Platini: The Final's the only match that matters
Michel Platini openly admits that, during his own playing career, Italy were the team he enjoyed beating "more than any other".
The vice-president of the French Football Federation and chairman of FIFA's Technical and Development Committee is well aware, however, that he never faced the Azzurri with the stakes as high as they will be for Zinedine Zidane and Co this evening.
At 51 years of age, the enduring icon of the French game keeps a watchful eye on the world of football. First and foremost, of course, he is proud to see Les Bleus reach their second FIFA World Cup Final in three attempts, but as a descendant of Italian immigrants, Sunday's match will carry extra significance.
On the eve of the big match , he gave an exclusive and candid interview to FIFAworldcup.com on Germany 2006 in general, the tactics that have dominated, the performances of France and Zinedine Zidane, and his own memories of facing Italy at Mexico 86 .
Go to the France team page
FIFAworldcup.com: Monsieur Platini, what are your thoughts on the 2006 FIFA World Cup?
Michel Platini: I've said elsewhere that it's the coaches' World Cup, and I could also have called it the World Cup of tactics. To some extent, that's a trend that has carried over from other competitions. Things have changed, because 20 years ago it was the players' World Cup. There was more freedom then, whereas now everything is dominated by tactics.
You seem a little disappointed.
I'm not saying the football is poor, it just depends more than ever on what the coaches come up with. And in this tournament, you have to admit the formations have been rather defensive. In terms of the football on offer, I don't think Germany 2006 will go down in the annals. But, having said that, in terms of the organisation and atmosphere, there's no comparison.
How do you explain France's place in the Final given they seemed so ineffective a few weeks ago?
I don't think France are the best team in the world, but they are very difficult to beat, and especially so in a Cup competition. Exactly the same goes for Italy, and it's no coincidence that these two sides are in the Final.
On the other hand, teams like Spain and Argentina were outstanding in the group phase but went home early. How do you explain that?
That's the story of the World Cup: you can't start strongly and finish strongly. It's impossible, the main reason being the overriding importance of physical preparation, particularly in the modern game. Nonetheless, you also have to be strong enough mentally to get through the first round without being in top form. The French managed it because their group was fairly straightforward. As a team, they don't play 'easy' football: they have to battle a fair bit. And, in the knockout phase they came up against teams who suited their style, teams who play football like Spain, Brazil and Portugal. Italy will no doubt be a different challenge, but a Final is like no other match.
What do you see as being the key to the Final?
There'll be two key elements. For the Italians, it's Andrea Pirlo and how well he can bring his team-mates into the game. In the French camp, it will be the interaction between Zidane and (Thierry) Henry. Whatever anyone says, that link-up is fundamental to the team. Frank Ribery brings the same qualities Robert Pires provided in the past: the ability to destabilise defences with his short dribbles and runs.
Everyone has been talking about Zidane since the Round of 16. What have you made of his role?
Zidane has been crucial in this World Cup. Not only because he's played very well, but above all because he raises the level of the rest of the side. He is without doubt the only player in the world who can make a difference without necessarily putting in a great performance. Even when he is just average on the pitch, he brings the team up a notch in so many ways. It's a sacrifice of sorts, and he deserve immense credit for that even more so in this tournament, where he has been so good on the pitch.
A lot of people have also been impressed with how Patrick Vieira has managed to impose himself on the team.
I don't believe there has been a sudden change in Vieira at this World Cup, but his partnership with Claude Makelele has certainly peaked. And I'd even go further than that: the four defenders behind those two midfielders have been very solid. They're what I call the 'six heavyweights' of the side.
You played in the France-Italy Round of 16 tie at Mexico 1986, which was understandably a special game for you. Could you tell us what your mindset was back then?
In 1986, I absolutely had to beat Italy. More than any other team, in fact. Partly because of my origins and partly because I played there (for Juventus), but above all because I'd never have heard the end of it from my Italian friends if I hadn't (laughs). To be honest though, I just think we were a lot better than they were in 1986. They almost admitted as much after the final whistle. But that said, I think the situation is very similar this time in terms of the mindset: the two teams are very close and it's a question of personal relations above anything else. There's always the issue of who'll be winding who up when the players return to their clubs, and there'll be a lot of that after this game. I think that's healthy as well.
For the first time since 1982, no South American team made it to the semi-finals. What is your take on that?
I don't think you can say the South American sides performed poorly. It's true that on paper, and from what we saw at the Confederations Cup, the Brazilians have a fantastic team. Here, they lost 1-0 to a France side that's very difficult to catch out, and to be eliminated by one of the finalists is not what I'd call a failure. The same goes for Argentina as well. Ultimately, they were knocked out by the hosts on penalties, so it's tough to draw any conclusions from these so-called 'early' exits. Everything came down to small details, such as the luck of the draw, or having to play the hosts.
Only one African team made it through to the Round of 16. Was that not a little disappointing?
For me, that was down to inexperience more than anything. Four of the five sides had qualified for the first time and it's difficult to perform well on your first appearance. None of the traditionally strong teams were here, and the really important event for the Africans is in four years' time.
Finally, have you been particularly impressed with a certain team or player at this FIFA World Cup?
You have to wait for the Final first, because that's the only match that matters. It makes no sense to talk about which player or team left their mark on the tournament before then.