First and foremost, we would like to wish Marcel Desailly a very happy birthday. As he turns 48, life has been rather smooth for the once upon a time France national captain, at least post retirement. For Chelsea fans, Marcel Desailly is the role model from whom John Terry learnt a little trick and the trick was “To dominate the defence”. Terry owes a lot to Desailly because the latter never knew how to play the game in a mild way. 

Playing Style

Marcel Desailly was a quick and powerful player - someone who would bully his opponents once the ball goes in the air. Just like some of his rivals that time namely the likes of Stam, Cannavaro’s and Thuram, Marcel excelled in the air and combined aggression with his ability to read the game. His biggest strength apart from being a physically dominating figure was his mental, and defensive skills, with a notable confidence on the ball, which also allowed him to play in the midfield,  throughout his career.

Marcel Desailly was born in Ghana and his mother married a French diplomat which lead to his upbringing on a rough street in a shady neighborhood of an upcoming France. Right from his debut, coaches noted that he liked to organize the play but it was only when he turned 17 and broke into the reserve team that he himself believed that he could have a future in football.

One thing Desailly learnt early in life was to trust his instincts and act accordingly. He was fully aware of what he was doing on the pitch and off it. When Marseille came calling for the young prodigy from Nantes, Monaco too knocked the door with a fat pay cheque but young Marcel knew where he wanted to go.

“It’s like a child who is in the family house. He wants to move, he needs to move, no matter what the parents are going to give him. Nantes became too small for me. I wanted Marseille but all the family were saying go to Monaco because you are guaranteed a huge salary, but I said no, I am ambitious it’s not just about the money. I said the ambition that Marseille have will give me other opportunities. In football you have to be lucky. I’m a lucky man. I have not been a skilful, talented player. I’ve been a serious player all my life in my diet, sleeping, everything, but the luck of coming to clubs that win is also important.”

Life was not easy at Marseille because he was competing for a spot against the legendary Basile Boli. His performances did lead to a national level call up but France failed to qualify in the last minute of their last match against Bulgaria when David Ginola lost possession and his error allowed Emil Kostadinov to score. 

Marseille were stripped of their division 1 title for bribing Valenciennes to lift the pedal off the gas in a league match so that they could focus on their Euorpean fixtures. Bernard Tapie, the club’s flamboyant chairman was sent behind bars and Marcel Desailly soon lost his will to play for Marseille and a move was on the cards.

AC Milan Calling

Desailly explained the move in the most blunt and honest way he could :

“I still continue to say that my move to AC Milan was not for me. Ariedo Braida, who was the sports director of AC Milan, came to watch Alen Boksic because he wanted to buy Boksic, not me. Luckily, that day I had an amazing game. I played libero and central defence, and I played my best game for Marseille that season. He put a cross against my name in his notebook to follow up later. When Marseille put me up for sale, Zvonimir Boban in AC Milan got injured, that’s why Milan came and grabbed me to replace Boban, to play as a midfielder. It’s all about luck sometimes.”

In a generation when we talk about “adjustment” and “transition" from different leagues, Desailly took to the league like a duck takes to the water. Back then the league had a rule that you could play only 3 foreign players in the line up and Desailly’s competitors were the likes of Marco van Basten, Michael Laudrup, Jean-Pierre Papin, Giovane Élber and Dejan Savicevic.

Probably the best thing to do at such stage of your life is to soak into the pressure and Fabio Capello being the manager that time kept increasing the heat on the French International. Desailly in an interview with guardian explains this trait of his  :

“Fabio Capello told me ‘When you came I didn’t really know who you were but the first week of training that you played with us, I had no choice but to put you in the first team.’ I enjoyed it. It’s like in the jungle, it is only the one who is fit that survives.”

Chelsea, who ?

Milan had their worst season in a decade in the year 1997, even though the team looked strong on paper with the likes of George Weah, Roberto Baggio and Patrick Kluivert. Previously Desailly managed to win 2 Scudetto and a Champions League and in came Colin Hutchinson who was Chelsea’s director of football. Desailly asked the most famous question back then :

“Chelsea? Which club? What are you saying? I’ve never heard about Chelsea,”

In the year 1996, Manchester United almost signed him as Desailly recalled :

“In 1996, I signed a pre-contract agreement with Manchester United. I spoke to Alex Ferguson on the phone. I was free! Bosman had just happened. So I was a free transfer! I won’t go into why it didn’t happen but if I had joined them I would have won several more titles”

He rejected Liverpool because there were no French schools nearby and not even a chartered helicopter would lure him for a move into the Anfield. Desailly opted for Chelsea for this reason, saying to Hutchinson: “OK, let’s go have a look at your club.”

 

Premier League - His Greatest Teacher

“I suffered. My ego got smashed. I really suffered, honestly. Playing against Dion Dublin, Duncan Ferguson – big guys. The flick, the fighting spirit. Playing against Coventry, Sunderland – the long ball. I was unable to intimidate them. In France and Italy I was a strong guy – I would look the strikers in the eye and show ‘there is nothing for you today’ – and the player would look down and accept that I had won. But in England, no. The guy is ready for a fight. The striker will tackle you! I was depressed for four months.”

Doesn’t that seem completely uncharacteristic of a man who stood at 6ft 1 inch and had won almost everything in Club football. But like many legends he had a trait, which was to study the game and get on with it. He took to studying the English game on video, accepting that it was not possible to win every aerial challenge, and instead anticipated where the ball would land when it was flicked on, rather than always engaging in direct combat. He also began to release the ball earlier, knowing that strikers in England were quite happy to tackle defenders, something he had never seen in France or Italy.

The Golden French Generation

He was 30 years old and had seen most of the twilight of his career and in came a bunch of supremely talented youngsters. Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff, Emmanuel Petit and Didier Deschamps, took up the mantle of leading the French national team in World Cup of 1998. France were hosting the tournament lead by their talisman Zidane and took the world by storm, thrashing and annihilating every team in style. In the final, they faced a team who were brilliant technically and a team who you wouldn’t want to face in your worst nightmares - Brazil.

As mentioned Desailly loved pressure. Well, how about your centreback partner who is suspended for the final and gets replaced by a someone as shaky as Frank Labeouf? How's that for pressure? France lead the game with 2 goals from Zidane and Desailly was sent off after receiving a second yellow card for a bad tackle on Cafu. He spent the last part of the second half in the dressing room fearing that he would be the reason for squandering such a chance but Emmanuel Petit secured an historic victory with a third goal.
 

“From 1998 to 2001 we were the best team in the world, like Spain later. There was nothing for any other team. We won Euro 2000 beating Spain, Italy, Czech Republic and Portugal. It was an amazing experience.”

The Last Hurrah

After six successful years playing for Chelsea, Desailly moved to Qatar in 2004 to wind down his career. He won two league titles with Al-Gharafa and Sports Club Qatar in successive seasons. At 36, however, it was becoming harder to keep pushing himself and to maintain the high standards he demanded of himself.

Retirement

Well, whatever goes up has to come down and Desailly explained his decision to retire in the most subtle and yet elegant way.

“One morning, I was injured, I was alone in my room, and five o’clock in the morning the sun was already shining hard. I put my two feet on the floor and winced. The family were not with me because I didn’t want them to move to Qatar and I said to myself, ‘It’s time for you to stop’. The two elements were there: physical and psychological. I was not ready to come back after my small injury. That day I went to the club and told them I wanted to withdraw and end my career. After 20 years of professional commitment, I was tired. I had given my best.”

After he retired just like his mate Thuram, Desailly has been involved a lot in charity and he proudly explains

“I’m a citizen of the world. I’m French-Ghanaian. What I’ve done is invest in Ghana, created a project called Lizzy Sports Complex with a bit of estate and sports facility, to contribute at a private level to help by building a sports facility. I believe it is useful to the community and this is my commitment to Ghana. We’ve created 100 jobs and probably around 300 jobs indirectly, and I’m happy about that. I’ve brought my kids to Ghana to understand the African way of life and also for them to understand where their father is coming from. Not thinking that their father is just French. No, their father is African too.”

Finishing this article, I can think of a phrase that sums Desailly's career up..

“HE CAME, HE SAW, HE CONQUERED”