Despite Platini scoring from a penalty during normal time plus his own penalty in the shoot-out, two France misses meant that West Germany went on to the final in Madrid against Italy, while France had to settle for the third-place match where they lost 3-2 to Poland.

Considered to have had an exceptional tournament, Platini was once again in high demand at club level. With his contract expiring at Saint-Etienne, he was eligible under the rules at the time to join another European club on a free transfer, and once again there was no shortage of possible suitors.

This time he did decide to take his talents overseas, and it was to Turin and Juventus that he headed. Eventually, he moved for a nominal fee despite Juventus being under no obligation to pay one.

The next five years saw Platini at the very epoch of his career, and reach the heights of the truly great players. In his five seasons at the club, Platini helped the Turin giants to win two Serie A titles as well as a Coppa Italia, but it was in Europe that they reached the heights together.

A run to an unsuccessful European Cup Final in 1983 was followed by victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later and a subsequent Super Cup triumph over Liverpool in the winter of 1984-85.

Events of the tragic meeting between the two clubs later that season in the European Cup Final held at the Heysel Stadium have been well-documented and will never be forgotten. That Juventus ultimately triumphed by a single goal scored from the spot by Platini himself is irrelevant in the scheme of things.

Platini, however, was wounded by criticism he and some of his team-mates received after the game for celebrating both the winning goal and the final whistle rather exuberantly. In his defence, Platini stated that the Juventus players had not been aware of the enormity of the disaster nor the number of fatalities.

Two more seasons followed, with Platini forming a formidable midfield partnership with Zbigniew Boniek and Marco Tardelli, and Paulo Rossi up front. Although seen as a creative player, Platini was also able to score regularly. Two-footed, he was known for his vision and passing ability. Rossi, in particular, flourished with Platini often playing just behind him and having the uncanny ability to find him with balls that looked impossible to thread through.

In 1986, Platini played in his third and final World Cup as history repeated itself and France once more lost to West Germany at the semi-final stage of the tournament held in Mexico. However, it was two years earlier that Platini cemented himself forever in the hearts of his countrymen as he almost single-handedly led France to European Championship success on home soil.

Enjoying a staggeringly magnificent tournament, Platini captained Les Bleus to victory over Spain in the final. Scoring in every game, including two hat-tricks, Platini ended up with an unbelievable nine goals from midfield. Not surprisingly, he was voted the Player of the Tournament

Making the surprising decision to retire from playing in 1987 while still only in his early thirties, Platini explained he wished to go out at the very top.

A two-year spell as coach of the French national side after his playing days were over, and qualification for the 1992 European Championships was achieved with some ease. A disappointing tournament, however, saw France fail to qualify from the group stages and Platini stepped down as coach shortly after.

The fact that Platini’s career as an administrator now lies in ruins and some may say his name remains sullied forevermore, should not detract from his ability as a player.

Three times European Footballer of the Year, Michel Platini was an extraordinary player and one whose playing legacy at least should remain untarnished.