JEAN-FRANÇOIS LARIOS: laconically stylish footballer, indomitable presence and effortlessly cool in possession of the ball. An excellent penalty taker, he was the free moving but often deep-lying springboard of the late 1970s and early-80s AS Saint-Étienne midfield who allowed team-mates Johnny Rep and Michel Platini to maraud forward in search of goals at will.
A man blessed with the same brand of long flowing hair and striking good looks that David Ginola would later take as his own style. Larios was the man that might have been the difference between France reaching the 1982 World Cup final and ultimately not doing so.
The story of the 1982 World Cup semi-final between France and West Germany has been told and retold a million times and, as one of the greatest games to have ever taken place that is completely understandable, yet it’s between the lines of that encounter and period of time that Larios resides. Had he been physically involved in the game against West Germany then France might well have hung on to the 3-1 lead they shot into during the first eight minutes of extra-time, or had they still regressed to the eventual 3-3 score line that took the game to penalties then France might have at least had their best penalty taker available for the shoot-out.
Larios signed for Saint-Étienne in 1973 at the age of 17; his debut came shortly before the end of the 1974-75 title winning campaign. Despite half a dozen appearances and a couple of goals during the successful defence of their title, Larios missed out a place on the bench at Hampden Park for the 1976 European Cup Final, watching on helplessly instead from the stands as Les Verts were denied on multiple occasions by the square goalposts in Glasgow, going down 1-0 as Bayern Munich clinched their third successive European Cup in a game that arguably deserved to go Saint-Étienne’s way.
Larios was afforded further game time the following season, but 1976-77 was essentially another season on the vague periphery, although it did come with a French Cup winner’s medal, procured as an unused substitute in a 2-1 win during the final against Stade de Reims at the Parc des Princes. He was also a close witness from his vantage point on the bench for both legs of their iconic 1977 European Cup quarter-final encounter with Liverpool.
As highly regarded as he was by his coach Robert Herbin, Larios was left in a difficult position in the summer of 1977. About to turn 21, he was ready for a regular place in the Saint-Étienne starting line-up, however it was a starting line-up that didn’t have room for him yet, with Dominique Bathenay standing between Larios and a regular place in the side. Larios needed to play week in, week out but the club couldn’t give him that for 1977-78, yet neither did they want to sell him. The compromise was that Larios was allowed to leave the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for a season long loan with Bastia. The temporary move to Corsica was the making of Larios.
The Frenchman was pivotal to Bastia’s unexpected run to the 1978 UEFA Cup final. The Corsican club had clinched their place in European club competition with a third place finish in 1977 that was arguably attained playing to a style beyond their expected footballing means. They’d finished two positions higher than Saint-Étienne and had edged out Nancy – and Platini – for their hard earned UEFA Cup berth.
Bastia was the perfect place for Larios to acclimatise to playing at a high level on a weekly basis, and he helped form a formidable midfield with Charles Orlanducci that revolved around the tragic playmaker Claude Papi. Papi, a Bastia player for the entirety of his career, sadly died in 1983 aged just 33.
The arrival of Larios at Bastia helped offset the loss of the electric wing-play of Dragan Džajić, who in just two seasons at the club had done so much to help build the foundations that Bastia used to propel them on their UEFA Cup odyssey. Another ace remained up coach Pierre Cahuzac’s sleeve, however, in the not inconsiderable shape of Johnny Rep, who had arrived at the club from Valencia the very same summer as Larios. Rep and Larios struck up an immediate on pitch chemistry to compliment the playmaking puppetry of Papi. Bastia had struck creative gold and they ran to another impressive league placing, finishing in fifth.
Europe proved to be a heavy distraction for the Turchini. The hurdles of Sporting Lisbon, Newcastle, Torino, Carl Zeiss Jena and Grasshoppers Zürich were all overcome on the way to reaching the two-legged final against PSV Eindhoven. The third round success over Torino was particularly impressive; Bastia’s 3-2 victory in the second leg at the Stadio Comunale in Turin was achieved in front of a capacity attendance of 70,000.
Bastia were 2-1 up from the first leg, but faced a Torino side that were unbeaten on home soil for two years and had been Serie A champions in 1976. Larios opened the scoring with a 20-yard volley, but the great Francesco Graziani struck twice for Torino to level on aggregate; yet rather than wilt under the pressure Bastia reclaimed the advantage just three minutes later. Abdelkrim Merry edged Bastia ahead, and in the process left Torino needing to score twice. Merry scored again with 25 minutes to go – the killer blow. Bastia cruised past Carl Zeiss Jena in the quarter-finals, but laboured nervously in the semi-finals against Grasshoppers Zürich, going down 2-3 in the first leg in Switzerland before winning 1-0 at home, with Papi scoring the goal that saw Bastia through to the final on the away goals rule.
The first leg of the final took place at Bastia’s intimate and atmospheric Stade Armand Cesari, a stadium which teamed aesthetic charm with countless health and safety issues; a decaying stadium that was eventually the scene of the tragic deaths of 18 spectators at a 1992 French Cup semi-final between Bastia and Marseille when a temporary stand collapsed.
At the 1978 UEFA Cup final first leg, the official attendance of 15,000 is widely believed to have been surpassed. On a waterlogged pitch after a massive deluge of rain, and despite a startlingly passionate and hostile atmosphere being generated by those inside the stadium which inspired Larios and his teammates to a dominant display in treacherous conditions, the game frustratingly ended 0-0. A fortnight later in Eindhoven at the Phillips Stadion, and in perfect conditions, Bastia slipped to a 3-0 defeat. It was a fantastic run that just fell at the last hurdle.
Larios’s coach at Saint-Étienne had kept a keen eye on his progress at Bastia. Herbin wouldn’t allow Larios to assist any of his rivals again and Bathenay, the man that had kept Larios out of the side now made way for his return. Herbin was confident enough to sell Bathenay to Paris Saint-Germain, despite the outgoing midfielder having gone to the World Cup finals in Argentina and been selected to play in two of the three games France played. Larios, despite missing out on a place in the squad to Bathenay, would make his first appearance in the French national side before the end of the year.
Herbin had been impressed with the way Larios had linked with Rep in his season at Bastia, where the two of them had orbited the playmaking talents of Papi to great effect. Saint-Étienne ended the 1978-79 season third in what had been a three horse race for the title, a title race that would have actually gone Saint-Étienne’s way had it been played in the era of three points for a win.
Herbin looked to create his own version of the Bastia system in the summer of 1979, signing Rep to again link with Larios, and taking Platini from Nancy to play a roaming version of the role Papi had been deployed in at Bastia. Their first season together in 1979-80 brought another third place finish but, despite the disappointment of missing out on the title again, the foundations has been laid. The next season saw Larios voted Player of the Year ahead of Platini, while enquiries from both Real Madrid and Barcelona about purchasing Larios were kept from the star.
It was the season that the Larios, Platini and Rep-powered Saint-Étienne shined brightest. They were beaten just four times on their way to clinching the title. The domestic double appeared to be on when Les Verts reached the French Cup final; their opponents almost hand selected by fate itself were Bastia. Larios missed the final through injury, as did his former Bastia team-mate Papi, on the day the Corsican club finally won their first and to date only major trophy, the legendary Roger Milla scoring the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory.
The club were also well on course for a shot at European success in the UEFA Cup having destroyed Hamburg in the last-16, only for them to be stunned themselves in the quarter-finals by a rampant Ipswich Town, who walked away from the first leg at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard with a 4-1 win.
The southerners had reached their zenith, and 1981-82 was all about what might have been as far as Larios and Platini were concerned at both club and international level. Saint-Étienne missed out on retaining their title by just one point, while they also reached the French Cup final again and, in a dramatic game against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as, with one hand on the trophy, they conceded an equaliser in the last minute of extra-time, scored by the former Saint-Étienne hero Dominique Rocheteau and went on to lose via penalties.
While Saint-Étienne managed to hold things together on the pitch effectively enough it was a different matter behind the scenes’ an unbridgeable rift appeared between Larios and his once close friend Platini, with rumours of an affair between Larios and Platini’s wife Chantelle bubbling to the surface and refusing to go away. The feud escalated and cast a shadow over not just the club’s attempts at the 1982 domestic double, but also the looming World Cup finals in Spain where both players were expected to play pivotal roles for the French national team.
Tensions within a squad of players that predominantly sided with Platini meant that wouldn’t be the case for Larios, however. Both players took to the field in Bilbao for France’s opening game of the tournament against England. France lost 3-1 that day in a game that was a closer encounter than the score-line suggests.
Legend has it that Platini handed the French coach Michel Hidalgo a ‘him or me’ ultimatum after the England game, while the other version of is that Larios sacrificed himself for the good of squad unity. Either way, Larios left the squad and headed to Barcelona for transfer negotiations. Larios would eventually return to the squad, but was involved only in the third place play-off defeat to Poland, a game that Platini perhaps tellingly didn’t appear in, a game that also proved to be the last time Larios would play for his national side.
The recriminations back in France after the finals saw Larios retire from international football with immediate effect, while Platini left Saint-Étienne for a lucrative move to Juventus and, at international level, on towards his date with destiny as the classic French hero at their glorious Euro ‘84 success. Larios, in comparison, saw his own big money move to one of the La Liga giants fall through, with Les Verts unwilling to lose both Larios and Platini simultaneously.
Larios eventually got his move to Spain in 1983 with Madrid rather than Barcelona being the city he headed to, although the destination Atlético instead of Real. Misfortune continued to follow Larios, however, as before he could take to the field for his debut he suffered a serious knee injury in training. It was an injury that would linger for the remainder of his career. A row between Larios and Atlético ensued as he went against club wishes that he be treated for the injury in Madrid, instead returning to France. He would never get to make his debut for Atlético as ill feeling between club and player escalated.
A deal was stuck with Neuchatel Xamax for the transfer of Larios in 1984, but with the player regaining his fitness and Atlético unwilling to field him, Larios headed to the NASL and Montreal Manic for a short spell before his move to Switzerland. It was the start of a nomadic existence that took in seven different clubs in just five years after leaving France, none of which he remained with for more than a season.
In 1988, Larios brought his career to an end. Designs on a coaching career never took off as many doors remained closed to him, instead eventually becoming a high profile football agent, although again falling foul of the authorities.
Larios had a double-sided career of early high achievement with seemingly the world at his feet, and a second half of a career that was spent at the other end of the spectrum, swimming against a tide of misfortune that appears to have been partially brought on by him himself. Everyone knows the name Michel Platini, but the name of Jean-François Larios is widely forgotten outside of France. Many believe it should never have been that way.
By Steven Scragg. Follow @Scraggy_74