Throughout Michel Platini’s illustrious playing career, he displayed himself as a believer and as an unequivocal devotee. He explicitly catalysed the renaissance of French football. Beyond it, he viewed his duty like a loyal disciple protecting his religion from foreign invaders. Platini was a masterful artist, an acolyte, a foregone king and the heir in waiting. He viewed his journey as an unwavering fortune. However, in 1998, just as his meteoric rise was beyond the simplicities of a sporting paintbrush, one alleged agreement caused the collapse of Platini’s worldview. This is the chronicle of an unfulfilled destiny.
Platini’s love and adulation for football were inherited from his father in the north-east French town Joeuf. Aldo Platini was a footballer, an amateur football coach and then a football club director, while his mother worked at a sports bar. “For football as for the steel industry in this region,” a reminiscent Aldo told French news outlet Rublican Lorraine in 1987, “the great years were those from 1950 to 1960…. In Joeuf, there were 40 cafes, five or six balls each Saturday evening. It was cheerful, happy. We made a living.”
It was within this environment and culture that Michel Platini learned his craft. His father’s coaching taught him his ‘conviction and philosophy’. He adopted his first nickname when he became known as Peleatini. Despite being dubbed as the town’s Pele, he was rejected by Metz’s club doctor because of an alleged poor respiratory system and a weak heart. He failed to persuade them otherwise. In that instance, Metz had comfortably rejected the player that would lead the way to rebirthing French football.
The young football apprentice started his professional career at Metz’s rivals AS Nancy where his father was a director. During his Nancy career between 1972 and 1979, he unveiled his artistry to the nation. The local Peleatini became nationally known as Coup Franc de Monsieur or ‘Mr. Freekick’. He was a dead ball specialist with a tendency to vary his free-kick style. He ultimately preferred to uniquely hit the ball over the wall. It became common for an injection of fear to flow through his opponents’ veins as soon as he stepped over the ball to take the set-piece, especially from 20 yards.
The attacking midfielder was a cog in Nancy’s wheel as they became Ligue 2 champions in 1975. The following year, Platini signed his first professional contract and began his international journey. He was chosen as a part of France’s 1976 Montreal Olympics squad where he helped his team reach the quarter-finals. In the same year, he became one of the youngest players to win France player of the year. He accomplished it again the following year when he became Nancy captain. Platini also went on to become France’s captain and make 71 appearances and score 41 times for Les Blues.
After winning the 1978 French Cup, where he scored 17 goals, Platini endured his worst bout in his career. France was knocked out of the Argentinian World Cup in the first round that summer. Les Bleus had a non-existent reputation on the world stage. They had come third in 1958 but had lingered at the depths of underachievement ever since. In the previous four World Cups before Platini’s arrival, they had only qualified once – the 1966 World Cup where they exited in the first round. In the build up of aspirations, the country pinned their hopes on the 23-year-old; though, they were left disappointed and turned Platini into the culprit for their failure.
The 1978-79 season would be his final year at Nancy. He suffered injuries, his critics were growing, and he was out of contract with the club. A greater challenging platform was needed to elevate his career and, subsequently, France’s international fortunes. He made 181 appearances and scored 98 goals for Nancy.
On his path to greater aspirations, Platini took his stardom to the home of the biggest club in the country: Saint Etienne. The Saintés had shared their dominance of French football in the 1970s with Monaco and Nantes and were a potential European threat. They had competed in either the European Cup or the UEFA Cup every year since 1974-75. They had even reached the final of the European Cup in 1976.
Despite tormenting his opponents in the famous crystal lime green kit, Platini, however, was unable to conquer Europe. Saint Etienne failed to progress further than the UEFA Cup quarterfinals and exited the preliminary rounds of the 1981-82 European Cup. Also, Platini led the Saintes to the French Cup final in 1981 and 1982, but they fell short on both occasions. His greatest achievement in his three-year spell in south-east France was winning the 1980-81 Ligue 1 title. During his Saint Etienne career, he scored 58 goals in 104 appearances.
The summer of 1982 was the moment Platini arrived on the world stage. France reached the semi-final for the first time since 1958. However, they were halted to a fourth-place finish. Les Blues lost to the colossus West Germany in the semi-final and then Poland in the third-round playoff.
What followed was a crucial moment in Platini’s career. He was ready to leave France and clubs were on his radar, though he would ultimately choose Italian giants Juventus. “A lot of clubs were interested in me in ’82,” Platini told Sky Sports. “Some English clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham. I decided on Juventus because the calendar was easier, and I did not want to play matches at Christmas.” After rejecting the rich and traditional Christmas format of England, and choosing the sunshine of Turin, Platini had set course to become the ultimate foreign figure within Italian football.
The Frenchman solidified himself as one of the world’s best during his Italian reign. His mother was of Italian descent, so, as he journeyed on for his destiny, it was only right for him to follow his heritage and conquer Italy. Juventus triumphed in the 1983 Coppa Italia but came runners up to Hamburg in the European Cup. He won the European Cup Winners’ Cup as well as the Serie A title the following year – the Scudetto was Platini’s.
Individual awards started to flood towards the Frenchman. He was named the European Footballer of the Season in 1983 and 1984; he was awarded World Soccer Player of the Year in 1984 and 1985; and he was crowned as the Ballon d’Or winner in 1983, 1984 and 1985. Platini was the first to win the ultimate individual prize three consecutive times. In response, Platini was coronated as Le Roi, The King.
Now a king in his prime, Platini mastered his attacking midfield abilities. His arsenal included precision passing, majestic dribbling, and clinical finishing. He was not blessed with an enormous pace, so he bent the game’s physics to his will. Platini’s elegant ball control, hybrid vision, intelligence, and versatility made up for his perceived lack of physical strength. His composure was consistent, and his leadership was irreplaceable. He was the world’s best.
Following his Italian conquest, Platini, now 27-years-old, set upon correcting history at the 1984 European Championships. As captain, he formed a formidable quadruple alliance with his midfield compatriots Luis Fernandez, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana. They were dubbed le carré magique, ‘the magic square’, as their artistry dominated their opponents. Fernandez told Sky Sports, “everyone knew le carré magique was France’s great strength.”
Platini was le carré magique’s, pre-eminent performer. His presence commanded those around him. He scored the winner in France’s opening match against Denmark; he produced flawless back-to-back performances with perfect hat-tricks against Belgium and Yugoslavia; he delivered the killing blow to Portugal’s hopes in the 119th minute; and he broke the deadlock in a 2-0 victory in the final against the hosts, Spain. He set the record for most goals (11) at a European Championship (which is still held today) and he was named Player of the Tournament.
The resurgent France national team was led by Platini to their first-ever international trophy in a team sport. The young Peleatini had transformed into a national hero.
Le Roi returned to Italy to achieve the final club trophy that had deserted him: the European Cup. Platini, who was the joint top goal scorer in the tournament, delivered in 1985. However, the events that took place before the match clouded Platini’s long-lasted wait for the elusive trophy. The tragic Heysel Stadium Disaster saw 39 people die and 600 injured. “Football is in my heart, but we took a big blow today,” Michel Platini solemnly spoke after the events.
Platini won his final trophy in 1986 with the Serie A title. He was not able to replicate France’s 1984 success in the World Cup that summer. The Frenchman entered the competition at a reduced physical condition, which impacted his performances. He scored only two goals throughout the tournament. France exited in third place after falling to West Germany again in the semi-finals on penalties 4-3. The set-piece master uncharacteristically missed a penalty by driving the ball over the bar in the shoot-out.
The 1986-87 season was Le Roi’s final year and Platini retired. He ended his Juventus career with 147 appearances and 68 goals. Platini came out of retirement once, on 27th November 1988, to play for Kuwait against the Soviet Union. After that, the Frenchman had officially finished his playing career.
The culturally transcendent Le Roi nickname has been debated by Jean-Philippe Leclaire, the author of Platini’s biography Platoche: Gloire et les d’un héros français (The glory and woes of a French hero). “He is a French hero and we see through him the development of football in France,” Leclaire says in David Conn’s The Fall of the House of Fifa. “But we don’t worship our heroes. The Italians, when he was at Juventus, called Platini Le Roi. The French didn’t.”
Regardless of the type of title that has been handed to the Frenchman, Michel Platini’s legacy is at the heart of football. He was voted the seventh-best player of the century in two separate polls, one by the FIFA Magazine and the FIFA Grand Jury, and then the IFFHS. In addition, Le Roi was named in Juventus’ Greatest XI in 2017.
Most of all though, he inspired a new generation of football phenomena in France. “When I was a kid and played with my friends, I always chose to be Platini,” Zinedine Zidane admitted to Platini. “I would let my friends share between them the names of my other idols.”
Like a worshipper describing their religion, Michel Platini told Sky Sports that football is “pleasure, passion, joy, education [and] combat.” These elements formed the framework of how he wanted to entertain his followers. His next task was to export his ideology to the world. He had become a French sporting hero and the king of Italy. Now it was time for him to rise to become global football’s talisman, its representative on a global stage and its president. Providence looked to have sealed his fate, though history changed course in one fatal instance.