It remains one of the great ironies of the all-conquering Manchester United teams of the last decade that their most demonstrative players on the pitch are always the most reserved off it. Witness Eric Cantona, le king of extroverts when wearing the No 7 of United, but a quiet, wannabe poet at other times. Or Roy Keane, an omnipresent dynamo in the heart of the side, but a near-recluse away from the club.
The latest of these enigmas is arguably the most eccentric, and yet, by the same token, also the most private. Fabien Barthez is the ultimate bag of contradictions: a rugby-educated sportsman who has made his name in football; a comparatively small keeper who has become the best in the world; and a man often regarded as an ugly duckling who has dated one of the planet's supermodels. Most people would be shouting such achievements from the rooftops. But not Barthez.
No one knows whether his silence is due to the fact that he still cannot quite believe his luck, or whether it is a deliberate ploy to keep himself to himself, but it remains that Barthez is the lord of the mutes. Extracting more than five words from him at any one time is usually as hard as pulling out his non-existent hair. So imagine this journalist's surprise when Barthez opened up at the French team's headquarters on the outskirts of Paris and started talking about the difficult 12 months he has just been through.
"The life of a footballer is made of highs and lows," he said, "and you have to learn to live with both. Naturally, we would all prefer to be winning all the time and playing well, but that is not always possible. I accept that because I feel very privileged to be doing this job. I couldn't go around moaning, for that would not be right. I think I am the luckiest man in the world."
For a time, Barthez was also the most talked-about keeper on these shores, as he made a number of costly mistakes last autumn (most notably against Deportivo La Coruña in a Champions' League match at Old Trafford and then in a Premiership game with Arsenal at Highbury), following up by having a disappointing World Cup before starting the new season injured. Once he was the first name on any team-sheet; now questions were suddenly being asked of the 30-year-old.
"People have been wanting to know how I've coped with the setbacks," he said. "Well, I think I've shown them with my performances." Has the criticism hurt? "I've been my own biggest critic for 11 years," he snapped, "so I don't really pay much attention to what others have to say."
Has he ever felt that his position as No 1 for both club and country was under threat? "Nobody can be sure of their place, apart maybe from someone like [Zinedine] Zidane, but I have always been lucky enough to enjoy the full support of my managers. It makes me laugh when I read stories about new keepers being brought in to challenge me [most recently, rumours circulated that West Ham's David James was on the verge of a move to Old Trafford], because I know the truth. I speak to [Sir Alex] Ferguson every day, and we have a very close and honest relationship, so I know what's what."
Perhaps the familiar surroundings of Clairefontaine gave him courage, or perhaps he simply had a lot to get off his chest. Either way, Barthez was on a roll. "There were times last season," the former world and current European champion said, "when I went through difficult patches, but the reaction of the fans and the management team was superb. They showed faith in me, and that helped a lot."
Despite his overall frankness, Barthez will still not talk about the World Cup fiasco this summer, when France went out without scoring a goal. He insists that he has put the disappointment behind him and that the players have now moved on. He also believes that Les Bleus will bounce back. "We're all working hard to repair the errors," said Barthez, who plans to play for his country in November's benefit match organised by his club team-mate Laurent Blanc for those who suffered from the serious floods in the south-west of France earlier this year. "I'm a very selfish person – you have to be to be a top keeper – and I'm more determined than ever to prove to myself that I'm still at the top."
Since returning from an upper-thigh injury in early September, Barthez has slowly rediscovered his very best form. Before yesterday's match at Fulham, he had conceded only six goals in 11 matches for Manchester United and France, and had managed to keep clean sheets in the four previous games. It is a welcome relief for Barthez, particularly as his club travel to Greece to meet Olympiakos in the Champions' League on Wednesday. Victory would all but ensure qualification for the second group stage, and help ease the pressure on the players as well as the manager.
"Like the team, I am taking great pleasure in playing well again," Barthez said. "There has been no panic whatsoever, because we know exactly what we're capable of. Ferguson is by far the best coach I've ever had. He only needs 15 minutes to get his message across, and then he is back to his old relaxed self. That's why he enjoys the full support of the players." And comments like that help to explain why Barthez remains so central to the Scot's plans.
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