“He was a monster! Let me tell you, an absolute monster! He could play in defense or midfield, but I think he was better at being a central defender. In fact, I’m sure of it. “
When Laurent Blanc ponders the career of his old accomplice Marcel Desailly in old age, the brotherly respect is easy to see in his voice. During a brilliant international career – over seven glorious years – the duo forged an impressive bond on the pitch and became close friends outside of it.
Together they were the wall of steel that dreamed of gold.
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Former Montpellier defender Blanc first cut his teeth on the international stage when France coach Michel Platini presented the elegant defender with his international bow in 1989 to help a weak French team that failed to qualify.
Blanc then consolidated his place on the team. The 1990 French Player of the Year played a key role in a formidable 19 matchless run that saw France qualify for the 1992 European Championship. Platini’s side were hailed as pre-tournament favorites but were knocked out in the group stage by eventual winners Denmark.
After successive disappointments, France’s favorite son Platini was dismissed without further ado. His replacement Gérard Houllier – Platini’s former assistant – also struggled to achieve results. In the middle of the catastrophic World Cup qualification in 1994, a drained Houllier pumped fresh blood into his ailing squad.
One of the French debutants was Desailly, who was born in Ghana.
After winning the Champions League with Marseille, the naturalized French moved to the Italian giants AC Milan in the summer of 1993, forming him into a defensive midfielder.
Desailly rose to the challenge and became one of the preeminent midfielders in Europe’s most competitive league. He was an unwavering force – a no-frills colossus popular with Rossoneri believers – and promptly earned the nickname “The Rock”.
Despite his transformation under Capello, Desailly was not convinced of his new position, and neither was Houllier. In his first competitive game for Les Bleus – against Sweden in August 1993 – the French coach used the Milanista alongside Bixente Lizarazu, Alain Roche and Blanc as a right-back.
Houllier failed to save Les Bleus’ doomed qualification campaign and the French manager carousel spun again. Although Houllier was fired and replaced by his assistant Aimé Jacquet, he was not the only victim of the debacle.
After the failed campaign, Blanc was defamed in the media and made a nation’s scapegoat overnight, which led to the 29-year-old prematurely ending his international career.
One of Jacquet’s first actions as acting manager was to visit Blanc at his home in St. Etienne. Pleading him to return to the national team, Jacquet presented his vision of efficient zone defense, with speed on the flanks to compensate for his aging legs. White bought into it – hook, string and plumb line.
Blanc and Desailly flourished together as Les Bleus qualified relatively easily for Euro ’96. With the upcoming group opener against Romania, Jacquet tinkered with the form of the team and opted for a 4-5-1 formation due to the lack of strikers. Without knowing it, he had landed on the system that would bring unspeakable success.
With Desailly and Blanc as a duo, France sailed through the group stage of the 1996 European Championship and reached the semi-finals before being eliminated by the Czech Republic. The advances made by Les Bleus were significant – the creation of the fascinating Blanc-Desailly partnership sparked new hope.
Laurent Blanc scores the decisive penalty in the penalty shoot-out against the Netherlands at EURO ’96. pic.twitter.com/Ljw6gRNept
– 90s soccer (@ 90s soccer) June 28, 2021
Desailly’s tenacity and athleticism were the perfect complement to Blanc’s calculated, almost sluggish approach. The former bullied his opponents with brute force, while the latter made countless attempts at interception thanks to his unearthly clairvoyance.
After choosing Lizarazu, Monaco defender Lilian Thuram and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez as additional members of his defense, Jacquet now had a solid foundation for success.
In 1998, World Cup hosts France crossed the group stage and won all games with just one goal. It wasn’t all smooth, however. Les Bleus really threatened to fail in the round of 16 against Paraguay before Blanc celebrated his crowning moment in the French jersey.
Just six minutes before the end of extra time against Paraguay, Blanc, nicknamed “Le Président” for his goals with Marseille, scored the first ever golden goal in World Cup history and sent his team to the quarter-finals.
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Ride on the wave of home support and defended by Zinedine Zidane’s brilliant skills, Les Bleus swept Italy and Croatia aside on the way to the final against Brazil – a meeting of the strongest defense and attack in the tournament.
The French (without a suspended Blanc) defended heroically all along, taking pressure from the Brazilians and gradually wearing down their opponents. Les Bleus smothered the South Americans, ran out convincing 3-0 winners and lifted the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time.
Desailly received high praise from captain Didier Deschamps, who said: “Marcel has eliminated everything from his game that he is not sure will work, he has developed a ‘no mistake’ technique. It brought him to the peak of his strength. “
For all the Gallic flare-ups of the past – the Platinis and Cantonas – this elusive victory was built on stoicism. Les Bleus only conceded twice in the tournament – a new record for a winner.
After the triumph, Jacquet announced he was leaving his post, citing the pressure of the job. His pragmatism had built one of the best teams in the game’s history, and his exemplary work continued under his successor and former assistant Roger Lemerre.
At the Euro 2000, Desailly and Blanc anchored the French defensive line again alongside Thuram and Lizarazu. Despite doubts about his age and lack of pace, Blanc proved reliable, scoring France’s first goal of the tournament against Denmark.
With Zidane at his best and the proven French defense that worked like clockwork, the Les Bleus secured their second major international title in a row – they defeated Spain and Portugal on the way to a dramatic golden goal win over the Azzurri in the final.
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Following the example of his captain Didier Deschamps, Blanc announced his retirement from international football after the final. Desailly became captain and set a record 116 caps for a French international – before his 2006 record was eclipsed by Thuram.
So the partnership between Blanc and Desailly ended, but their friendship lasted long after they hung up their boots.
Two of the most accomplished players of a golden generation, Blanc and Desailly, have redefined French football and initiated a departure from a longstanding entertainment philosophy. The couple demonstrated that hard work and organization can be the stepping stone to expression and success.
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