A different world for 'le keeper'

The Fabien Barthez interview: French to his fingertips, United's new goalkeeper is eager to learn everything English
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The Independent Online

One by one, the World and European champions emerged from the tunnel just before the start of their friendly against the Fifa All Stars XI. And, one by one, they were greeted by the rapturous applause of the Stade Vélodrome faithful. Wednesday night in Marseille was party night for French football. While, as expected, the loudest, most vociferous cries were reserved for the homecoming of Marseille's favourite son, the town's one-time darling came a close second.

One by one, the World and European champions emerged from the tunnel just before the start of their friendly against the Fifa All Stars XI. And, one by one, they were greeted by the rapturous applause of the Stade Vélodrome faithful. Wednesday night in Marseille was party night for French football. While, as expected, the loudest, most vociferous cries were reserved for the homecoming of Marseille's favourite son, the town's one-time darling came a close second.

Queen's "We Are The Champions" was booming out of the loud speakers, but Zizou was virtually the only word on the lips of the loud French speakers. Of all the other players, only Fabien Barthez was shown comparable adulation.

Manchester United's latest recruit played at Marseille, of course, for three eventful seasons, during which the club won the European Cup and the French title before being stripped of the latter and relegated to the second division for fraud. But the mere fact he once wore the white shirt of L'OM does not explain why he is still so revered there. As Christophe Dugarry - who left in acrimonious circumstances last Christmas - will testify, the Marseille folk are the harshest of critics. Indeed, Dugarry was so roundly booed throughout Wednesday's 5-1 win, that you would have thought he was playing against France.

Barthez would expect no such treatment at Manchester United: "Here, tradition is a really important thing," he said at the club's training ground last week. "It's not about whether you are a star, it's just about whether you play for the club. Eric [Cantona, who advised Barthez to sign for the Premiership champions] told me, 'If you lose, fans won't spit in your face'. That's important to me. They understand you can have a bad day and they always show respect to their present and former players. That affected my choice."

The generous signing-on fee and ample weekly wages no doubt helped Barthez finalise his decision, too, but there is an unmistakable frankness about his discourse. The 29-year-old has left only good memories wherever he has played. Be it with Toulouse, where he made his French league debut in 1991, Marseille, where he became the youngest keeper to win the European Cup in 1993, or Monaco, where he won two titles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions' League, eliminating a certain team called Manchester United in the last eight ("my greatest European achievement without any doubt," he says), Barthez has been a veritable success.

United fans will be hoping the run continues. "I hope so too," he said, "and I've got a good feeling about things here. The people are friendly, the town is welcoming, and my team-mates are helpful. I haven't felt at all left out and I'm already in the swing of things. My only problem is the language, but that will come. For now, all I am really interested in doing is playing for Manchester United to the best of my ability."

Barthez added: "I know this is going to be a huge challenge. When I first came here, for my medical, I remember thinking, 'God, I've landed in the biggest club in the world.' I'm like an excited kid just before a great football match. It's a big ask, particularly following in the footsteps of Eric [Cantona], but all I'm focusing on is the game. And I think it will suit me in England."

Last Sunday's 2-0 defeat at he hands of Chelsea in the Charity Shield at Wembley has done little to dampen his enthusiasm either. "I'm not a good loser, but we lost to Chelsea because we weren't as good as them, nothing more. It's early days yet, though, and there is a long way to go."

Having made three abortive attempts at trying to replace the great Peter Schmeichel, Sir Alex Ferguson will be anxious that this is fourth time lucky. After the failed promotion of Raimond van der Gouw, the disappointing return of Mark Bosnich and the disastrous purchase of Massimo Taibi, the pressure is on the bald Frenchman to deliver. And, at £7.8m - the most ever spent on a goalkeeper - Barthez has everything to lose. "I think Alex Ferguson had a difficult season with the three different keepers and wanted stability.

"As for the price tag, it does not worry me," Barthez recently told France Football. "It shows that people are now starting to realise that a goalkeeper is an important player. We can play a part in goals [as Barthez himself did when his clearance led to France's equaliser against Italy in the final of Euro 2000]. We'll never cost as much as a striker, but the balance is slowly being rectified."

Barthez, who like the France captain, Didier Deschamps, comes from a rugby family, always knew he wanted to play the beautiful game. Never fully able to detach himself from his oval-ball background, though, he chose the one position which enables him to show off both his handling and shooting skills. "I love the freedom that the goalkeeper position allows you," he said. "But I also love the responsibility that goes with the job. That's why I'm looking forward to playing for a big club like Man U. In England, all the matches are important and that's what I like."

Being the centre of attention or playing the clown have long been part of Barthez's make-up. From an early age, he would charge out ofhis area or execute a dramatic dive. He is not the tallest of keepers, but do not be completely fooled by appearances. Barthez is actually 6ft, the same height as Chelsea's defender Marcel Desailly.

He is also, despite his dishevelled look, very organised and meticulous. Capped 39 times for his country, and still only a youngster in "goalie years", Barthez is the complete player. And, while he tends to shy away from the press off the pitch (particularly when it comes to discussing his on-off relationship with the super-model Linda Evangelista), he commands complete control of his penalty area. It is, he says, the result of hard work and striking athleticism. "You don't have to be the tallest to be a good keeper. A lot of the players I looked up to, guys like Pascal Olmeta and Robin Huc, were not enormous but they were very agile."

Barthez's ability, not to mention his temperament, will be severely tested over the coming months, particularly in the rough and tumble of the Premiership. "I must admit I got a shock when I first saw a Scottish league match on TV," he said. "The keeper was basically elbowed off the ball on a corner, but the goal was given. It was a wake-up call."

The defeat to Chelsea will have served as a further reminder of what lies in store over the course of his six-year contract with the English champions. "Now I know what le British football is all about. Wembley was anything but a stroll in the park, but I'm getting the hang of things and I can't wait for our first match at Old Trafford."

Barthez's wish is the Premiership fixtures computer's command. Today, as Newcastle ride into town, the Frenchman knows he will have to be at his most alert. If you were looking to pick two players who best know how to make their presence felt to a keeper, Alan Shearer and Carl Cort would be top of the list.

At least Barthez can thank Walter Smith and Everton for sparing him the added trauma of seeing Duncan Ferguson sat on the bench. "I've faced a number of challenges throughout my career [notably, his six-month ban for the use of cannabis in 1996, which cost him his place in France's Euro 96 team and, more recently, his very public divorce from Monaco, following the manager, Claude Puel's accusations that he had deliberately under-performed in a league match against Marseille] and, so far, I've always come through," he said. "It has not always been easy, but I'm strong enough to cope. This is a huge club and a lot is expected of me, but I know I can deliver."

Significantly, the one thing that has most impressed Barthez since his arrival is the quality of the facilities at United's new Carrington training ground. "It is such a change from what I'd known before. Quite honestly, when you see the complex here you understand why Manchester United have achieved such incredible results. It is little wonder the trophy cabinet is packed." Barthez will be hoping a little more room can be found in it in the near future.

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