Very few footballers can proudly look back on a career during which they scored nearly 300 goals, were named European Footballer of the Year and gave rise to a new word in their native tongue. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Papin is part of that elite group of players.
The iconic striker’s papinades (powerful volleys from seemingly impossible angles), astonishingly instinctive eye for goal and all-round talent all contributed to guarantee him a place in football’s pantheon of greats.
Trophies were not in short supply either, as he earned four French League winners’ medals (in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992) with L'OM, two Serie A crowns (in 1993 and 1994) with I Rossoneri and a UEFA Cup (in 1996) with Bayern. But his most prestigious accolade remains the Ballon d’Or he won as European Footballer of the Year in 1991.
If the playing career of the Boulogne-born attacker was diverse, his life since hanging up his boots has been equally active. He coached Strasbourg, Lens and Chateauroux between 2004 and 2010, before becoming a TV analyst (BeIn Sport are his current employers), and he has just released JPP: Le livre anniversaire, a book that celebrates his turning 50.
Despite his busy diary, Papin kindly found some time to chat to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Between the book that you’ve just finished and your television work, you seem quite busy. How is your ‘retirement’ treating you?
Jean-Pierre Papin:I really can’t complain. The TV work enables me to quench my thirst for football, even though the fact that I’m no longer playing isn’t always easy to accept.
Why did you stop coaching?
It’s simply a question of opportunities. I’m someone who values personal relationships and I’d completely signed up to the plans my chairman had when I was at Chateauroux. In the end, I had to leave. But I haven’t ruled out going back to coaching. I’d love to take on an interesting job, but they’re in short supply at the moment.
Are the plus points of coaching comparable to the pleasure you got while playing?
It’s completely different. When you’re a player, you can’t possibly imagine how difficult the job of a coach can be. I must admit I preferred being a striker!
Which coach had the greatest impact on you?
I really have a lot of time for Fabio Capello. For me, he represents how a real coach should act. A strong leader should have a great team at his disposal, possess a certain rigor and tactical know-how, and be able to win silverware.
What is the best memory you have from your playing days?
My best memory is my entire footballing career. When I was a boy, I dreamed of signing a professional contract, and that dream came true. And every day that followed was a bonus. When I look back at all the trophies I lifted, I tell myself that I was very lucky to enjoy such a fabulous career.
Who was the best team-mate you played with?
Paolo Maldini, without hesitation. I played alongside him at Milan, and having seen him in training and during matches, I can say that he’s an example that all footballers should follow. He gave 200 per cent every day, whether we had a match or not. And I think that that’s the key: you should always give your all, even in training.
If you had to choose a favourite club from the ones you represented, which one would it be?
I was fortunate to play for some big clubs – Bruges, Marseille, Milan, Bayern and Bordeaux. It’s impossible to pick one in particular, or say that one was more illustrious than another.
You won the Ballon d'Or in 1991. What does that title mean to you now?
You only realise what it represents later. It’s once you’ve stopped and you’re flicking through a book on the history of the game, and you see your own name. It gives you a funny feeling to be able to say, “At one point, you were the greatest player in the world!” But the award was not as esteemed as it is now, as back then it was just journalists that voted for it. These days, the FIFA Ballon d'Or has taken on a new dimension.
Who do you think should win this year’s FIFA Ballon d'Or?
I would opt for Franck Ribery, and not just because he’s French. I honestly think he deserves it – he’s won numerous trophies and put in consistently strong performances. On top of that, he’s changed as a person, in the way he expresses and carries himself. I’d like for that aspect to be taken into account. Up against him, there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s a giant of the game. He scores goal after goal, and I fear that might tip the scales in his favour.
How do you view the French national team and their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign?
I thought they did pretty well. We lost one match against Spain, the world champions, and it all came down to one goal in the end. After that, there’s no doubt we sailed a bit close to the wind, but we did tremendously well to come back from 2-0 down against Ukraine in the play-offs. Desire and youth made the difference. Overall, I feel like France have made real progress compared to recent years, and their World Cup place seems merited to me.
What are your personal memories of the FIFA World Cup?
I took part in just one, but what a magical experience it was. I competed in several different tournaments, but the World Cup makes a lasting imprint on a footballer’s life. The memory I have from Mexico 1986 is that I could have finished top scorer just from my efforts in one single match, but I missed practically every chance I got [laughs]. It was in our first group game against Canada; I should have scored six but I only got one.
Who are your favourites for Brazil 2014?
The Brazilians are going to be tough opponents on home soil. If I had to pick a team that might beat them, I’d go for Germany.
Do France have a chance?
We’ve always got a chance. The tournament is about consistency. You have to play well across the board and know how to manage your matches. France have players that are capable of doing something big. I can’t see them winning it, but we definitely have a team that could get to the quarter-finals.
Which player are you looking forward to seeing in Brazil?
I’m a big fan of Lionel Messi. I like his humble approach to the game and the way he seems to take pleasure from simply delivering a good pass or scoring a goal. Football is about pleasure, after all. He gives people pleasure and also takes pleasure in what he does.
The same could be said of you.
I was a bit like that, it’s true. I always regarded football as a game before it became a job. In this sport, you can’t survive if you don’t have good friends around you and supporters behind you. That’s where the pleasure stems from. And when I see Messi today, I do see a little bit of myself in him, all the while keeping a sense of proportion. He scores a lot more goals than me, even though I hit the back of the net quite a few times! But he’s on a different level. He’s been voted the best in the world four times in a row. Not only is that recognition deserved, but it’s a record that won’t be beaten any time soon.