They say you have to be slightly mad to be a goalkeeper and few adhere to that as much as Fabien Barthez. The former France and Manchester United number 1 is one of the most unique footballers the game has ever seen; his antics spanning from genius to unbelievable within moments.
After retiring from football, Barthez pursued a career in motorsport; competing in the 24-hour Le Mans race in 2014 after winning his first French GT the year previous. Whilst many footballers hang up their boots and live the life of luxury, Barthez’ winning mentality has driven him to explore a competitive drive elsewhere.
It’s that same winning mentality that made Fabien Barthez one of the best goalkeepers the game has ever seen. In a career spanning 17 years, he played 455 games, won a World Cup and a European Championship, the UEFA Champions League and many domestic titles. The Frenchman also shares the record for the most World Cup finals clean sheets (10) with Englishman Peter Shilton.
Despite this, Barthez remains vastly underrated on these shores. Perhaps his eccentricity and moments of madness, including the offside call for Paolo Di Canio’s goal in the 2001 FA Cup tie between West Ham and Manchester United, taint people’s memories of the French ‘keeper.
Despite this, we must remember that this is the man who finally stepped into Peter Schmeichel’s shoes for Sir Alex Ferguson, a task so many before him had failed at. He helped the Red Devils to Premier League titles in 2000/01 and 2002/03, but when he lost his place to Tim Howard in 2003, a return to Marseille beckoned for Barthez.
His second spell with L’OM ended in disaster; Barthez was banned for six months for spitting on a Moroccan referee in a friendly against Wydad Casablanca. It was a complete contrast to his first spell in the South of France.
After two years with Toulouse, Fabien Barthez joined the Bernard Tapie revolution at Olympique de Marseille. The French businessman, who had become a hero in his homeland after leading the La Vie Claire road bicycle team to the 1985 and 1986 Tour de France titles, had taken over Les Olympiens six years earlier and was in the process of building the greatest French side of all time.
With stars such as Chris Waddle, Jean-Pierre Papin and Didier Deschamps already under his belt, Tapie had guided Marseille to four consecutive league titles (1988-1992) and a Coupe de France trophy in 1989 (a record 10th for the club).
His dream was the European Cup or the Champions League as it was renamed for the 1992 season. Tapie set about taking his squad to the next level. Joining Barthez in the South of France were World Cup winner Rudi Völler and young French star Marcel Desailly and the aim was European success.
The season started well domestically, with Alen Bokšić and Rudi Völler both finding their shooting boots for L’Om, but the Champions League campaign started with difficulty. A 2-2 draw away to Rangers was not the start that Tapie had dreamed of, but his star-studded side proved their worth in December with a 3-0 dispatching of Club Brugge.
Whilst the attacking talent were doing their job further up the field, young goalkeeper Fabien Barthez was earning his own plaudits in net.
Just 21-years old when he joined L’OM, Barthez was a raw talent who was relatively untested at continental level. At club level, he had been proving his worth; a fine fingertip save from a Saint-Étienne set-piece a classic example of his agility and quick reactions.
As a goalkeeper, Barthez was not particularly orthodox. Standing at just 6ft, he did not possess the dominant figure many top-level goalkeepers do. Instead, he was agile, quick off his line and an excellent shot-stopper.
Olympique de Marseille topped their Champions League group, with a 6-0 thrashing of CSKA Moscow a particular highlight. The format of the inaugural Champions League meant that the winner of each of the two groups would meet in a final match.
Milan, who had walked the other group by winning all 6 of their matches, would be their final opponents. The Italians were a star-studded outfit; Marco Van Basten, Marco Simeone, Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard, the side was full of quality and understandably they were made favourites.
The match itself was a very close contest. Marseille’s five-man defence proved difficult for Milan to break down and they failed to make the most of the chances they did have. Rijkaard headed over earlier on from a free-kick when he was relatively free in the box, whilst Daniele Massaro failed to hit the target with a looping header. For Marseille, Rudi Völler failed to make the most of a one-on-one chance after some fine Marseille pressing.
In the Marseille goal, young Fabien Barthez was in terrific form. He was quick off his line when Massaro found himself in space behind the Marseille backline and made another fantastic point-blank save to keep the Italian striker at bay.
Fabio Capello’s side was growing frustrated and Marseille managed to take advantage. Right-wing Abedi Pele went on a marauding run down the flank and drew a corner from Milan defender Paolo Maldini, much to the dismay of Italians.
From the resulting corner, Basile Boli rose highest to head the ball past the Milan goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi. There was much controversy surrounding the goal, with the Italian media at half-time demonstrating on replays that the ball rebounded off Pele from Maldini’s tackle and was indeed not a corner. The goal was given, though, and the French side went into the break with the advantage.
In the second-half, Barthez and his defence held solid. He had one questionable moment; flapping at a Demetrio Albertini corner, but Milan failed to make him pay. The goalkeeper largely kept L’OM in the game; a solid punch under pressure from an Albertini cross an example of his dominant display at such a young age.
When the final whistle blew, L’OM were Champions of Europe. Bernard Tapie’s dream of building a team capable of competing on a continental scale had become a reality in Munich. For Barthez, it was a sign of the success he had to come in his career. He became the youngest goalkeeper to ever win a Champions League until Iker Casillas broke that record in 2000.
For Marseille, it would be the start of their downfall. Bernard Tapie was found guilty of match fixing and the side were stripped of their league title that season and were not allowed to defend their Champions League triumph. It resulted in relegation to Ligue 2 and soon after a host of stars departed, including Desailly, Deschamps and Barthez.
For the young goalkeeper, it was the start of something special. Six years later, he would win the World Cup and a further two years later he’d win the European Championships. He experienced further success in France with two league titles at Monaco, before two Premiership titles in England with Manchester United.
Fabien Barthez may not get the credit he deserves, but as the most capped French goalkeeper, All-time France FIFA World Cup appearances and the Most FIFA World Cup clean sheets with Peter Shilton, it is impossible to doubt his credentials. In Marseille, Barthez is remembered fondly as part of the greatest side in French football history.
In Bed With Maradona Editor-in-Chief