The riddle of Franck Ribéry

He is a curious character: divisive, unpopular with some and fiery. But he is a brilliant talent who could decide tonight's final

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There will be two Franks in the European Cup final. One is urbane, intelligent, one of the tiny number of public schoolboys to have made it in the modern game and certainly the only member on either side to have a qualification in Latin.

Outwardly at least, Frank Lampard has had a comfortable life. Nobody ever called Franck Ribéry comfortable, not in his personality, not in his upbringing and certainly not in his looks.

He was two years old when, sitting in the back seat of his father's car, he was propelled through the windscreen as François Ribéry slammed on the brakes to avoid a head-on collision.

It says something that Ribéry has never been tempted to have plastic surgery on the long scar down the side of his face. Curiously, Carlos Tevez felt much the same about his own scars, inflicted by a pan of boiling water falling on him as a baby. He said they were a part of him and to Ribéry they acted as a kind of motivation.

There is another similarity; they are both divisive characters. Not very long ago, one of Tevez's former team-mates, a man with a reputation for seeing the best in everybody, was interviewed about the Argentine. He said all the right things about Tevez's skill and personality and then, once the tape recorder was shut off, he leaned forward and said: "Now let me tell you what I really think of Carlos Tevez."

It would have been interesting to have been alone with Arjen Robben and asked a similar question about Ribéry. Amid the shattering intensity of Bayern Munich's semi-final with Real Madrid, Robben told Ribéry that Toni Kroos should take a free-kick. Ribéry objected, argued violently with the Dutchman as they came off and then reportedly punched him in the face in the dressing room.

It was a clash between two alpha males. When Ribéry came to Munich from Marseilles in 2007, he arrived as the unquestioned star. To Franz Beckenbauer, the club president, it was akin to "winning the lottery".

However, Robben's arrival from Madrid in 2009 slowly saw Ribéry's eclipse. They are both wingers, both thrillingly brilliant but, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, they are a double act who have had periods where they loathe each other. Ribéry is more like Richards, who hung around with the rest of the Rolling Stones, while Jagger was fawning over Princess Margaret in Mustique.

Robben is not a team man. As Bayern's lead in the Bundesliga evaporated this season under relentless pressure from Borussia Dortmund, he found himself on the bench, accused by Beckenbauer of being "an egoist". When he scored, he would go over to his family in the directors' box rather than celebrate with his team.

Ribéry is more at home in the dressing room, where he has been known to cut off the ends of Daniel van Buyten's socks while the defender is in the showers and once volunteered to drive, and predictably crashed, the Bayern Munich team bus when on tour in the Gulf. And yet tonight in the confines of their own stadium, Robben and Ribéry, men who each know what it is like to lose a World Cup final, will have to combine like never before. The pressure on them is intense and Jupp Heynckes' defence has been ruined by suspensions every bit as much as Chelsea's.

The thought of Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Diego Contento, both specialist midfielders, pressed into service in the back four in place of David Alaba and Holger Badstuber does not inspire confidence. Nevertheless, both Badstuber and Alaba, the slim young left-back, whose ice-cold penalty in the Bernabeu set the mood for Real's exit, played in the German Cup final last Saturday. Dortmund, Bayern Munich's great nemesis, scored five times. Heynckes' plan appears to be to attack and keep attacking until Chelsea's door is battered down.

Ribéry does not lack for motivation. It is, he said, "the most important game of my life", bigger than the World Cup final in Berlin six years ago. Then he was a bit-part player in the shadow of his hero, Zinedine Zidane. Now, he is centre stage.

He said he wanted to feel the cup in his hand just as Eric Abidal, the man he is closest to in football, had done last year at Wembley. Abidal, who is about to undergo a liver transplant, remarked that you make very few real friends in the game but that Ribéry had seen him through some very dark times. Ribéry replied: "I just hope that when it comes to the final, I can show his courage."

This should have been his second European Cup final but a dreadful tackle on Lyons' Lisandro Lopez saw him suspended in 2010. Without him, Bayern were beaten comfortably by Jose Mourinho's Internazionale.

Ribéry stands at a crossroads. When he took his first dazzling steps at Marseilles, he seemed in a direct line of succession from Michel Platini and Zidane. He could dribble like the former and pass like the latter and yet by his age Platini had won the European Championship and the European Cup and Zidane was a world champion. Ribéry does not possess those kind of medals.

It is a truth that the grimmer the council estate, the lovelier the name. Ribéry grew up in Boulogne on what was called the Chemin Vert – the Green Path – and he worked with his father as a road-mender. They said that what motivated Yorkshire footballers was fear of the pit. Ribéry has the roadworks. He bought his father, whose coaching had driven him forward, a plasma television from the proceeds of his first contract and then a house. When he comes back to Boulogne, he slips into the dialect of northern France and hangs around fast-food restaurants with friends he made at school.

This made it all the more astonishing that, having converted to Islam to marry Wahiba, he should have cavorted in Paris with an underage prostitute, who was said to have earned £20,000 a month from her relationship with footballers. The country turned on him.

Then, when the France squad trained for the World Cup in South Africa, things got worse. Ribéry did not rate Bordeaux's Yoann Gourcuff and wanted Sidney Govou replaced by Thierry Henry. He was not the only one. The revolt tore the team apart and it is something for which Ribéry has not been forgiven. He has not scored a goal for his country in three years and has been jeered at the Stade de France. "He can't do it for France," his manager, Laurent Blanc, remarked recently. "He has a mental block."

"I feel rejected in France," said Ribéry. "And do you know why I signed for Bayern when I could have gone anywhere? Because they made me feel wanted."