A pure footballing thoroughbred, Enzo Francescoli was one of the leading South American players of his generation and represented his country at two FIFA World Cup™ finals: Mexico 1986 and Italy 1990. Still a hugely respected figure in the game, he is currently in South Africa commentating on the world finals for Argentinian television.
Finding a window in his packed schedule, El Príncipe spoke at length to FIFA.com in an exclusive and enlightening interview, ranging over a number of topics, including his FIFA World Cup memories, Uruguay’s encouraging start at South Africa 2010 and his admiration for one Lionel Messi.
FIFA.com: Enzo, how are you enjoying commentating here in South Africa?
Enzo Francescoli: I’m having a great time. I did some commentating in 1998 as well and it’s something I feel very comfortable with to be honest. It’s a great job to do during a World Cup. You get to catch up with old friends, see a lot of football and keep in touch with the game. I honestly can’t complain although I can’t say it’s something I’d do full time. From time to time is fine.
So it is a nice change from your routine then?
You could say that. I spoke to my wife about it and I don’t think there’s anything that excites me quite as much as when I was playing football. I’ve got quite a few projects on the go, such as the TV channel I set up with my friends in the USA (GOL TV), but I haven’t found anything I like enough to make it my day-to-day routine.
Do you think you could be tempted to coach one day?
Not right now. When I was playing I really used to hate team get-togethers, so I can’t see myself working as a coach. It’s different when you’re a player: you can have days off or get injured and you don’t have to join the team at get-togethers, but it’s not like that for the coach. It might happen in the future but not at the moment. It’s been 12 years now since I retired from the game and it’s still something I don’t feel like doing.
Let’s turn to South Africa 2010 now. What do you make of the competition so far?
Things have levelled out a lot. These days you don’t get teams turning up to the World Cup and just sitting in their own half or getting thrashed and going home. All the same, it’s still the great players who make the difference. I was hoping to see lots of goals but I don’t think we will now. And unless I’m mistaken, I think the big teams will be there in the final rounds.
You say that, but Spain and England have had difficult starts. Are you surprised by that?
I’m more surprised by England because they just haven’t played well. Spain have, but they’ve lacked the depth teams need to make progress in a tournament like this, although they did have lots of possession [against Switzerland] and kept on trying. You’d think they’ll improve but they need more of a cutting edge. In football it’s not enough just to play well. You have to score too.
As for England I was surprised by the lack of mobility of their forwards and they’ve had some defensive problems due to injuries. (Wayne) Rooney is not playing as we thought he would but he’s still got time to up his game.
You know French football inside out. Did you expect France to perform the way they have?
I’m amazed. I expected a lot more from them. Zizou (Zinedine Zidane) told me he didn’t think the team looked in great shape but when I saw the squad they were bringing to South Africa I thought they’d impress. They have some wonderful players but they’ve lacked the spirit you need to compete at a World Cup. You can have technically gifted players but if the spirit’s not there, it’s not going to happen for you. Maybe they’ll come back against South Africa but it’s going to be tough for them. Uruguay and Mexico have a big advantage.
One side who do seem to have spirit are Uruguay.
Yes, Uruguay have always been known for it, the famous garra charrúa. It’s all about being in the right frame of mind for the big games. There’s one big difference between this team and previous ones, though: they’ve gone out and played like other teams have never dared to. They’re playing with three at the back and three up front. They’re taking risks and if you don’t take risks in football then you don’t win. Looking back, and having played for my country for over ten years, I can honestly say my generation didn’t take the risks they should have done. That was a big mistake in my view.
Why was that?
It was just the way things worked out and maybe we lacked belief too. After 1970 Uruguay didn’t qualify for the World Cup finals again until 1986 and we were hesitant when we returned. We had a great generation of players who’d won three Copa Americas out of four but for some reason we didn’t believe in ourselves as much at the World Cup. The players were to blame for that. This team has taken a step forward, though. They believe in themselves and I’m really excited about them, just as I was when I watched the 1970 side as a boy.
So how far can they go?
I know they’ve got a lot of history to live up to but they shouldn’t have this idea in their heads that they have to go all the way. That’s for teams like Spain, Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay need to hold their own and try and go as far as they can. They need to believe in themselves. I hope they can reach the Final. I’d love them to, but they shouldn’t set that as an objective for themselves.
You played in the sides that reached the 1986 and 1990 finals. The team that went to Italy was coached by Oscar Tabarez. Have you noticed anything different in him?
Well, he gained experience from coaching at Italy 1990, and that tournament and his spells in some of the biggest leagues in the world, including Italy, have raised his profile. He’s still the same guy but he puts the team together in a different way. I’m excited about what he’s doing.
You played for many years in Argentina, where you are living now. What do you make of La Albiceleste?
They look very good. There’s no other team in the tournament with their attacking potential. They have so many options up front and they also have the player of the tournament so far. We’ll have to see how they respond when they face sides that are better prepared and more willing to attack them. At the moment, though, they’ve got the strongest attack.
You mentioned the player of the tournament there. Are you referring to Lionel Messi?
Yes, of course. And I hope he keeps it up. He’s a great kid and he’s stood out from everyone else with his fantastic performances. He unsettles defences, he’s incisive and he does things with the ball that are hard to fathom. He is a unique talent and the last player I saw like him was Diego Maradona.
Are you in touch with Maradona?
I haven’t seen him for a long while but we are still good friends. I hope things go really well for him. He was the best player of my generation and he’s passing on all his know-how to the players, which is something you can see on the pitch. Everyone has their own opinion on whether he’s doing the right thing by the team or not, but then again, there’s no such thing as the perfect coach.
Have you heard that he is going to strip off naked at the Obelisco monument in Buenos Aires if Argentina win the title?
Yes, and I’d say there’s every chance he’ll do it. He’s always fulfilled his promises and I don’t think he’ll make an exception this time, especially if he wins the World Cup. If he does do it, they'll forgive him, and for lots of other things besides (laughs).
Is there any member of the Uruguay team who has surprised you?
I wouldn’t say he’s surprised me because I’ve known him for a long time, but if (Diego) Forlan keeps playing like this, then he’s going to end up the best player Uruguay have had for a long time, and that includes me. I don’t have a problem with saying that at all. At this standard we are all more or less at the same level but it’s the players who go out and win and perform in the toughest situations that are ahead of the rest. I couldn’t perform to the same level in the World Cup as I did in the rest of my 18-year career, and if he does, then he’s a better player than me. And I don’t mind saying that either.
One last question, Enzo. You played in Italy for several seasons and you know the Italian footballing mentality. Can they go and win the world crown again?
Well, they were going through a similar situation in Germany. Their games could have gone either way and they didn’t really stand out but they still ended up being world champions. Italy are one of those big teams who grow in stature as tournaments unfold, just like Argentina, Germany, Brazil and even Uruguay, if they can hang in there. I don’t know how far they’ll go but you can’t write them off.