How Jean-Pierre Papin became one of the greatest goalscorers in French football history

How Jean-Pierre Papin became one of the greatest goalscorers in French football history

More than 300 goals in 500 games for club and country, six league titles, a Champions League winners medal and a Ballan d’Or cemented Jean-Pierre Papin as one of the greatest French players of all-time, up there in the realms of Platini and Zidane. But unlike those great creators, Papin’s currency was in goals.

“Whether you like it or not, I’m going to be a professional footballer,” was the response a 13-year-old Papin gave his mum when she asked him what he wanted to be when he was older. It’s the dream for all kids growing up playing the game, but for Papin it was already a self-assured belief. Just as real as working hard at school to become a lawyer – the profession his mother wanted for him. Needless to say she wasn’t best pleased, especially as his leg had been in plaster for the last 14 months following a serious car accident. 

He’d been hit by a car going over 60mph and was lucky to have escaped with only a broken leg. In an interview with L’Équipe, he reflects on that accident: “It was a true miracle, I wasn’t meant to play football again after that.” His determination and drive to succeed as a footballer was clearer than ever.

The ensuing years saw Papin play for several sides as a junior and then as a semi-professional, but it wasn’t until he was 21 that his professional career started, an ascent that was to become as rapid as his acceleration away from clambering opposition defenders. Just two years later he’d be netting for France in a World Cup and, five years after that, be awarded the Ballon d’Or.

His pro contract was with Ligue 2 side Valenciennes, where he spent one season and scored a respectable 16 times in 35 games. It wasn’t a season-defining haul but it was enough to secure a move to the Belgium top flight with Bruges, largely due to Papin scoring 11 goals in the 12 games that the Belgian scouts watched. The contract was soon in the post. The goals he went on to score the following season in Belgium – 32 in 43 appearances – were enough to change things irrevocably, and the Papin goal machine was motoring.

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From there he was a surprise call-up to the France World Cup squad for Mexico 86. He had played for the under-23s but it was still very much unexpected and was a contentious selection in France; a little-known player plying his trade in Belgium given such a chance took many by surprise.

It was proved to be warranted, though, as Papin netted twice in the three games he played, his second coming against Belgium in the playoff to finish third overall. He had played alongside giants of the French game like Michel Platini and Jean Tigana and was given an invaluable insight into what was needed to progress to the next level.

The next phase in his career truly defined the man as a prolific striker. His sole objective after the World Cup was to get a move back to his homeland, and he signed a pre-contract agreement with Monaco. However, controversial Marseille chairman Bernard Tapie was able to tap him up after those initial agreements with their Mediterranean neighbours.

Papin believed in the “project” Tapie spoke of and there was also some performance-related pay that swayed his decision. As a result, by the late summer of ’86, Papin was wearing the famous white and sky blue of Marseille. What followed were six years that saw the most outstanding goal tallies recorded in Ligue 1: 16, 23, 33, 38, 36, 38. Indeed, those final four years saw the Frenchman firmly regarded as one of Europe’s most lethal marksmen.

As a young player coming from an inferior league, Papin was under increased scrutiny irrespective of his efforts in Mexico, such was the pressure in Marseille. Critics were quick to write him off, but he describes his first year as a “one of adaptation” – and the rewards were spectacular for player and club. In the modern game, he may not have been given the time he needed to flourish.

For five seasons running he was their top goalscorer, and although his attributes – small, quick and lethal – made him perfectly equipped to be a poacher, he was more than just that. He scored from all angles, was particularly good at exposing the last defender with his pace and ruthless finishing, and he had an uncanny knack for burying spectacular volleys, which became known as La Papinade.

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It was during his time in Marseille that the term was coined, referring to his ability to react instinctively to a ball in the air. If you’ve not seen any of his volleys, it’s the one you attempted as a kid at the park; part scissor-kick, part volley. While the rest of us shanked them or missed them altogether, Papin would frequently react quickest to smash them in. It was something of a trademark.

But was this spontaneity simply a gift for finding the back of the net or the result of hours of hard work? In an interview for Lavoixdunord, Papin explains: “I had a talent for scoring, but without the work it would’ve counted for nothing.” He adds, with an air of arrogance vital for great goalscorers, on SoFoot: “When I found myself in front of goal, it was never in doubt, it’s what I was doing every day in training hundreds of times. It became natural.”

That feeling of goals becoming natural is the kind of confidence and self-assurance that separates the great strikers from the good ones. His training was clearly fundamental but Papin’s mentality helped him to become the complete package, something that would result in him being awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1991.

Papin had scored 36 goals and had reached the Champions League final with Marseille that season, so it wasn’t a surprise when he pipped Lothar Matthäus to the award – but what was a surprise was dedicating it to reserve goalkeeper Alain Casanova: “I stayed long after training to practice my ranges, and every day for three years Alain accepted to go in goal. He was our reserve keeper and my personal trainer. But above everything he was a friend, and that’s the most important thing.”

His ability to acknowledge the benefits others had on his game no doubt helped him to be an effective captain for club and country. Recognising that his form improved in correlation with the Marseille team strengthening year on year meant he maintained a team-centric approach regardless of the number of goals he scored and selfish nature of his position on the pitch.

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Even the greatest of strikers are indebted to those who provide the service, and in another interview for SoFoot, he explains that Chris Waddle was perhaps the player he enjoyed playing with most: “We loved to play together … he understood me the most, our connection started as soon as he arrived, no one could speak English and he stayed with me for a couple of months. That feeling was evident on the pitch.”

Watching old footage of their connection on the pitch is highly enjoyable for the purist; that gliding finesse of Waddle, dribbling his way forward, mullet blowing in the wind, and playing the inevitable deft pass to Papin, for the quick and ruthless number 9 to power home.

Those six seasons with Marseille proved to be Papin’s pinnacle and it was a mixed bag thereafter. He went on to win the Champions League and two Scudetti with AC Milan, as well as the UEFA Cup with Bayern Munich, but injuries and team selection didn’t see him settle into any kind of form or show his true potential for either club. 

However, he did show glimpses at Milan. He arrived with great expectations, a £10m world-record fee proof enough that Milan were serious about Papin partnering Marco van Basten in attack – a frightening prospect for any defence at the time. In his first season, he scored 13 times in 22 Serie A appearances, the exact same number Van Basten scored, albeit with seven more games played. However, the following season, he scored only five league goals in 18 appearances – but those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Milan that season were not a team set up to accommodate swashbuckling poacher, and manager Fabio Capello had made sure of that. The Rossoneri won the league that year with a mere 36 goals in 34 games, most coming from Daniele Massaro who notched 11 times. Papin was actually second highest goalscorer with five, which puts his number into perspective. Incredibly, Massaro was only 14th in the race for the Capocannoniere.

Papin later reflected on playing under Capello: “If Capello’s system looks boring from the stands, it’s even worse to play in.” The defensive nature of Milan’s approach made Papin’s decision to move on an easy one.

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He signed for Bayern Munich for £2m, his steep drop in transfer fee reflecting both his loss in form and stature. The following two seasons in Bavaria would only further this trend in his value as he was ravaged by injury and only managed six goals in total, leaving Germany as one of the club’s most underwhelming signings of the time.

Poor timing was an unfortunate theme that ran through the latter part of Papin’s career, but nothing compared to how it affected his international career. The “cursed generation” of French football from 1984 to 1998 unfortunately spanned the entirety of Papin’s career. It was a turbulent and toxic period in French football that saw them fail to qualify for Euro 88 and two World Cups, in 1990 and 1994 – this at a time when Papin was at the peak of his powers.

The season before Euro 88, Papin scored 23 goals and just two seasons later, before the 1990 World Cup, he’d netted 38 times, the kind of form deserving of the world stage. This clearly didn’t hinder his personal performances for his country as he scored twice in three games at Euro 92 in Sweden. More significant still was his overall goal ratio for Les Bleus: he scored 30 times in 54 games, which is a considerably better ratio than both Karim Benzema and Thierry Henry.

That experience of playing and scoring in a World Cup at the age of 23 was the perfect preparation for future tournaments; it’s just such a shame that his chance never came again. The futility of the situation understandably makes Papin reflect on those missed qualification games. When asked what game he’d like to replay, Papin responds frankly: “France-Bulgaria. No point in explaining why.”

Jean-Pierre Papin’s legend was really established in his six years at Marseille, with 184 goals, five top-scorer awards, four Ligue 1 titles, a Coupe de France, and a Champions League final. His kindred relationship with Marseille was clearest the season he finally left and met them in the European Cup final as an AC Milan player. He watched most of the game from the bench and wasn’t able to make an impact when he did come on. 

What proved most telling was his reaction when the whistle went at the end of the game. As a jubilant Marseille bench charged the field, an emotional Bernard Tapie approached Papin and donned a big celebratory smile whilst hugging him. He’s since commented that in that moment, he had totally forgotten he was an opposition player, and was just happy for his old club and teammates. It’s a mark of the brilliance he enjoyed at the Vélodrome.

By Patrick Rowhan

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