Football: Interview Marcel Desailly: French art enters blue period

Exclusive: World Cup winner who proved doubters wrong adjusts to a new challenge. By Andrew Longmore

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The Independent Online

For such a high-rise player, Marcel Desailly has kept a very low profile since his arrival in England. Chelsea, who play at Leeds today, have taken time to find their stride this season and the Frenchman has needed to steady himself after the heady excesses of the World Cup, from which he emerged as the spiritual leader of the victorious French side. He is concerned with more mundane matters now, with settling his wife and three children into the family home in Surrey, with the launch of a new line of clothing, with perfecting his English and adding another league title to his priceless collection of campaign medals.

It is worth detailing the silverware: two successive European Cups, with Marseille in 1993 and Milan in 1994, two Italian championships with Milan, in 1994 and 1996, and a World Cup winner's medal from France 98. Add in a couple of World Club Championships, a third successive European Cup final, a domestic cup or two and Desailly's career has already been a handsome fulfilment of his own mantra that "winning is beautiful".

The French have called Desailly hautain, which in English means haughty. But it is not the case. Yes, he has an unnervingly strong gaze and a disconcerting confidence, but it is more the physical presence, the inviolable force field around Desailly which discourages close attention. "It's the way I talk," he says. "It's not me. When you see me on the television you may think I'm very sure about myself. That is not the right image. I am a nice, family man, a good father. I'm a simple guy."

Even the players feel the difference. In training, Desailly rarely joins in the japes. He changes in the quietest of the dressing-rooms at Chelsea's training ground, opposite Gustavo Poyet, another studious professional, yet his command and his athleticism are unquestioned. Moments before we talked, Chelsea had ended their morning session with a series of five- yard sprints, the players starting from a prone position, either lying on their back or their front, to test reflex and agility. The neatness of movement in Desailly, who weighs 12 and a half stone and stands well over six feet tall, was more ballet dancer than footballer; almost defying the human eye.

Desailly has already made a mockery of the critics who accused Chelsea of spending pounds 4.6m on another Italian cast-off. Typically, because he looks at life through a wider lens than most footballers, he signed his contract before the start of the World Cup. Milan were losing too much for his liking and, after five years, his eyes were open to a new challenge. But the timing of the move suggested a man determined to put his life on hold for the duration of the Mondial. While other players used the tournament as a shop window, Desailly was consumed with the idea of winning. He had informed the French press that this would be his finest hour, though no one truly believed how seriously he would take the pledge. His greatest friend, Didier Deschamps, referred with some awe to Desailly being au sommet de son art, at the height of his powers. Desailly smiles at the compliment.

"I was under pressure because of what I had said, but I was 100 per cent sure I would have a great World Cup. In France, people saw only the image of a Milan team losing; they didn't really see me play. I kept saying I was still the same player as before, but I wanted to challenge myself, because in all the challenges of my life I have given everything. I was disappointed that they were doubting me. I had nothing to prove to them, just to myself because soccer is my passion as well as my profession and I like to do it well. Winning is beautiful. That's why I say you have to give of yourself because when you succeed it is so beautiful. You have to sacrifice everything, to fight to stay at the top. When that is done, you will have a long time to rest."

Desailly scorched his personal message across the playing fields of France. Ghanaian-born, but brought up in Nantes from the age of four, Desailly symbolised the fragile racial harmony which France's stuttering progress through the World Cup fostered. For a fleeting month, France saw itself differently. Any lingering confusion over the commitment of the African players to the tricolore was banished by the colossal performances of Thuram, Henri, Djorkaeff and, above all, Desailly. L'Origin Africain ceased to be a term of abuse.

"We saw the enthusiasm of the people and we didn't believe it," Desailly recalls. "For a month everyone forgot their problems, even the race problems. We brought France the image of victory for almost the first time and everywhere the people were saying 'Thank you, you made my life better for that month'." And his own souvenirs?

"Just the spirit of the team, seeing players grow, being able to relax with them, talk to them and discover good things about them. Thuram's goals against Croatia and the match against Italy which was the most intense and exciting I have ever played. I don't think we will ever capture that spirit again. It was a unique time." The one disappointment was that Virgil Desailly, four years old, decided to shave his head in imitation of Ronaldo. "All the time it was Ronaldo, Ronaldo. After the final, there was not so much Ronaldo."

Yet his African roots remain strong. His mother has recently moved back to Accra, his brothers live there and in Seth Adonkor, a half-brother, who was killed in a car crash 15 years ago, Desailly carries a permanent reminder of another life. Desailly refused to dedicate his World Cup victory to the memory, saying that Seth was always with him, so there was no need, but his pre-match ritual involved a conscious assimilation of all the many influences channelled into the second.

"After the national hymn, I liked to have a quiet moment and to realise the chance of being in front of a lot of people and expressing yourself through your passion. I try to take some positive things from the African mentality and from the French and European mentalities. My homeland is France, but I like to go back to Africa. I used to go to the market and play soccer with the kids there, but it is less free and easy now because I have become more popular." The quarter of Accra where his mother lived was once requisitioned by the government to build a stadium. The project was never completed, but some friends of the minister of sport took up residence in Mrs Desailly's house. Desailly vowed to add English, the language of influence, to the three languages - French, Accran and Italian - he already speaks fluently. Throughout our conversation, he is frustrated by his inability to choose exactly the right word. Occasionally, for precision, he will speak in French.

Though a timely first goal for his new club preserved Chelsea's unbeaten record on Thursday night, Desailly is the first to admit that fluency has yet to return to his football. A sore Achilles tendon is one problem, the sheer relentless pace of the English game another. Adjusting to life after the World Cup is an added complication, quite apart from the culture shock of being left alone in restaurants and finding a fox at the bottom of the garden. And he turned 30 in September. "I have changed a lot since the World Cup. That gave me security. I'm cool now, not looking for an image anymore. If I had stayed at Milan I think maybe I would not have had the will to be at the top anymore, but coming to Chelsea means I have to find another level, find new personalities and new responsibilities. This is good for me and I am really enjoying myself.

"Don't ask me if the football is better or worse than in Italy. It's just different. In Italy, even if it is a big game, the two teams will look at each other for a time. Here it's straightaway, kick the ball, you run, you jump, you fight from beginning to the end. It's really very surprising, but I will get used to it. I still have 30 per cent to go to be at the top of my game. The team too can grow. We change a lot because we have a lot of players who can play in different positions."

His own preference, he says, is for defence rather than midfield. "But no problem, Luca [Vialli] told me before I signed my contract he would use me in midfield sometimes." His shopping list is casually simple: Premier League, then Champions' League. Fulfilment of that ambitious agenda would be beautiful indeed, for Desailly and Chelsea.

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