A role model plays a huge role in how we develop our lives, and the important decisions we make at certain junctures. The inspiration we gain from our role models helps to reinforce and shape our outlook and conduct; we consciously or unconsciously simulate their behaviours, adopt their characteristics and qualities, and use their examples as markers and blueprints for our own lives. This is human nature and role models play an active part in our lives.
These role models may not always be the biggest names on the planet, but to the individual sizing them up from below, they are exactly that. And so, for a key example, we take a look at that great port city of Marseille, France’s second-largest city, with its rich immigrant history and footballing traditions, which has fostered the lives of so many on the south coast.
It is with Marseille where the gifted Uruguayan prince Enzo Francescoli made an impact that would cause waves on planet football in the years to come. Francescoli may not have been a household name on the international circuit, but El Principe made an impact on the life of a particular son of Algerian immigrants, one who would go on to grace the stage as one of football’s greatest ever magicians.
In 1986, Francescoli began his European adventure to join Paris Saint-Germain’s rivals Racing Paris, who, with the financial clout of Jean-Luc Lagardère, were able to sign a crop of talented foreign stars - namely Pierre Littbarski, Rubén Paz, Eugène Ekéké, and Dutchman Sonny Silooy. They finished 13th, and with Francescoli scoring 14 times, the elegant Uruguayan was named France’s best foreign player.
Under European Cup winner Artur Jorge, Francescoli flourished, and he even turned down a lucrative offer to replace the great Michel Platini at Juventus. In 1988/89, Francescoli ended the season as top scorer at Racing for the third time in a row before joining Bernard Tapie’s Marseille. In his first season, he scored 11 goals in 28 games, as the club lifted the title and reached the last four of the European Cup.
It was at the Stade Velodrome where Francescoli’s silky skills and footballing acumen came to the fore, and it was while entertaining and thrilling the crowds inside the Stade Velodrome that Francescoli caught the eye of a young and impressionable Zinedine Zidane, who at the time was playing for Cannes. Zidane still lists Francescoli alongside Platini as his favourite ever player, and even named his first born son Enzo in tribute to the Uruguayan legend also known as El Flaco (‘skinny’).
What exactly inspired Zidane to adopt Francescoli as his hero to the extent that he even named his son after him?
Francescoli joined Marseille during a time where the likes of French-born Zidane were growing up. Amongst the divided enclaves of the immigrant-dominated Marseille, football was and still is a necessary escape from the harsh reality of the daily lives of its residents. Football is vital as a uniting influence in cities which are often described as melting pots.
Francescoli was the ultimate footballer, and Zidane took his obsession with the Uruguayan to a different stratosphere, spending hours studying his body language, moves, every trick and flick. All he wanted to do was be like his hero Francescoli. Zizou not only matched his hero, but his achievements on a football level have exceeded Francescoli’s, boasting a glittering career of league titles, Champions Leagues, a European Championship and both a World Cup winner and loser’s medal.
As an older fan, it’s quite refreshing to assess Zidane’s choice of footballer to adopt.
Though any respectable football fan acknowledges the great Francescoli, he played in an era where he didn’t make the list of the greatest players around. Yet Francescoli became Zidane’s talisman, as the son of Algerian immigrants toiled day and night to go on to become a superior archetype of his hero.
In the 1987 Copa America Final against Chile, Francescoli’s head butt on Fernando Astengo saw the Charrúa schemer dismissed. He has never forgiven himself for that moment of madness in a cup final. Fast forward two decades, and Zidane was in similar hot water in Germany. Francescoli believes that Zidane’s clash with Marco Materazzi in the Olympiastadion in Berlin in 2006 was a crucial factor in the outcome of the match, and believes that the Frenchman’s emulation cost France the World Cup final.
Francescoli’s obvious qualities, which mesmerised young and impressionable fans like Zidane, included how the Uruguayan could effortlessly switch roles from main to second striker, his grace, skill and deftness of touch; these, coupled with his balance, hugely compensated for his lack of pace. He had a bit of everything – he was an expert at set pieces, and demonstrated flair, flexibility, and panache. His love affair with a football was evident from how the ball stuck to both feet, mesmerising crowds and bamboozling defences with his exquisite close control.
Le Prince was also an ideal role model who kept a low profile off the pitch and kept out of the headlines. Such conduct would have struck a chord with immigrant parents looking to instil, embed, and develop values which would enable their children to settle in their new home city through adopting aspirational qualities from sensible role models and people of success.
In contrast, Zizou went onto develop into a more formidable presence physically, a giant in stature and with the strength of a prize bull, although his touch and grace, just like his hero’s, would equally be at home at the internationally acclaimed Ballet National de Marseille.
Great players don’t make great managers, and that adage has unanimously proven true in too many cases. Zidane, though, has prospered from the off, quietly observing and learning from the greats before unleashing his magic by making history with back-to-back Champions League wins and the Spanish title. It’s a pattern he fashioned in Marseille.
By Emdad Rahman. Header image credit goes fully to Jopa Elleul