The mislaid joy of French football

Between the final days of Platini and the rise of Zidane, French football had only a few truly enigmatic players.  Here's Juliet Jacques on a lost treasure.

In summer 1984, French football reached a peak. On 27 June, Michel Platini captained Les Bleus to their first international trophy, scoring in the European Championship final in Paris. Two weeks later, France won their second, beating Brazil 2-0 in the Olympic Games final in Los Angeles. For the first time, the IOC had allowed professionals to compete, but to preserve FIFA’s primacy, restricted squads to players with five caps or less, who had not appeared at the World Cup, leading managers to focus on young talent. Promisingly, Les Bleus had plenty: none brighter than FC Nantes star José Touré.

Nicknamed Le Brésilien after a phenomenal goal in the 1983 Coupe de France final – he chested down Seth Adonkor’s chipped ball, flicked it through two close markers, looped it away with the outside of his foot and then volleyed into the far corner – Touré looked the perfect successor to Platini. Born in Nancy on 24 April 1961, the son of Malian international Bako Touré (who featured in Nantes’ French title of 1966), Touré broke into Les Canaris’ team as they won their fifth championship in 1980, scoring four goals in ten games as a deep-lying forward.

In 1982/83, Touré notched thirteen times as Nantes became champions again, his cup final strike narrowly failing to secure a double as PSG won 3-2. That April, he made his France debut, scoring as Les Bleus beat Yugoslavia 4-0. Capped twice more during the next year, he was eligible for the Olympic squad, selected by former Nantes teammate Henri Michel.

Touré started all three games as France topped their group, but missed the rest of the Olympic tournament after being injured in their second round win over Egypt. Returning to domestic action, Touré’s outstanding form helped Nantes finish second in Division 1, but it was in the Intercontinental Cup in August 1985, when France played Copa América winners Uruguay, that he announced himself as a potentially world class footballer.

After 56 minutes, Touré passed to Platini, whose forty-yard ball found Alain Giresse. Racing through the Uruguay defence, Touré chested it down Giresse’s cross and smashed in a first-time volley. Le Brésilien seemed certain to lead France’s line at the World Cup, as Les Bleus aimed to improve on their narrow 1982 semi-final defeat. However, the Uruguayans, notorious in Mexico for their crude attempts to silence opposing talent, targeted Touré, wounding his left knee. A passionate player, Touré fought on – but the injury would return to haunt him.

The 1985-86 season was vital for Touré. He hit seven goals as Nantes again finished runners-up, and played in several World Cup qualifiers, scoring against Luxembourg and setting up Platini’s crucial goal against Yugoslavia. However, it was his brilliant UEFA Cup displays that made Touré an international star. After helping Les Canaris crush Partizan Belgrade, his header past Dinamo Moscow goalkeeper Rinat Dassayev put Nantes into the quarter-final.

During the first leg, Internazionale’s Giuseppe Baresi struck the back of Touré’s damaged left knee. By half-time, it had swollen: treated with cold spray and strapping, Le Brésilien continued, but soon collapsed; without him, Nantes lost 3-0, virtually ending their European ambitions. Professor Leteneur, Nantes’ doctor, told Touré that only extensive weight training could possibly delay the necessary operation and give him a chance of playing in Mexico ’86. The miracle did not come, and 22-year-old Jean-Pierre Papin took Touré’s place.

That summer, Bordeaux, managed by Aimé Jacquet, signed Touré, despite his injury. Mentored through six months out by Mali-born Jean Tigana, he finally made his debut in the second half of the season, helping Bordeaux to the Ligue and Coupe double. Returning to the national side in 1987 for a European Championship qualifying victory over Iceland (Platini’s final game), Touré looked like establishing himself as integral to a transitional team. But a disappointing home draw against Norway in October 1987 proved Touré’s last competitive international match: as the holders missed Euro ’88, he moved to new champions Monaco.

Touré should have thrived in Arsène Wenger’s dynamic side, but his career in the principality soon faltered. His best performance came soon after joining, in the European Cup, striking twice as Monaco reversed a first-leg deficit by beating Club Bruges 6-1. However, during his second season with Les Rouge et Blanc, Touré did not score: he was now addicted to cocaine.

Having tried the drug in Paris, Touré befriended an Italian dealer in Monaco, who offered to sell to him. Knowing nothing about cocaine other than how it was measured, Touré requested fifty grams – a huge quantity. “I’m giving you a great price,” the dealer said. “I got this from a friend, who loves football. You get a bargain – 25,000 francs.”

Touré was an intelligent man, with cultural interests far beyond football. Recounting how this purchase sealed his fate, he wrote: ‘I don’t know who, from David Lynch to Pier Paolo Pasolini, could best have depicted the sordid scenes through which I lived for months’. No longer willing the face the difficulties and disappointments of professional football, he retired in 1990, aged 29. Beating his addiction, Touré later summarised Ligue matches for Canal+ and hosted a radio show called Chez José, aired in seventeen African nations, speaking with athletes and artists about sport, music and African culture.

After Zinedine Zidane’s goals in the final helped France win their first World Cup in 1998, with numerous players with strong French-African identities, Touré said: ‘What is wonderful is that we’re seeing joy in people again’ – the first such ‘joy’ since 1984. Without injury and addiction, perhaps Touré might have filled the void: the generation between Platini and Zidane (which included most of Marseille’s European champions and Eric Cantona, David Ginola and Laurent Blanc) only lacked a playmaker. Had Touré matured to lead Platini’s Bleus, amongst the favourites at Euro ’92, and help them to break down eventual champions Denmark, French football history might have been very different.

This piece was originally written for the Lewes FC matchday programme for the Conference South games against Staines Town. Lewes' home ground, The Dripping Pan, hosted a Socrates meet for football bloggers: more information on their gatherings can be found here

Juliet writes regularly for IBWM and the Guardian and can be found here and on Twitter @JulietJacques

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