“Franck just loves life. He’s the kind of player that makes an impression every time he plays. He’s bound to become an important figure in the world of football.” The words are Zinedine Zidane’s and the subject is Franck Ribery, regarded by many as the successor to Zizou in the wake of his retirement after the FIFA World Cup™ in 2006. The talented and popular attacking midfielder almost never got to experience a career as a professional footballer, though. As a toddler, he was involved in a serious car accident, which, while sparing his life, left him some permanent reminders in the form of distinct facial scars. Could his love of life and steely determination as an adult stem from this childhood trauma?
What is undeniable is that from being admitted into Lille’s youth academy at 12 to becoming one of Bayern Munich’s leading players, nothing has been easy for Ribery, whose personality and good humour have left their mark wherever he has played. Released from Lille’s academy due to poor academic results, he went on a mystery tour of France, turning out for Boulogne, Ales and then Brest. It was while playing in Brittany that he was spotted by Jean Fernandez, who took him to Metz.
In Lorraine, he got a chance to play in Ligue 1 in 2004 and began to put in consistently competent performances in a right-midfield role, using his speed, ability to trouble any defence and dead-ball expertise to good effect. A surprise transfer window move to Galatasaray had no negative effect on his great form. In Turkey, Ribery quickly won over the fans, helped in particular by a sparkling display in the Turkish Cup final versus great rivals Fenerbahce. However, administrative problems cut short his Turkish adventure, and Jean Fernandez, by now coach of Marseille, offered him a path back to France in the summer of 2005.
His bursts of acceleration, unstoppable shots and weaving runs were an instant hit at the Velodrome, offering Marseille supporters a blend of flair and efficiency that was hard to resist. At the end of a 2006/07 season, during which Ribery shone, he was rewarded with a place in France’s 23-man squad for Germany 2006, even though he had not at that point received a full cap for his country. Named in the starting line-up for Les Bleus’ opening game against Switzerland, it was in the Round-of-16 match versus Spain where he really showed the watching world what he could do, scoring the equalising goal of a 3-1 French victory.
Ribery stayed one more season at l’OM before joining another European colossus, Bayern Munich, where he once again showed his capacity to adapt to change. In his first season in the Bundesliga, he secured the League Cup, league title and German Cup, provoking these famous words from Franz Beckenbauer: “When we signed him, it was as if we’d won the lottery.”
German Player of the Year for 2007/08, he approached UEFA Euro 2008 with high hopes, and a regular place in his nation’s starting line-up. Unfortunately, Lady Luck was to dash those hopes, as a bad injury against Italy sent him home early, much like the entire French side.
Since then, be it for club or for country, Ribery has alternated visits to the physio with intermittent moments of class on the pitch. Back to his very best towards the end of this past season, he will be one of France’s key players in their quest for a second world crown.