For followers of the beautiful game on both sides of the Atlantic, there can be little doubt that Enzo Francescoli was one of the most elegant players of his generation. Dubbed El Príncipe (The Prince) early in his career for his demeanour on and off the pitch, Francescoli earned iconic status almost everywhere he played. FIFA.com takes a closer look at the past and present of a living legend.
It was in the late 70s when Uruguayan talent scouts first began raving about a rangy young creative midfielder delighting the fans of humble Montevideo Wanderers. His name was Enzo Francescoli, and even back then his languid style and outrageous ability were causing ripples on the South American scene. By 1981 he was already starring at youth national-team level and on the verge of signing for Argentinian giants River Plate - no mean feat for someone turned down by Penarol and River Plate of Uruguay as a youngster for being too thin.
"My early days at River [Plate in Argentina] were tough, the team wasn't doing well and I couldn't find my position on the pitch. Once they put me up front, I started to turn things around," says Francescoli, who soon earned his regal nickname thanks to a fellow Uruguayan, the journalist Victor Hugo Morales. "Around that time I used to listen to the tango song Príncipe a lot and used to sing it all the time," explains Morales. "He (Francescoli) scored a goal and it reminded me of the part which goes 'I'm a prince and goals are my one love'. The nickname was a perfect fit for a man who seemed somewhat melancholic and sad, who moved with a truly princely bearing."
Having blossomed on the Argentinian stage, Francescoli earned a move to Europe where he went on to grace several clubs in the French and Italian leagues. And though his time on the Old Continent perhaps did not garner the silverware his gifts deserved, he left an indelible mark on those who saw him in action, including a young Marseille fan by the name of Zinedine Zidane. "He was my favourite player and I used to hang around to watch him train," says Zizou, who named his son Enzo in honour of the former OM star.
I heard that he used to sleep in that shirt both in his Juve days and with France during the 1998 World Cup.
"I was stunned when I found out about that," says Francescoli. "I heard about it just prior to facing him in the final of the Intercontinental Cup in 1996, and that's why I gave him my shirt after that game. Later on I heard that he used to sleep in that shirt both in his Juve days and with France during the 1998 World Cup."
Francescoli subsequently returned to South America and his beloved River in the summer of 1994, where he went on to win every trophy available to Los Millonarios - with the exception of that Toyota Intercontinental Cup final against Juventus. On the national team front, El Príncipe's stock with Chárrua fans may be not as high as with the River faithful, but he can point to captaining the team at the FIFA World Cup™ finals at Mexico 1986 and Italy 1990 as well as a Uruguayan record of winners' medals at three Copa Americas, in 1983, 1987 and 1995. The third of these, secured in thier own Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, was the last major title won by the Celeste.
"Playing at two World Cups was a hugely memorable experience. It's true that I didn't win the title, but that's something that's largely out of your control. Even so, I still revel in having taken part in two marvellous events, which, regardless of results there, is the ultimate for any footballer," he tells FIFA.com. What memories stand out from those two showpieces? "Football was different. I went into the '86 event with very high hopes because my career was on the up, which is why our getting knocked out (by Argentina in the Round of 16) hurt so much. Did I get kicked about a lot? Yes, I did, football wasn't the same back then."
"In 1990 we had a stronger team but came up against a powerful Italy side in the last 16. At a World Cup it's not just about being a great team, it's about hitting form at just the right time," he continues. "But I can't complain; I achieved more than I expected too when I was starting out as a professional. I might not have earned a move to a team like Juventus or Barcelona, though I did come close. But it wouldn't be fair to complain about anything the game didn't give to me."
In 2002, five years on from hanging up his boots, Francescoli moved to Miami with his wife and children for a role with the US football broadcaster GolTV. The project, undertaken alongside his former agent Paco Casal and another ex-footballer, Nelson Gutierrez, has enjoyed considerable success and eventually enabled Francescoli to bring his family back to Buenos Aires. "I go to Miami once a week but I spend most of my time in Argentina," he says. "My family is used to living here now."
"I'd thought everything through beforehand," adds Francescoli on the transition from football to the world of business. "If I'd done it by half-measures, by still going to the club, being out on the pitch, it would have been tough. That's why I decided on a clean break and joined together with some friends to explore other avenues. Fortunately things turned out well," adds the 45-year-old as the conversation draws to a conclusion.
And as a final question, would he ever consider a coaching role? "The truth is I still don't feel drawn to it. I'm immersed in a different kind of job and I don't have time to prepare (for my coaching qualifications). That said, if I were to do it, it would be with River Plate or the Uruguayan national team - my two biggest passions."
Clubs: Montevideo Wanderers (URU), River Plate (ARG), Racing Club Paris (FRA), Olympique Marseille (FRA), Cagliari (ITA), Torino (ITA), River Plate (ARG).
National team: 73 appearances, 17 goals
Honours: South American Youth Championship winner with Uruguay (1981), Copa America winner with Uruguay (1983, 1987 and 1995), French league champion with Marseille (1989/90), Argentinian champion with River Plate (1986, Apertura 1994, 1996, 1997, Clausura 1997), Copa Libertadores winner with River Plate (1996), South American Super Cup winner (1997).