“One day, Bernard Tapie (the then Olympique Marseille owner) asked Jean-Pierre Papin which defender had given him the most problems,” recalled Belgian great Enzo Scifo in an interview on FIFA.com. “Papin replied: ‘Basile Boli’.
The following year, Tapie brought Boli to Marseille. Extolling the French centre-half’s many virtues, Scifo added: “I can honestly say that he’s the defender that most impressed me in my career.”
Papin and Scifo were not the only great names to shudder at the prospect of facing up to the imposing central defender during his pomp in the 1980s and 90s. Boli also made his mark at the other end, scoring the header that gave l'OM victory over AC Milan in the 1993 UEFA Champions League final, this just two years after he had been reduced to tears following the French side’s defeat to Crvena Zvezda at the same stage.
During the course of a 15-year career that brought him 45 caps with France, Boli squared off against some of the greatest players of his time. Newly reunited with l'OM this season as the club’s ambassador, Boli expanded on Scifo’s tribute, giving FIFA.com his own personal views on some of the legendary forwards he crossed swords with.
Marco Van Basten: The smiling assassin
“I came up against him twice, with the national team and with l'OM. Unfortunately, it was me that brought his career to an end on the day of the European Cup final. I trod on his ankle, which was already in a bad way, and that was that. We still swapped shirts at the end of the match, though. It’s funny, but I met him in Monaco one day and he introduced his wife to me. She said: “Ah, so that’s Boli?”. Well, at least they’d spoken about me (laughs)! To my mind he was one of the most complete players I came up against during my career. He was extremely skilful, very tough, and he could dish it out too. He wasn’t scared of anything. He was a gentleman and a killer.
Romario: Speed merchant
This was a duel I managed to win (France beat Brazil 2-0 in a friendly on 26 August 1992). He wasn’t physical and he was looking the whole time to get you one-on-one. It was a challenge for me because my brothers were supporting Brazil and they were teasing me, which made me really want to eat him up. I knew how good Romario was. He wasn’t very big and he wasn’t going to cause me any problems in the air, but his game was all about anticipation and speed. I’d leave him space because I was quicker than him, and I’d get the better of him using my speed rather than my strength. I tried to make sure I didn’t touch him or it would be a foul. Bebeto came on for him in the second half and he was a pretty similar player.
Martin Dahlin: Payback time
We played against Sweden at the 1992 European Championships and I kept him quiet the whole time. It was the opening match against the host nation (a 1-1 draw) and I had a great game. We swapped shirts at the end and I remember a very firm handshake. We came up against each other again a few months later at the Parc des Princes (a 2-1 win for France in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier on 28 April 1993) and this time it was his turn to chew me up! He got his revenge. He was a well-built guy, very physical, and he’d studied my game closely and blocked me off every time. Laurent Blanc said to me at the time: ‘I’ve never seen you struggle but you really struggled in that game.’
Jean-Pierre Papin: My best enemy
Papin is a bit of a special case because he was very physical and very athletic, even if he didn’t look that strong. He was very quick too. If you gave him a couple of yards, he’d score. He really did things off the cuff. He was a brilliant volleyer of the ball, he was dangerous on crosses and he was always making diagonal runs. You absolutely couldn’t afford to let him get in a shooting position because he could shoot from anywhere. When we were team-mates at l'OM, he taught me how to hit the ball. For two whole years we’d stay behind after training for an hour and a half, practising shooting over and over, hitting the ball right in the middle. He taught me that. It was a privilege for me to have him as a team-mate and an opponent. He was one of the very best players of the 90s. He went down in the history of l'OM and then he went and won the Ballon d’Or.
Eric Cantona: A king-sized headache
I knew him so well he hated playing against me, even in training. I never wanted to go one-on-one with Papin. I preferred to play against Eric, but he never wanted to play against me. He was one of the most gifted players of his generation. He had Van Basten’s size and Zidane’s skill, and he could also stand up to the physical challenge. He was the type of striker you could knock off their game by provoking them, but that wasn’t really my style. I came up against him a few times and I did pretty well. We used to play together in the youth team at Auxerre, and I remember him saying: ‘I’ll take care of things up front and you take care of defence.’ He scored a hat-trick every time. It was great!
George Weah: Basile the bodyguard
Every time we played against Monaco or Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), everyone defended zonally except me, because I had to man-mark him. He never scored against me so Raymond Goethals would say to me every time: 'You take care of George Weah'. It was always very physical. He was a heck of a battler too. I remember one match against PSG when Marcel Desailly popped up in my place and took a blow on the lip. Marcel got hold of him by his neck and I got in there quickly to break them up. Weah said to me: 'Basile, give me 30 seconds. I’m going to kill him!' He had tears of rage in his eyes and I think if I’d let him that day, Marcel would have ended up in hospital (laughs).
Jurgen Klinsmann: Landing the first blow
Oh, Jurgen (laughs)! I played against him for Marseille when he was at Inter Milan and Monaco and also at international level. He was always asking for the ball, and he was exceptionally fit. The only thing was, he was a little scared, so he used to kick me before I could kick him, and it hurt. Things could get very spicy, but he was the type of striker I liked to play against because it was a real physical battle.