After bursting onto the scene as a precocious teenager in the early 1980s, the supremely talented Enzo Scifo went on to become the greatest footballer Belgium has ever produced. During the course of a hugely impressive 20-year playing career, the ice-cool schemer appeared in four FIFA World Cup™ finals, including a semi-final at Mexico 1986, and performed with distinction in the Belgian, French and Italian leagues.
When he retired from the game in 2001, the majestic Scifo could look back with satisfaction on a career in which he also made one UEFA Cup final appearance and won four Belgian championships, a French league title and an Italian Cup.
Having made his name the world over with his exceptional skills, Scifo continued to fulfil his passion for the sport by moving into coaching. Now in his second full season in charge of Belgian Jupiler League outfit Excelsior Mouscron, the national icon gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com about his early days with Anderlecht, his FIFA World Cup memories and Belgian football today, proving just as relaxed in front of the microphone as he was during his glorious playing heyday.
FIFA.com: You made your league debut for Belgian giants Anderlecht when you were only 17. What was the secret behind your early success?
Enzo Scifo: It doesn't matter how old you are when you start; the important thing is to be ready for it. Even back then I wanted to be involved and was mature for my age. That helped me make my mark. I was lucky enough to spend my formative years in a big team, though you have to be mentally strong, which is not always the case when you're that young. Luckily, people like Paul Van Himst, who was my coach at the time, helped me a lot. All I had to do then was show that I deserved an opportunity.
Over the next four years you won three Belgian league championships. How did you cope with that?
I didn't really see it all coming to be honest. I had my head screwed on and winning things didn't change that. In fact winning was something that never changed me. That was my strength. I was a competitor and being ambitious and wanting to win things was normal for me.
You then left for Inter Milan at the age of 21, where you perhaps failed to make the impression you had hoped for. Did it all come too early for you?
If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would do things exactly the same way. Arsene Wenger once said that every player should go through a bad patch in their careers so they can learn how to handle disappointment. In my opinion you should come face to face with it as early as possible in your career, and I can honestly say that I don't have any regrets. You also have to remember that at Inter it was more of a team failure than an individual thing. We finished fifth in the league, which was below our expectations.
From Italy it was on to France, and after spells at Bordeaux and Auxerre you went to Monaco, where you won the championship. What memories do you have of that period of your career?
I started really well at Bordeaux but then I picked up a knee injury. That's not really an excuse, though, because I didn't play as well as people had expected me to. On top of all that there were a lot of problems off the pitch. I have to say that Bordeaux was the biggest disappointment of my career.
People believed in me at Auxerre, though. I didn't play in my preferred position at either Bordeaux or Inter, but Guy Roux (Scifo's coach at Auxerre) knew exactly where to play me. And the results were there for everyone to see: two great seasons with a team that was incredibly strong in mental terms.
When I went to Monaco things were tough for a couple of years because we had to rebuild the side. We had an absolutely fantastic team the year we won the title, though, with people like Fabien Barthez, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry and Sonny Anderson. But in purely sporting terms Auxerre was the pinnacle for me. We didn't have a great team but everyone was scared of playing us. Jean-Pierre Papin told me one day that he feared playing at the Abbe-Deschamps more than anywhere else.
In between times you returned to Italy, your parents' home country, and signed for Torino. What was your reason for going back? Revenge?
I don't like that word but I have to admit that there was a little bit of that involved. It was a dream of mine to play in the Italian league. I hadn't made a very good impression there and I wanted to show what I could do. It proved to be a very good decision to go back because they were a team of real competitors, just like at Auxerre.
You went back home in 1997 to play for Anderlecht and then Charleroi. How did that work out for you?
After 14 years abroad and a lot of sacrifices I had this desire to go back to the club where I started out and to achieve something. And it paid off when I won my last league title with Anderlecht. I still had that desire when I went to Charleroi but things never really worked out. Yet, to be perfectly honest, I had another reason for going there as I was a shareholder in the club and what I wanted to do was make them a big name on the European scene. I didn't succeed, though.
You were a member of Belgium side that went all the way to the semi-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico. Then in 1990 you were voted the second best player of the tournament. What are your memories of what was a golden age for the national team?
It was a wonderful adventure but to be honest it didn't start off very well. We only just qualified from our group and the atmosphere in the squad wasn't very good. But the coach sorted all that out by sending a few players back home. That was the turning point. The players really clicked from that point on and there was a real desire to do well. And above all we had a lot of strong personalities who pushed the national team to the top. You need that kind of spirit if you're going to succeed in football. As for 1990, it was a great year overall for me, first with Auxerre and then with the national side. It was the best Belgium team we've ever had.
What is your view on the current generation of Diables Rouges? Belgium have some up-and-coming players but have missed out on qualifying for South Africa 2010.
The team's got talent but that spirit I've just been talking about is missing. We've failed to qualify and that's very hard to take, but there's been a change with this new generation and I think the performances will really start to come over the next couple of years.
You have moved into coaching now. Who are your role models?
Guy Roux made more of a mark on me than anyone else. He had real authority and yet was very close to his players at the same time. He is the only person I've met who has all those qualities.
You have not had quite the same success on the touchline as you had on the pitch. How frustrating has that been for you?
It's a different job entirely. I get a lot of kicks out of this job because I put passion into it and when I'm sitting there on the bench I feel like a little kid who's discovering everything for the first time. I'm in my sixth season now as coach and I'm starting to feel right at home in the job. It's been the right choice for me.