They’ve been playing for one hundred and nineteen minutes on this balmy Mediterranean evening at le Stade Velodrome in Marseille and nothing, so far, has been able to separate the two teams. France, who sailed through the group stages of the 1984 European Championships, have surprisingly met their match in Portugal, who, prior to this summer, have not reached the finals of a major tournament since the 1966 World Cup. The two sides are locked together at two goals apiece, with a heroic performance from the Portuguese goalkeeper Manuel Bento having kept them at bay. For France, who just two years earlier had lost the first ever penalty shoot-out in a World Cup finals match to West Germany, a repeat beckons.
Jean Tigana, the elegant midfielder who makes up one quarter of le carré magique, the “magic square” that is the engine room of this team’s success, collects the ball just inside the Portugal half of the pitch. He attempts a through-ball but a desperate lunge intercepts his pass. Tigana, however, has continued his forward momentum and picks the ball up again, and with one final burst of energy heads towards the right-hand touchline with it. Once there, he pulls the ball back, across the face of goal. It’s not a perfect pass, but it is enough to beat Bento’s dive. On the edge of the six yard area is Michel Platini. The ball is running slightly behind him and in the heat of the moment any player might have been forgiven for stretching and punting the ball high or wide. This, however, is not just any player. This is Platini. He takes one touch to control the ball, and then a second to drive it into the roof of the Portuguese goal. Le Stade Velodrome explodes into a riot of noise and colour as the shattered Portuguese players drop to the ground. France, hitherto the elegant losers of the international football community, are through to the final of the European Championships.
This tournament was perhaps the crowning achievement for perhaps the greatest player in the world of that time. Michel Platini, the son of Italian immigrants, stood atop the 1984 European Championships with one of the finest individual performances ever seen by one player in the finals of a major tournament. Since then, he has been a perpetual presence in the world game – the elegant midfielder, unsuccessful national coach, moderniser of European football, possibly one day the head of FIFA – but it was in the early to mid 1980s that his playing stock was at its peak, with a fifteen year long playing career which took in just three clubs along with seventy-two appearances for his national team.
Although best known for his playing spell in Italy with Juventus, Michel Platini spent the first eight years – almost half – of his career in the relatively modest surroundings of his local club, AS Nancy-Lorraine. Indeed, Platini was somewhat fortunate to get an opportunity there, having failed two trials with Metz, firstly after an injury and secondly after suffering breathing difficulties. French football at this time was in a trough, though, and players of his raw quality could not be easily overlooked. The national team had reached the semi-finals of the 1958 World Cup and the 1960 European Championships, but this had proved to be a flash in the pan. The team failed to qualify for three of the next four World Cups and failed to win any matches at the one that they did qualify for, in 1966, while attendances for domestic league matches bottomed out in 1968.
Platini signed for Nancy in September of 1972, and made his first team debut against Nimes at the end of the 1972/73 season. The following season, however, the team struggled and, with Platini injured from March of 1974 on, the team was relegated to Ligue 2. The following season, however, he scored seventeen goals as the team comfortably won promotion back to the top division. Whilst military service would go on to limit his opportunities for the next couple of seasons, his reputation as a player was rising, and he made his debut for France in a friendly match against Czechoslovakia in March of 1976 under new coach Michel Hidalgo. His reputation was further enhanced by his performance for the France under-23 team at the 1976 Montreal Olympic games, where he scored three goals in the group stages of the competition before France were eliminated by a strong East German side in the quarter-finals.
Two years later, France finally qualified for the World Cup finals again – the first time that they had managed this in twelve years. By this time, Michel Platini’s talent was widely recognised – he came third in the vote for European Footballer of the Year at the end of 1977 – but France failed to get through a fiendishly difficult group, which also featured the hosts, Argentina, Italy and Hungary. Platini did, however, manage another medal for himself that year, scoring the only goal of the match at Parc des Princes in Paris as Nancy beat OGC Nice to win the 1978 Coupe de France. Despite an injury which kept him out for much of the following season, it was by this time clear that he was too big fish for the relatively small pool that Nancy was. Under French transfer rules of the time, though, no fee could be levied for players that were out of contract and in the summer of 1979, having been courted by Paris St Germain and Internazionale, he left the club for AS Saint-Etienne.
That Platini should have chosen Saint-Etienne is no great surprise. The club had, after all, won the league championship five times and the Coupe de France four times over the previous ten years. Over his three years at the club, Platini was involved with their championship-winning side of 1981 and played – on the losing side – in two cup finals. The start of the club’s decline, however, came at the end of Platini’s contract in 1982, when long-standing club president Roger Rochet was forced out of the club after slush funds and illegal payments were revealed. By this time, however, Platini had left the club – again only for a nominal transfer fee – to join the Italian giants, Juventus. His arrival in Turin coincided with the lifting of a ban on foreign players in Italian league football, and Platini was joined there by the Polish striker Zbigniew Boniek. Both players had been losers in the semi-finals of that year’s World Cup finals in Spain. Whilst Poland had been comfortably beaten by Italy in Barcelona, France’s defeat against West Germany signalled the birth of a team that would come to dominate European football over the next five years.
In the run-up to the match Platini had been quiet, with just a solitary goal from the five matches that France had already played in the finals coming in their opening group match against Kuwait. After he had cancelled out an early West German goal, however, the match went to extra-time and France raced into a three-one lead, before wilting in the Seville heat and allowing West Germany to pull the score back to three goals apiece for the World Cup finals’ first ever penalty shoot-out. France briefly led in the shoot-out after Uli Stielike missed the West Germans’ third kick but, although Platini scored with his kick, Didier Six and Maxime Bossis both missed and West Germany were through to the final. Over the next three years, Platini would come into his own at Juventus, winning three consecutive Serie A titles and being crowned as the European Footballer of the Year for three straight years as well. It would be his achievements for France at the 1984 European Championships, however, that would come to define his international career.
In Spain in 1982, France had started weakly with a defeat at the hands on a mediocre England side in their opening match in Bilbao. Their first match was against Denmark, who were talented and had caused a mild surprise in knocking England out in qualifying but were playing in their first international tournament. A capacity crowd in Paris saw France labour through a tense match, winning with the only goal, scored by Platini with twelve minutes left to play. The next two group matches, however, would see vastly improved performances from both the French team and Platini himself. Against Belgium in their second match, they strolled to a five-nil win with a Platini hat-trick supplemented by goals from Alain Giresse and Luis Fernandez. In their final group match against Yugoslavia in Saint Etienne, Platini repeated the trick in a three-two win for France. To score in successive matches in an international tournament is notable. To score successive hat-tricks is extraordinary, though, all the more so because both of Platini’s were ‘perfect’ hat-tricks, with one goal scored with either foot and one with his head.
More importantly than this, though, France were through to the semi-finals, where they would play a Portuguese side that had already caused a surprise by edging West Germany out of the group stages. France took a first half lead with a free kick from Jean-Francois Domergue, but Rui Jordao equalised for Portugal in the second half and scored again eight minutes into extra-time with a mis-hit shot into the ground which looped up and over the French goalkeeper Joel Bats. France were five minutes from elimination before Domergue levelled for the hosts. In the dying seconds before another penalty shoot-out, Platini scored his eighth goal in four matches to send France through to the final in Paris, where they would play another of the tournaments surprise packages, Spain.
The final, played four days after two exhausting semi-finals (Spain had only got through to the final via a penalty shoot-out after drawing one-all against Denmark), was perhaps never going to reach the dramatic heights that France’s semi-final against Portugal had managed. The decisive moment, however, came three minutes into the second half from the right foot of Michel Platini, whose free kick from twenty yards out was fumbled over the line by the Spanish goalkeeper Luis Arconada. With a couple of minutes left to play and Spain defensively stretched in the search for an equalising goal, Jean Tigana released Bruno Bellone, whose chip beat Arconada to sew up France’s first ever major trophy. With nine goals in five matches, Platini had stolen the show, but Frances team was riven through with top class players, in particular that “magic square” of Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernandez, four players with vastly different strengths and attributes who seemed to play together as if linked by telepathy.
While the 1984 European Championships had been largely free of crowd trouble, dark storm clouds were gathering elsewhere and the 1984/85 season would end with what might have been another summit in his career overwhelmed by events off the pitch. The 1985 European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool should have been a showpiece occasion for UEFA, but the dilapidated choice of stadium, ineffectual policing and the appalling behaviour of many of those that travelled to Brussels that day provided the perfect crucible for a disaster that was, in many respects, waiting to happen. The decision to play the game has been criticised, as have been the celebrations of Platini and the other Juventus players at winning the game by the only goal. As much as we can say for certain of that night is that it is only right that the details of the match itself remain an irrelevance in comparison with the deaths of thirty-nine innocent people that night.
At the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, France again performed well and, despite an injury that required regular pain-killing injections, Platini again contributed with goals against Italy in the Second Round and Brazil in the quarter-finals, although he did miss a penalty kick in the shoot-out after they drew with Brazil. France were eventually beaten in the semi-finals by West Germany, and a year later, at the age of thirty-two, Michel Platini retired from both club and international football having won the European Cup, the European Cup Winners Cup, the league championship in France and Italy and the European Championship. His record of two hundred and twenty goals from four hundred and thirty-two club matches and forty-one goals from seventy-two international appearances from an attacking midfield position speaks for itself and, while his spell as the coach of the French national team was less than successful and his time a UEFA has also not been without cause for criticism, there can be little doubt that this Frenchman born of Italian parents who ended up as the president of Europe’s football confederation had the greatest two weeks of a magnificent playing career during that temperate summer of 1984.
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