Football: Premiership sets challenge for Desailly

A French World Cup winner has left behind the old Serie A routine at Milan to write a new chapter in his illustrious career.
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WHEN CHELSEA signed Marcel Desailly from Milan two days before the World Cup finals eyebrows were raised and knowing looks exchanged - pounds 4.6m for a player approaching 30, his best years probably behind him? Did Gianluca Vialli know what he was doing with Chelsea's money? After five years in Italy's Serie A, the only thing many players are good for is early retirement but as the World Cup unfolded Vialli's smile must have broadened by the day.

Desailly's dominant performances in the heart of defence were as influential as any player's contribution to France's triumph, and despite being sent off following a reckless challenge towards the end of the final his was probably the first name on most people's fantasy team of the tournament. Questions will inevitably be asked about his commitment to Chelsea, but at least there was proof that Desailly still has few peers and if he plays half as well for his new club as he did for his country there will be no complaints.

"I had three years of my contract to run with Milan so I'm not coming here to sleep," he said yesterday after being introduced to the English press. "Chelsea asked me to come and help them win many things, and I said OK. I am a player and I need a challenge, and the challenge Chelsea have given me is a good one."

From Accra to London, via Nantes, Marseilles and Milan is the route Desailly has taken since being adopted at birth by the French consul in Ghana. The family moved to Nantes when Desailly was four and it was there that he made his name, but not before personal tragedy intervened. His half- brother, Seth Adonkor, six years older and a member of the Nantes team that won the French championship in 1983, was killed in a car accident on the road to La Baule and it is said to have had a profound effect on his 15-year-old brother.

At Nantes, Desailly found a kindred spirit in Didier Deschamps, who had suffered an identical bereavement some years earlier. Desailly followed Deschamps to Marseille, before both men moved on to Italy. While at Marseilles Desailly played in the side, captained by Deschamps, that beat Milan in the1993 European Cup final (a victory subsequently tainted by match-fixing allegations) and Milan were so impressed they bought him.

There he was converted into a defensive midfield player by Fabio Capello and within a year he was a European Cup winner again, scoring the final goal as the Italians routed Barcelona 4-0 in Athens. Over the next three years, while Milan slowly slipped from their pedestal, Desailly was one of their most consistent performers but since reaching the semi-finals of Euro 96 with France his own form finally seemed to suffer as Milan began to struggle.

"We had two bad seasons and for me everything was becoming routine," he said." People were saying my performances for Milan were down, but I can assure everybody I'm still there and I'll show it again in the Premiership. The idea is for me to play in defence. I've played for a long time in midfield for Milan, but I play in defence for the national team and I am a defender. Sometimes I'll play in midfield if the coach says so, but otherwise I'll play in defence."

And he will play in that defence alongside Franck Lebeouf again, just as he did in the World Cup final. "It's good to have Frank here, and I'm sure we'll do nice things in the championship," he said. "I don't know too much about the Premiership - obviously it's physical, a bit less tactical but that's why I'm happy to be here, to show I can play in these conditions. There are many good players in England - my own favourite is McManaman, but there are many others.

"At Chelsea I already knew of many of the players and there are some big names, but everybody wants to win, you can see that in training, and everybody is being very helpful. It will take time for us all to get to know each other, but everybody has to play their best, not try to do too much with the ball and we will grow in time."

Once the novelty of it all has worn off though, and the winter sets in, will the Premiership become something of an anti-climax for a man who has already achieved all there is to achieve in the game?

"There's no problem," he said. "With the national team it's finished. I am happy that we won the World Cup and it will follow me all my career, but now it is in the past and I have to look ahead. A faculty of man is to forget, and if I play badly then people will forget all that pretty quickly. I hope to take all the experience I gained during the World Cup, I'm here at a new club, I'm very happy and I would like to write another chapter in my life here at Chelsea."