“I became an unlikely hero,” was the rather understated way that Jean-François Domergue described the biggest day of his football career. Domergue’s stint in France’s national team may have been brief, but it was certainly significant. He may have only played nine times for Les Bleus but when his fleeting opportunity arose during the summer of 1984, he grasped it with both hands and wrote his name into French footballing folklore.
France were hosts and favourites for the 1984 European Championship, a team of supreme talent led by one of the best of his generation, the elegant and prolific Michel Platini. It was a side that had come within a whisker of the World Cup final two years previously, delighting fans and neutrals alike with their flair and panache. With the majestic midfield of Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernández, this was a team about to reach their pinnacle, aiming to seize their destiny in their home tournament.
Domergue was one of the more unheralded members of the squad. He was the back-up left-back, the understudy to the vastly experienced Manuel Amoros, but he would play a decisive role in the tournament and France’s ultimate success that summer. Without Domergue, for all the goals plundered by Platini, the star of the tournament, France would not have achieved their crowning glory. His contribution was as unlikely as it was decisive, while even his inclusion in the squad for the tournament seemed improbable.
Domergue was an elegant, foraging left-back known for his dynamic runs. His career began with his hometown team Bordeaux, where he worked his way through the youth ranks and into the first-team by the mid-1970s. In an era when this prominent French club was in the midst of a tumultuous downturn in their fortunes, Domergue made his first steps in the professional game in a side generally stuck in the lower reaches of Ligue 1.
While their fortunes oscillated between average and mediocre, clinging on to their top-flight status by the skin of their teeth on occasion, for Domergue it was the ideal grounding for his career. He would play alongside the diminutive dynamo that was Giresse in Bordeaux, who was the pivot around which the whole team operated.
While Giresse remained at Bordeaux for the majority of his career, Domergue moved elsewhere. As Bordeaux’s fortunes rose, so Domergue’s opportunities diminished as new arrivals came in, leaving him shuffled out of the side. He moved on to Lille and then Lyon, where he began to really make his mark. It was another struggling team but Domergue was one of their few bright sparks in the 1982/83 season. His form earned him a more prestigious transfer to Toulouse in the summer of 1983, a move which pushed him to further prominence.
International recognition had seemed an unlikely aim prior to that stint in Toulouse, but as the French squad took shape ahead of the Euros, Domergue earned a place in the pre-tournament gatherings. His debut came in the second half of a friendly match with West Germany in Strasbourg in April 1984, just a matter of weeks before the final squad would be named. This appearance may have been Domergue’s only taste of international action, but in looking assured in defence up against a strong German forward line, it was enough to earn him a place in the squad for the Euros as a backup. His versatility was key to his inclusion, having the ability to play as part of a three-man central defence or as a marauding full-back.
This adaptability earned Domergue a place on the five-man bench for France’s opening match of the tournament against Denmark in the Parc des Princes. With the match very much in the balance between two talented sides, Domergue came on around the hour mark for the injured Yvon Le Roux.
Platini scored the first of his nine Euro 84 goals late in the day to edge France to a 1-0 win, but an even more dramatic event would have a significant impact on Domergue, and his fortunes in the tournament. In the 887th minute Manuel Amoros, the classy French defender, fell foul to both a tough Jesper Olsen challenge and a rush of blood to the head. Taking exception to Olsen’s challenge, Amoros hurled the ball at the Danish winger and then planted a head-butt on him. His red card was as deserved as it was certain, with a three-game suspension thrown in for good measure.
Amoros’ self-inflicted misfortune was Domergue’s gain. His suspension, combined with the knee injury to Le Roux, led to Domergue’s first international start for France in the next group match against Belgium; only his third international cap.
He took his place in what was now a three-man defence, with Maxime Bossis as the sweeper behind Domergue and Patrick Battiston. This was partly through necessity given their depleted defensive resources, but also to take better advantage of the wonderful array of attacking talent at France’s disposal. It was a minor tactical tweak but it was an effective one. France beat Belgium 5-0 in their next match before coming from behind to trump Yugoslavia and secure top spot in the group.
Le Roux came back into the team for the semi-final with Portugal, but Domergue kept his place on the left-side as France reverted to four at the back for this crucial clash in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome. It would be a special day for Domergue. It was his 27th birthday but, more importantly, in something of a foreshadowing of what would happen 14 years later in another French semi-final in the 1998 World Cup, he would emerge as an unlikely hero. In 1998 Lillian Thuram famously scored his only two international goals to secure victory and a passage to a major tournament final. In 1984, Domergue did precisely the same.
Midway through the first half of what would become one of the great international tournament matches, France were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Portugal penalty area. To most observers Platini, having scored seven goals in the tournament already, was expected to take it. Paulo Bento in the Portugal goal surely anticipated the same. “But I saw a little opening and asked Michel if I could hit it,” explained Domergue after the match. Platini gave his approval and Domergue stepped up to seize his moment. He hit a thumping shot with the outside of his left foot, bringing barely a reaction from the stunned Bento.
Domergue’s bursts down the left flank would be a recurring feature of the repeated Les Bleus efforts to enhance their lead. Despite the numerous chances created, though, France were unable to add to their slender advantage. Late in the game, Portugal drew level through Jordão, taking the match into extra-time. When the same player volleyed Portugal into the lead early in the additional period, France were on the ropes. Far from their earlier position of comfort, they were left clinging on as their dream of a maiden international trophy looked to be slipping away. “It was as if our whole world was falling in,” said Domergue to the Guardian. “But we sort of said to each other: ‘if we’re going to do anything, now is the time to do it. And everyone just went for it.”
Domergue would again be the central character in the dramatically late French revival. Six minutes from the end of extra-time, advancing on the left once again, he crossed for Le Roux, who had also come forward from the back in those desperate last moments. Le Roux’s shot was blocked but the ball fell to Platini. Before he could pull the trigger, though, he was quickly challenged. As the ball ran loose, Domergue surged into the box and slammed it into the roof of the net. France were back level at 2-2, with both goals coming from their penetrative left-back.
Moments later, in the final minute of the match, Platini sealed a dramatic late victory, and with it their place in the final. Four days later, France beat Spain 2-0 to win the trophy in what Domergue recalled as a tough match in which Les Bleus were struggling under the burden of expectation.
This would be the peak for all of the France squad, not just for Domergue. But for him it was the culmination of a brief flirtation with the international game. For all his quality and his contribution in the victory, there would be no significant prolonged spell in the national set-up. He would only win four more caps after Euro 84, bringing his career total to just nine.
Domergue would never score again for his country. The two goals he did register, though, sit proudly amongst some of the most significant in French footballing history. Fortunate twists of fate had given him his brief opportunity and he seized it with relish, sealing his place as the unlikely hero of the European Championship winners of 1984.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams