From Chelsea to Hollywood: the life and times of Frank Leboeuf

From Chelsea to Hollywood: the life and times of Frank Leboeuf

“He has pneumonia,” said the bald-headed surgeon, his eyes narrowing at the patient lying prone in the bed. “He’s on a life support machine. I’m not certain how long he will live.”

The year is 2014 and in the antiseptic halls of a fake Alpine hospital, a Swiss physician has just delivered devastating news. According to Frank Leboeuf, Eddie Redmayne hasn’t got long to live. Yes, that Frank Leboeuf, star of Chelsea, France and Hollywood United FC.

That Frank Leboeuf, the one member of an exclusive club to have won a World Cup and starred in an Oscar-nominated movie. He’s certainly come a long way. 

Frank Alain Leboeuf was born in Marseille on 22 January 1968. A precocious child, it became evident at an early age that he had a talent for performing, telling his mother aged four that he wanted to become an actor. Struggling to find an outlet for his creative talents, his father suggested he join his local football academy. Leboeuf, with little else to do in the sleepy fishing village of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, was happy to oblige.

Aged 16, he would be spotted by the newly named Sporting Club Toulon Var, quickly signed into their youth academy on the French Riveira. Toulon would surprise everybody by finishing fifth that year, in Ligue 1, before financial difficulties saw them forced to make substantial budget cuts. Leboeuf, along with a clutch of his teammates in the youth team, was released. 

A successful trial at Marseille followed before Leboeuf accepted an offer from Hyères FC in the third division. It was then that he decided to take his future into his own hands, placing an advertisement in France Football seeking a professional contract: ‘Player, 18 years old, 1m 83cm, 72kg, midfield, available, playing in the third division, seeks pro trainee place in first or second division’.

His ambition was admirable, if a little misguided. As the likes of Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain kept their powder dry, however, third division side CS Meaux were piqued. There he would work part-time in a clothing store, selling sportswear during the day and training with his semi-professional teammates in the evening.

Of course, a part-time contract in the Île-de-France did little to satisfy Leboeuf’s professional desires. He moved to Stade Lavallois in 1988, Les Tangos convinced by a video he had personally delivered to showcase his array of skills. 

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From the moment Leboeuf made his professional debut in August that year, it became obvious that he was an exceptional talent. A gangly libero with a penchant for taking penalties, his coiffed-mane seemed as comfortable quarterbacking a 40-yard pass as it was making a timely interception.    

It was no surprise, then, when Ligue 2 side Racing Strasbourg came calling in 1990. A mulleted Leboeuf would help the Alsatians secure promotion to the top division in 1992, courtesy of a playoff victory against his father’s old club Stade Rennais. 

Strasbourg would tear their way into an eighth-place finish that year, building on their early success by signing talents like Marc Keller and Aleksandr Mostovoi. Only PSG prevented them from a historic cup win in 1995, a solitary blot in a year in which they had managed to snare the Intertoto trophy. The success, however, wouldn’t last. 

In 1996, the Bosman ruling came into force. Strasbourg would not be exempt from its implications, as some of the club’s best players headed for the exit door. Chief amongst them was their silky central defender, who had been flirting with several clubs at home and abroad. Despite openly admitting his love for the city and the region, Leboeuf had been made aware of, in particular, concrete interest from the Premier league.

Euro 96 had just concluded, Terry Venables packing his bags after England’s painful semi-final exit against Germany. His replacement, Glenn Hoddle, had sent several scouts to Alsace during the course of the season, weighing up a move for Leboeuf before firming up a summer offer of £2.5 million. 

Leboeuf’s signature was just one in a swathe of impressive captures by the west London club, who also saw the arrival of Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli. Almost overnight they morphed from mid-table also-rans to cosmopolitan uber-hipsters, with nobody espousing their new-found swagger better than dreadlocked player-manager Ruud Gullit. 

For Leboeuf, however, English football would prove an eye-opening experience. “In all my life I have never seen such horrible training conditions,” he would later admit to FranceSoir in 2000. If the facilities were tough, the playing style was worse, Vinnie Jones gifting him a bruise on his head the size of a tennis ball during a 4-2 defeat at home to Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang

Despite his early wobbles, Leboeuf would improve commensurately alongside his rough and tumble partner in defence Steve Clarke, as Chelsea secured a fabulous sixth place finish in the league and captured the FA Cup. Leboeuf would combine defensive solidity with a keen eye for a raking pass, most notably in his assist for Vialli in the famous 2-1 win at Old Trafford in November. 

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More and more, the Frenchman was beginning to symbolise his team’s pluralistic identity. In a city changing rapidly with the onset of cheap air travel and increased immigration, Chelsea offered its own melting pot, a United Nations of footballing excellence who were confident of wresting control of the Premier League agenda.

With Gullit sacked in his sophomore year after disagreements with the board, Vialli took up the managerial reigns. Tore André Flo and Gustavo Poyet were added to an already star-laden squad, the reward being a place in the Champions League and double victories in the Coca-Cola and Cup Winners’ Cups. 

For Leboeuf, it was a season of consolidation, his foraging runs from centre-back garnering a strong rapport with the Chelsea fans. “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fucking where, Frank Leboeuf!” would become a familiar refrain from the Stamford Bridge crowd, the Frenchman making more apperances than any other player that year. With Chelsea’s greatest-ever league position secured, Leboeuf jetted home to France for the 1998 World Cup looking to top an impressive season. 

Included as a back-up to Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc, Leboeuf’s cameo in a dead-rubber against Denmark seemed destined to be his solitary contribution. That was until Slaven Bilić went to ground under an innocuous challenge from a distraught Laurent Blanc. Despite replays showing the contact was minimal, the Internazionale man was given the first red card of his career. 

Leboeuf hadn’t even seen the incident, chatting distractedly with substitute goalkeeper Lionel Charbonnier as matters unfolded. It was only when Aimé Jacquet told him to put on his kit that the cogs started whirring, the Chelsea defender performing manfully in the remaining 13 minutes to secure passage to the final in Paris.   

Leboeuf’s reward for his performance would be 90 minutes against the best striker in the world, in the biggest game in the world. Brazil’s Ronaldo had been his usual force of nature during the tournament, but reports of his ill-health began circulating on the day of the final. Undeterred, Leboeuf would man-mark the Brazilian out of the game in the Stade de France, Zinedine Zidane’s two headed goals securing France’s first World Cup in history. 

“We knew it was something important, but from our perspective we were just playing a football game,” Leboeuf recalled in a later interview with Goal. At least that’s how it seemed until the team bus turned onto the Champs Elyséé to a million multi-coloured faces singing their praises. If Leboeuf was thinking it couldn’t get any better than that, he was right. 

Fresh from his country’s awesome triumph, the Chelsea defender appeared on the BBC panel show They Think it’s All Over on 12 November 1998. What was ostensibly a comedy programme turned into a half-hour of awkward embarrassment for the 30-year-old, whose repeated admonishments of “I won the World Cup” attracted the ire of regulars Nick Hancock and Rory McGrath. By the end of the show, the tension had become unbearable, and Leboeuf found himself a figure of fun in the British media.   

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Leboeuf had already attracted quizzical sniggers from some commentators after becoming only the fourth footballer – after Pelé, Diego Maradona and Gary Lineker – to address the Oxford Union on 18 October 1998. This, coupled with his bi-monthly newspaper column in The Times, lent him an air of detachment and condescension that fit the ‘arrogant Frenchman’ stereotype just a bit too snugly. 

His performances on the pitch would continue unabated, however. Desailly had arrived in the summer from Milan and together they formed a Francophone wall which blocked out all comers on the way to an impressive third place finish in the Premiership. The next year saw a close-fought exit against Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final, but for Leboeuf, it was the beginning of the end. 

Vialli was sacked in September 2000, the reward for failing to win in the first 13 games of the season. His replacement, Claudio Ranieri, had spotted a rough diamond in the Chelsea academy and was quick to earmark the erstwhile World Cup winner’s place as a likely proving ground. As good as Leboeuf was, he was powerless to stop the advances of a certain John Terry, whose 26 appearances hinted strongly at a changing of the guard.

In truth, the rot had already started for Leboeuf, who had been implicated in the sacking of Vialli after complaining that the Italian “had problems with everybody” in the dressing room. With the Chelsea hierarchy open to offers and Leboeuf looking anxiously at his place for the 2002 World Cup, a transfer to Marseille was agreed in the summer of 2001. After over 200 appearances and 24 goals, he was leaving for a club he had sworn never to play for just a few years before. 

Football rarely grants a player the chance at a happy ending, but here it was, 15 years after being rejected by the Marseillais, that Leboeuf lined up in the Riviera to form a substantial partnership with the Belgian behemoth Daniel van Buyten. After leading an average OM side to third place in Ligue 1 in 2003, Leboeuf sought out a comfortable retirement in the Middle East, joining fellow old hands Stefan Effenberg and Gabriel Batitusta for a final payday with Al-Sadd and Al-Wakrah. 

Retiring from the game proves difficult for most footballers, but it proved doubly so for Leboeuf, whose exit in 2005 coincided with a divorce and the death of his father. 

After a difficult few years in which he admitted suffering from depression, he set about pursuing his first love, flying to Los Angeles to take acting classes at the prestigious Lee Strasberg institute. Leboeuf had already starred alongside Harvey Keitel in a movie whilst still a player at Chelsea in 2001, but he nevertheless committed to spending two years learning his craft in the relative anonymity of the sunshine state. 

When he wasn’t busy poking holes in Brecht’s fourth wall, Leboeuf lined up alongside Jason Statham and Woody Harrelson for Hollywood United FC, an amateur team consisting of A-list actors and movie producers. After a few years playing minor film roles, Leboeuf was given his big break in 2014, starring in the aforementioned Oscar-winner The Theory of Everything. These days he combines appearances on stage and screen with the football studio, appearing as a smooth-talking pundit for Téléfoot and ESPN amongst others. 

“I’m very pleased and I’m very fortunate,” he purred to the BBC’s Colin Patterson in 2014. When asked if he would swap his World Cup winner’s medal for an Academy Award, he responded with a typically nonchalant shrug. “Why ask me to swap when I can have both?”

By Christopher Weir  @chrisw45

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