Desailly wary of the yellow peril

Phil Shaw on the French defender who has been instrumental in helping his country reach the semi-finals
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The Independent Online
When he has finished dealing with a veritable barrage of questions about everything from life sans Eric Cantona through France's prospects of reaching the final of Euro 96 to the ravings of racists at home - Marcel Desailly poses one of his own.

"Who's the referee?" the tournament's outstanding defender asks about tomorrow's semi-final against the Czech Republic at Old Trafford. On hearing that it is a Scotsman, Les Mottram, his face lights up. "Oh, that's okay then," Desailly says, miming the illegal use of an elbow before joining in the laughter of the assembled scribes over this insight into a European's perception of the British hurly-burly.

The Milan player's concern centres on the fact that he has a yellow card hanging him over him from the group fixtures. One injudicious challenge, or indeed an error of judgement by the match official, could put him out of Sunday's final. It was, he confesses, in the back of his mind throughout Saturday's attritional draw with the Netherlands at Anfield, which France eventually won on penalties.

Not that Desailly will be holding back or taking for granted victory over the Czechs. "I was very surprised when they beat Italy and again when they put out Portugal, but that's football," he says. "Now we're in the same position as the Portuguese, who were probably better collectively and individually but still lost.

"We played the Czechs in Bordeaux last year and were 2-0 down before Zinedine Zidane scored twice late on to make a draw. It shows how much we must respect them. They're a dangerous team.''

The 27-year-old Desailly, born in Ghana but adopted by the French consul- general in Accra before moving to Nantes at the age of four, has gained European Cup-winners' medals with Marseille and Milan. For all his big- match experience, however, he has never played at Wembley.

"It might be the one time in my life, so I must make the most of it if we get through. Ideally I want us to play England - that would be a nice party. I think they'll beat the Germans because they have the spirit and support, and Germany have lost a lot with Klinsmann's injury.''

Desailly describes English football as "spectacular to watch", adding as tactfully as possible that there are "still problems at a tactical level". He is impressed by the strength and opportunism of Alan Shearer, who reminds him of Jean-Pierre Papin in their Marseille days, and recalls tangling with Paul Gascoigne in Serie A. "Sometimes he was walking. When he started to run, he was dangerous.''

But the Englishman who has really caught his eye is Steve McManaman. "I believe he'd do well in Italy, because he's quick and goes past people." The infectious smile signposts an afterthought: "Which I don't like.''

Mention of players who flumox defenders (although the versatile Desailly operates in midfield for Milan) leads us on to the Frenchman known as "Dieu" at tomorrow's venue. "You still ask about Cantona!" he says, politely incredulous. "We're sorry for Eric, of course, but the coach made his decision and that's it. We're in the semi-finals, so why are we talking about Cantona?''

Nevertheless, France would doubtless love to call on Manchester's finest now that Christophe Dugarry is injured and Christian Karembeu suspended. Desailly is no more willing to be lured into that debate than he was to be put off by Hristo Stoichkov's insults, though he admits: "We don't have much fantasy in our team.

"What we do have is continuity and consistency. We don't win one 5-0 and lose the next. It's now 27 games unbeaten. We're like Robocop, very organised and efficient, and perhaps more technical than England.''

As for yesterday's outburst by the French fascist leader about the number of "foreigners" in the side and their alleged ignorance of "La Marseillaise", one of its principal targets says with quiet dignity: "When I pull on the blue shirt I'm conscious that I'm representing France, and of the importance of that. But me sing to satisfy Le Pen? I don't think so.''

Desailly is black and blue and proud of it. The only problem on the semi- final horizon is the referee's yellow.