"La force tranquille" (“Strength and serenity”) was a slogan used by former French President Francois Mitterand in one of his victorious election campaigns, though it could just as easily be used to describe the virtues of Marcel Desailly, one of the finest defenders to play for France.

Doubling up in the centre of defence or midfield, depending on the requirements of his coaches, Desailly has gone down in the annals of the game as the most successful French defender of all time. Collecting winner’s medals at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ and UEFA EURO 2000, and lifting two FIFA Confederation Cups, two UEFA Champions Leagues, with Marseille and AC Milan, and two Serie A titles in Italy, he would eventually earn the nickname The Rock, a moniker that encapsulated his qualities to perfection.

Nursed in Nantes
In 1972 he moved to Nantes from his native Ghana with his family and adoptive father. Eight years later, at the age of 12, he joined the Nantes youth academy, absorbing in the years that followed the philosophy of one of the most cultured finishing schools in the land. 

During his time there he made two acquaintances that would have a major impact on his career, the first of them being his coach Jean-Claude Suaudeau, who would hone his unpolished skills, and Didier Deschamps, a continual and supportive presence throughout Desailly’s playing career. From his Ligue 1 debut on 26 August 1986 – a 1-0 defeat of Bordeaux – through to the end of the 1991/92 season, he would make 162 appearances for Les Canaris, growing in stature and physique as he did so, and also making his way through the France ranks from the U-15s to the B team, the last rung before the senior national side.

It was then that Marseille president Bernard Tapie lured him south, against the wishes of the club’s coach Raymond Goethals, who gave the new recruit a frosty welcome. “You’re not fit to lace Carlos Mozer’s boots,” he informed Desailly, comparing him unfavourably to Marseille’s recently departed Brazilian defender, whose place he would fill.

When I made my debut for France at the age of 25 I never imagined that nine years later I’d still be in the side and still competitive at club level.
Marcel Desailly, France defender.

Undeterred, Desailly would prove his worth with the southerners, striking up a formidable central defensive partnership with Boli, one that received wholehearted support from tireless full-backs Jocelyn Angloma and Eric di Meco. His first season would end in glorious fashion at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, when Boli headed the goal that gave the Frenchmen victory over the mighty AC Milan in the 1993 Champions League final.  

Desailly gave an imperious performance that night, thwarting Milan’s talismanic striker Marco van Basten and doing more than enough to persuade the Italian giants that he was a ready-made replacement for the aging Frank Rijkaard, who had returned to Ajax. Strapped for cash, Marseille had no option but to accept the offer they made, with Desailly packing his bags for the San Siro.  

Milan’s man mountain
The next step in Desailly’s irresistible rise was a debut outing for France against Sweden in August 1993, the prelude to a glorious five-season stay in Italy, where his outstanding qualities as a defensive bulwark were richly appreciated.

He made his Serie A debut in a 2-1 win over Napoli on 21 November 1993 and scored his first goal for Milan against Reggiana the following January. Adapting seamlessly to the tactical rigours of Italian football, the Frenchman proved a formidable foe for opposing strikers, his ability to muscle adversaries off the ball becoming his greatest asset.

The cornerstone of a Milan side dripping with talent, Desailly was regularly deployed by coach Fabio Capello in a deep-lying midfield position, providing additional protection for a virtually impregnable back line formed by Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini.

Winning the scudetto in his first season with I Rossoneri, Desailly also made a goalscoring contribution in the 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final, becoming in the process the first player to win the competition two years running with different clubs.

Though on the losing side in the 1995 final against Ajax, another league winner’s medal would come his way before his association with Milan ended in 1998. In his five years at the San Siro he scored five goals in 137 league matches and two in 27 Champions League outings. In addition he earned the lasting praise of his team-mates.

“He is without doubt the greatest foreign defender ever to have played in calcio,” said no less an authority than Maldini. “It didn’t take him long to get to grips with Italian football or impose his character.”

After moving to Chelsea in 1998, much to the disappointment of Milan fans, Desailly returned to the San Siro for a Champions League match the following year, an occasion that would prove one of the emotional highpoints of his career and which he later described as “even more moving than winning the World Cup”. 

“During the warm-up the whole stadium started applauding me as one,” he said. “I walked over and saw a banner that read: ‘You will always be in our hearts’. To get that kind of recognition was so touching. I wasn’t a playmaker or a goalscorer and yet there they were, cheering me like I was Van Basten. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

On top of the world
With France, meanwhile, Desailly would enjoy his greatest triumphs. Revitalised under Aime Jacquet after failing to reach USA 1994, Les Bleus won their first world title on home soil in 1998 and then became continental champions at EURO 2000.

The platform for those successes was provided by the rearguard he manned with Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu, with Fabien Barthez providing a reliable pair of hands behind them.

In the 28 internationals in which they were permed together, from a 1-0 defeat of Germany in a EURO 1996 warm-up to the EURO 2000 final win over Italy in Rotterdam, the defensive quartet would never appear on the losing side. In those games France conceded just 13 goals and in that four-year period as a whole, Jacquet’s side would lose just five of the 57 matches they contested, games in which at least one of the four defensive musketeers appeared.

I think I lasted that long because I kept on pushing myself. You’ve got no idea how many young players I saw who were better than me.
Marcel Desailly

Though only the third man to be sent off in a FIFA World Cup Final, after collecting a second yellow card in the 3-0 victory over Brazil in 1998, Desailly took on the France captaincy following the retirement of his friend Deschamps.

Two FIFA Confederations Cup successes would follow for France’s golden generation, in 2001 and 2003, but by the time EURO 2004 came around the team was in decline and the 36-year-old Desailly playing out the final act of his international career. The end came after the 1-0 quarter-final loss to Greece, the last of his 116 appearances for his country.

Adapting to change
His move to Chelsea reunited him with fellow FIFA World Cup winner Franck Leboeuf, with Deschamps later joining them. Making his Premier League debut against Coventry City in August 1998, he scored his first goal for the Londoners against Watford the following February, by which time he was beginning to find his feet in the high-octane environment of English football.

“In Italy I always dominated my opponents in the air, but in England I couldn’t win a header,” he recalled. “I was beaten time and again by the bigger players and the smaller ones, who always stuck their elbows in. I had to become more devious, work on my timing, stop my opponents from shoving me around and not respond to provocation.”

The challenge posed by the physicality of the English game gave Desailly fresh motivation, as he explained: “When you’re a competitor and you come up against new players of a good standard, an excellent standard, then you have to raise your game and show that the desire’s still there.”

In all he played 222 games in his six seasons with the Blues, 94 of them as captain. The only title that came his way in that time was the 2000 FA Cup, and one of his biggest disappointments in a Chelsea shirt came with the 2004 Champions League semi-final exit against Monaco, by that time coached by his old pal Deschamps.  

As his career wound down, Desailly made one last move, this time to Qatar, where he won a last league title before retiring in May 2006.

“When I made my debut for France at the age of 25 I never imagined that nine years later I’d still be in the side and still competitive at club level,” he said, reflecting on his playing days. “I think I lasted that long because I kept on pushing myself. You’ve got no idea how many young players I saw who were better than me.”

Modest, motivated and masterful with it, Desailly was the ultimate footballing strongman, his ability to tame opposing strikers founded as much on his mental attributes and tactical astuteness as it was on his sheer physical presence. Truly a rock of ages, his place in the footballing pantheon could not be more secure.