Monday, 28 November 2011

Le Carré Magique

When it comes to footballing combinations of flair and panache, it appears that three really is the magic number. Down the years there have been a host of attacking triumvirates that have excited passions and frightened defences. From Sunderland’s infernal triangle of Cuggy, Mordue and Buchan in the 1910s, Brazil’s 1950 inside-forward trio of Ademir, Jair and Zizinho, Manchester United’s “holy trinity” of Charlton, Best and Law in the 60s, to the three R’s (Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho) that dominated the 2002 World Cup, threesomes have always had something special about them.

Even attacking quintets have often appealed. River Plate’s La Maquina team of the 1940s saw a forward line of Labruna, Loustau, Moreno, Muñoz and Pedernera probe every part of opposing defences with a love of ball retention which pre-empted Michels’ Total Football and the Barcelona side of today. In 1970 Brazil set the world alight with their five “number 10s” of Gerson, Jairzinho, Pelé, Rivellino and Tostao. The incomparable beauty of their football (aided by the advent of colour television) left an indelible imprint on lovers of the game which remains to this day.

Foursomes, though, are rather more prosaic. Very few people have ever been excited by a footballing quartet. From Arsenal’s flat back four of Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn to Serbia’s “famous four” who kept nine clean sheets in ten qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, fours are known for solidity rather than brilliance. Even Manchester United’s midfield at the turn of the century which combined Beckham, Giggs, Keane and Scholes was noted more for its proficiency than its romance. Each player was a master of their role, but, Giggs aside, there was a lack of the swashbuckling genius which defined many of the great teams who went before. If anything they were too complete and well balanced to fit the mould of special combinations.

The exception that proves the rule in the case of foursomes was that of France in the early to mid-eighties. The midfield of Luis Fernández, Alain Giresse, Michel Platini and Jean Tigana which came to be known as “Le Carré Magique” (The Magic Square) demonstrated quite what can happen when an exceptional generation come together. The brilliance of the cohort was characterised by a unique combination of teamwork with creativity and invention. The French midfield managed to combine function with beauty and obtained (at least some of) the results that their labours deserved.

Undeniably the greatest individual of the quartet was Michel Platini. A prodigious talent, he strolled around the midfield with the air of a French cavalry officer, splitting defences at will with his vision and astounding range of passing. Platini was the playmaker, orchestrator and brain of the team. Arguably his finest attribute (yes, even better than those free-kicks) was an ability to find space in the most congested midfields and he used every inch he found to devastating effect.  Initial doubts about the strength of his heart as an adolescent were ironic, given the vigour with which he led France. Even in a midfield this talented, it was only natural that the rest would defer to his genius.

Alain Giresse was the perfect example of how technical accomplishments could overcome physical shortcomings. Standing at only 5 feet 4 inches, Giresse was not the archetypal sports star. The diminutive midfielder was, however, a master with the ball at his feet. The incisive passing and ball retention which Giresse possessed were an integral part of the French game, while his low centre of gravity allowed him to skip past opposing challenges with typical Gallic flair. His slight stature also belied an impressive work-rate and a tigerish desire to win possession.

Jean Tigana was the engine of the side. Every movement he made appeared to be at pace, surging forward and driving the team from the heart of midfield. In the modern game only Michael Essien (when fit and in form) comes close to matching the dynamism that Tigana embodied. Yet to focus solely on his physical attributes is to ignore the subtlety of passing and the lightness of touch that the man from Mali demonstrated. Tigana was more than just an athlete, he was a complete footballer, comfortable and confident in multiple situations.

The final piece of the puzzle for the French was Luis Fernández. His arrival in the team gave greater balance to a square that had looked decidedly lopsided beforehand. In 1982 France had deployed a midfield of Giresse, Platini and Tigana in combination with Bernard Genghini. Genghini was himself an excellent player, graceful and elegant on the ball with a fabulous left foot, but his presence meant the French were defensively lacking. Fernández brought a more combative element to the team as well as rejuvenating a side lacking in youth.

As Fernández himself said when reflecting on the name, it was “magic, because there was an understanding. Each one of us knew what we had to do. I couldn’t play like Platini, and he couldn’t play like me. Giresse couldn’t play like me, nor could I play like him. But Platini needed Fernández, Fernández needed Tigana, Giresse and Platini. And everyone knew that Le Carré Magique was France’s great strength.”

Prior to the 1980s, France had enjoyed very limited success on the field. The French were unrivalled as football administrators, producing the likes of Robert Guerin, Jules Rimet, Gabriele Hanot and Henri Delauney, but a lack of interest in the game domestically had led to an inability to challenge the major powers. The only previous generation to have achieved anything of note was the French team of the late 1950s featuring Kopa, Fontaine and Jonquet who had managed a semi-final appearance at the World Cup in Sweden and repeated the feat in the inaugural European Championships.

The 1982 World Cup changed all that. Not only did France reach the semi-finals, the manner of their defeat on penalties to West Germany (following the infamous Harald Schumacher “tackle” on Patrick Battiston) left France as the moral victors. Along with a stellar Brazil team, France were the side who most looked to be positive while the style of their approach play won them admirers. Home advantage for the 1984 European Championship was simply one more reason that many neutrals favoured Les Bleus before the beginning of the competition.

The tournament began with a game more memorable for a late contretemps between Manuel Amoros and Jesper Olsen than the quality of football. The Danes responded to the danger of Platini by using Klaus Berggren as a man marker in midfield, largely nullifying the Juventus man in the first-half with the exception of a well struck free-kick which was sharply saved by Qvist. The most notable action of the first-half was a tackle by Yvon Le Roux which broke the leg of the great Allan Simonsen and ended his participation in the tournament.

The second-half saw France finally make the breakthrough that the home crowd demanded as the magic square combined to devastating effect. Tigana started the move, close to the centre-circle with a composed pass to Giresse rushing forward, he attempted to feed Lacombe but the Danes’ attempt to scramble the ball away only served to present it to Platini on the edge of the area. Platini’s right-footed drive was deflected away from the diving Qvist by Berggren and into the net. Late on Olsen, a substitute for Frank Arnesen, brought down Amoros and having thrown the ball at his assailant from a yard away (and missed) the Frenchman proceeded to head butt the Dane in full view of referee Roth. Amoros’s dismissal came too late to change the course of the game and France made the perfect start to their campaign.

France’s second game came against a Belgium team who had been excellent in their opener, a 2-0 victory over Yugoslavia. However, it proved a far easier victory for the French than their first game as they thrashed their neighbours 5-0, the midfield quartet responsible for all the goals. Platini opened the scoring in the 3rd minute of the game with a superbly struck low curling shot that left Pfaff helpless after Battiston had seen a thunderous free-kick come back off the bar. Belgium could easily have levelled the game when Michel De Wolf hit the post and Vandenbergh headed wide from close range. France though stormed back with Tigana setting Giresse through to chip Pfaff and extend the French lead. Fernández headed in a third before half-time from Giresse’s cross after neat footwork from Didier Six.

Belgian changes were needed. 18 year old Enzo Scifo was withdrawn early in the second-half as their midfield, not unexpectedly, was overrun by Platini, Giresse and Tigana. That did not stem the tide. The French went four up when Platini calmly converted a penalty after Pfaff had upended Six, before Platini’s angled header from Giresse’s delightful cross completed the rout. In scoring against Belgium, Platini had surpassed Just Fontaine’s longstanding record of 27 international goals for France, an incredible achievement for a midfielder.

Having already qualified for the semi-finals, some managers might have chosen to rest players for the final match against Yugoslavia. Not Michel Hidalgo. France instead sent out a full strength line-up, though Jean-Marc Ferreri joined the regular midfield foursome to make an unusual quintet across the middle. The Yugoslavs, already eliminated having lost to Belgium and Denmark, took a surprise lead in the 31st minute via Sestic, before Giresse crashed a volley off the bar to remind them of the calibre of their opposition.

After the interval Platini put on a masterclass which demonstrated that even in an era of Maradona, Schuster and Zico, he was the midfield general par excellence. His first goal saw him steer a low Ferreri cross beneath the body of Simovic, the second was a magnificent diving header, before the coup de grace, a trademark free-kick which dipped late and left the Yugoslav keeper helpless. The perfect hat-trick.

France’s semi-final with Portugal was the game which defined the team and, indeed, the era. The Portuguese, in the doldrums since the era of Eusebio and Coluna, had qualified second from a tough group which included defending champions West Germany. At a feverish Stade Velodrome in Marseille the two teams played out one of the classic matches in European Championship history.

The French went ahead from a fabulously taken free-kick. For once though it wasn’t Platini that took it, instead Jean-Francois Domergue stepped up and hit a swerving effort which flew into the net. The natural anticipation from ‘keeper Bento when lining up his wall was that Platini would attempt a curling right-footed effort, the left-footed blast from Domergue catching him completely unawares. Portugal offered little going forward in their attempts to get back into the match, bar a long-range effort from Jordao which sailed over.

When the teams came back from the half-time break it was again France who went on the offensive. Bento denied first Fernández and then Giresse (twice) as the Portuguese fought to stay in the game. Undoubtedly the busier of the keepers, Bento then made two good saves from Platini, the first a shot tipped over the bar, the second a low diving save to deny the French. Just when France appeared to be in full control Portugal sprang into life. A minute after denying Fernando Gomes, French keeper Bats was beaten. Chalana provided an accurate cross, Jordao leapt high above the aghast French defence and powered an excellent header into corner of the goal. France’s apparent procession to the final was on hold.

In extra-time the game ebbed and flowed with the sides taking turns to go on the offensive. Portugal needed luck if they were to overcome a superior French team and in the 97th minute they got it. A deep cross from Chalana again searched out Jordao who volleyed his shot into the ground and over the despairing Bats. The Auxerre goalkeeper had his angles well worked, but was left paralysed by the unfortunate bounce. As France roared forward desperately in search of an equaliser they were almost caught out and required a sharp save from Bats to deny Nene.

The second period of added time saw France push forward once more. Domergue, now playing more as a winger than a full-back, played the ball into the box and continued his run. The penalty area was a sea of bodies, the Portuguese desperately attempting to repel the attacks of the host, yet somehow Le Roux and Platini managed to scramble the ball back to Domergue who fired past Bento and French hopes were alive once more. The game though was far from over. With just a minute remaining Jean Tigana picked the ball up roughly 40 yards from goal. With his characteristic brio he powered to the Portuguese byline, evading the lunges of multiple defenders before pulling the ball back to Platini in the six-yard box. Most players would have thrashed at first time in the heat of the moment, at the risk of blazing their shot over the bar. However, with the calmness and special awareness that defined his career, Platini took a touch, swivelled and fired the ball into the roof of the net.

France’s reward for that incredible victory was a clash with neighbours Spain who had defeated Denmark in the other semi-final. Understandably given the tremendous influence he had exerted during the finals, Spain chose to use Jose Antonio Camacho as a man-marker on Platini in the hope of stifling his contribution. In focusing so much on one player (however good) there was always the suspicion that Spain might end up leaving more room for the likes of Giresse and Tigana to control the midfield.

After the pulsating climax against Portugal, the first half of the final was slightly underwhelming. Giresse had an early shot comfortably saved by Arconada, Bellone steered a dangerous ball across goal, while Victor headed narrowly wide for Spain. For all the pre-match expectations, France were unable to establish the fluency of passing which had been an integral part of their previous success. Towards the end of the half Santillana twice went close, first seeing his header cleared off the line by Battiston, then dragging a shot inches wide of the post.

The second-half also began cagily. Bellone drew a save from Arcanada as the French slowly began to press. Ten minutes in, France were gifted a non-existent free-kick for a supposed foul on Lacombe just outside the penalty area. Platini stepped up and curled a right-footed free-kick around the wall and into the arms of the diving Arconada. With the ball easily within his grasp Arconada inexplicably allowed the shot to squirm under his body and trickle into the net. Platini scored a multitude of magnificent free-kicks that had bemused and bamboozled goalkeepers, yet for this one the Spanish ‘keeper merely gifted him the goal in the biggest game of his career.

Having finally got the goal they had pressed for, France grew in strength. First Lacombe’s shot was well saved by Arconada, then Giresse went close but fired just wide. On a rare foray forward the Spanish saw Santillana’s header from Francisco’s cross whistle narrowly over the bar. With around six minutes remaining Spain were thrown a lifeline. Le Roux, already booked for a foul on Santillana, was sent off after bringing down Sarabia. Still though they could not penetrate a packed French defence and the hosts looked to wind down the clock by any means possible. With most of the Spanish team camped in the French half, Jean Tigana burst through the Spanish midfield and played a superb through-ball for Bruno Balone to advance on goal and chip the onrushing Arconada. France’s victory was assured.

France’s triumph was one founded on the collective, a well organised and well rounded team which had a wonderful understanding of how their style of play fitted together.  As Alain Giresse reflected on quite what made the quartet so special: “It was a complementary midfield, with players who knew how to work, build, distribute, finish. And we liked having the ball.” Few will ever forget how Le Carré Magique set the summer of 1984 alight.

Yet even among a midfield (and the team as a whole) which was full of excellent players, one man stood out; Platini. When we remember the great individuals at great tournaments, thoughts so often centre on the World Cups of Garrincha in 1962, Pelé in 1970 and Maradona in 1986, but Platini’s 1984 stands comparison with any of them. 9 goals in 5 games tells part of the story, but even that astonishing statistic (the next highest scorers in the tournament managed just 2) sells him short. Dominique Rochetau perhaps summed it up best, “Michel could play with his eyes shut. I’ve never seen a player with such vision, a panoramic vision of the pitch”.

This article originally appeared on The Equaliser.

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