Born: 7 September 1968 in Accra (Ghana)
Nationality: French and Ghanian
Height: 1.83 m
Weight: 80 kg
Nickname: “The Rock”
Clubs: 1986-1992: Nantes. 1992-1993: Marseille. 1993-1998: AC Milan. 1998-2004: Chelsea. 2004-2005 Al Gharafa (Qatar). 2005: Qatar Sports Club.
Honours: 1998 world champion and 2000 European champion with France. 1992 French and 1993 European champion (both titles were later stripped from Marseille as a result of a match-fixing scandal), 1993 and 1995 Italian champion. 1994 UEFA Champions League winner. 2000 English FA Cup winner. 2005 Qatar champion. 116 caps and 3 goals for France.
Miscellaneous: Married to Virginie with whom he has a daughter and three sons.
Party time in Accra
He became a world and European champion with France, but the 38-year-old former defender Marcel Desailly is living in his native Ghana and harboring hopes of managing an African team in the future.
Used to inhaling the sweet, intoxicating aroma of triumph from his time gracing the pitch as a cerebral but physically dominant central defender for Marseille, AC Milan and Chelsea, the 1998 World Cup winner with France insists that, unlike many of his retired peers, he has not missed the hustle and bustle of professional football since he hung up his boots.
“I played football from the age of 14 and was a professional for about 20 years. It was an unbelievable experience to be in the game but I do not miss the daily rigor of training and playing because I achieved all I wanted to do in it,” Marcel Desailly tells.
In making a decision to establish a very significant presence in Ghana, the land of his birth, Desailly has made it clear that Africa will play a very important role in this new chapter of his life. An imposing home in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, attracts the cream of the country’s football community and the social glitterati who never fail to grace Desailly’s home when plays the perfect host at his famous all-night parties. “While growing up, and as my career was coming to an end, I always knew that my future lay with Africa in general and Ghana in particular,” says Desailly. That is why I am working with different people to launch different kinds of projects.”
Future national coach?
Although he distinguished himself as an articulate, incisive analyst with BBC Television at the World Cup finals in Germany (he also works for the French cable station, ?Canal Plus’), Desailly’s desire to manage a team at the next World Cup finals has not been dampened by his successful foray into the media. “My preference is definitely to manage an African national side. But at the moment, I am discovering another life and trying to understand the new trends in football and how the game is evolving.”
Adapting to changing situations is nothing alien to Desailly, who left the tropical climes of Ghana for the milder temperatures of France as a child. “My adoptive father was the consul at the French embassy in Ghana and he ended up marrying my mother and taking me to France at the age of four,” he recalls. “Fortunately I did not suffer a cultural shock when I moved to France because I was at an age where it was very easy for me to adapt to the life and culture there.”
Insisting that he has suffered little racism throughout his life, Desailly is not naïve about the factors that have probably made things more pleasant for him. “This was simply because of my fame and success as a football player. If I had not been successful, I would have gone through what the majority of black people in Europe experience all the time.”
More pressure from FIFA
The soft-spoken man will never forget one high-profile incident in 2004 when he was in action for Chelsea against Monaco in a UEFA Champions League match. Ron Atkinson, the former Manchester United manager and at the time a TV commentator for the English Channel ?ITV’, described Desailly as a “thick nigger” in wholly unsavoury terms for a defensive error he had made, unaware that his supposedly off-air remark had been broadcast. The resultant furore over the racist jibe turned Atkinson into a pariah and put the former defender at the centre of a discussion on the treatment of black players in the European game.
Reflecting on the incident three years on, Desailly insists it was the type of attention that he has never sought. “When the furore over the whole issue was burning, I turned my mobile phone off to avoid making comments to the media, as I was not willing to be a pawn in the middle of an issue that was attracting attention but actually needed to be taken far more seriously.”
Surprisingly, he is rather charitable to Atkinson and insists that the incident is firmly rooted in the past, where he prefers to leave it. “I feel ashamed and sorry for him, because he ought to be setting a good example. His statement was an affront to all black people. But on a personal level, it really did not affect me at all,” he says. However, he is till furious about the persistent racist insults that have been hurled at several African players in the European club game, particularly at Barcelona’s Cameroonian striker Eto’o. “What he has gone through is terrible and this cannot be tolerated any more. But I have to say that nothing will change until FIFA puts more pressure on the clubs to do something about this menace.”
Belief in France
No connoisseur of the game would dispute that Desailly and his peers personified the golden age for ?Les Bleus’ as they banished the ignominy of failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals by becoming the first French team to win football’s ultimate prize four years later.
Although France also defeated Italy to win the European Championship in 2000, sealing their reputation as the most fearsome side in the world at the time, it ironically heralded the start of a temporary but frightening decline, which Desailly admitted worried him.
After a humiliating first-round exit at the 2002 FIFA World Cup TM finals, ?Les Bleus’ returned to form in Germany, where they came close to winning their second World Cup trophy in eight years. Effusive in his praise for his old team-mates Lilian Thuram and Thierry Henry, as well as exciting newcomer Franck Ribery, Desailly – who retired from international football after the 2004 European Championship – insists France will remain in the elite class of world football for many years to come: “The new generation of players are of excellent quality. We did worry that after we quit the scene things might deteriorate, but they have done us all proud.”
Many would have thought that after exiting what is a rather hectic and time-conscious profession, Desailly would have a lot more time for his wife and children, but the challenges of his new life have not really given him the chance to make what even he admits is a long-overdue transition. “I am still not at home as much as I’m expected to be, as I have a lot of commitments all over the world. But my mind is always with them and I do to spend a lot more time with them than I did as a player.”
Hard work indeed
With South Africa having just about three years to prepare itself to host the first World Cup finals on African soil, Desailly is hoping that one of the six sides representing the continent will be able to break the quarter-final barrier in 2010. Only Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and Senegal’s Lions of Teranga have gone that far and Desailly is careful not to overrate the continent’s chances. “Can an African side win the World Cup in 2010? I really do not know. It’s difficult to say. They need to work a lot harder – tactically and in terms of the way they prepare for tournaments. But my hope for the future of this game is to see more African players featuring at the very top level and to see an African team reach the semi-final or final of the World Cup,” he says.
In a continent where football is regarded as the third religion after Christianity and Islam, there is not one disciple of the game who does not share the dream of the African child who has finally returned to his roots.