Enzo Francescoli: the prince of Uruguay who inspired a young Zidane

Enzo Francescoli: the prince of Uruguay who inspired a young Zidane

The waif-like figure seemed to float across the ground, his toes barely kissing the lush green turf beneath his feet. An imperceptible external distraction had caused him to change direction. It was a cue that went unnoticed by mere mortals but resulted in the man in white receiving the ball in a seemingly unnatural and unbalanced position. Yet, in the blink of an eye, the slender limbs had unfurled and were accelerating away, leaving three Danish players momentarily frozen in time.

The official FIFA film of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico plays a segment where the camera focuses solely on the Uruguay number 10. Michael Caine’s dulcet tones try to describe the movement and profile of the player, but if you watch the footage without any sound, dressed head to toe in white, the ethereal being’s movements are akin to those of a prima ballerina. His movement during this piece of film is so graceful yet powerful, so quick yet thoughtful, so controlled yet spontaneous.

The 1986 World Cup arguably possessed the greatest collection of fantasistis – players who wore the number 10 shirt and played the game in a style by which the shirt number is defined. Argentina possessed the maverick Diego Maradona; Brazil had the technically perfect Zico; France were orchestrated by the self-assured Michel Platini; Denmark were prompted by the mercurial Preben Elkjær; while Uruguay pinned all their hopes on the brilliant Enzo Francescoli.

Enzo Francescoli was born in Montevideo in 1961, some 11 years after Uruguay’s national team had secured their most memorable World Cup victory. Uruguay stole the Jules Rimet trophy from host nation’s Brazil’s grasp in front of 200,000 partisan fans in the Maracanã, with two goals in the last 25 minutes of the final securing a 2-1 victory. Brought up on tales of football from Uruguay’s golden age, Francescoli was obsessed with football as a youngster and showed an immediate aptitude for the beautiful game.

His slight build, which would be a great advantage to Francescoli throughout his professional career, initially put doubts in the minds of potential suitors for the young man. Whilst studying at a Salesian school, Francescoli would have trials at Peñarol and River Plate in Argentina. The commonly held perception is that both teams refused to sign him due to his physique, but in a 2008 interview, Francescoli discusses these rumours and states that while his perceived frailty was discussed, it was “his decision” not to return for a second trial on both occasions, instead preferring to stay with his high school team who were very successful in their own right, winning five championships in a row.

Eventually, Francescoli made his choice. In the final year of high school, the Uruguayan joined the professional ranks when he signed for Montevideo Wanderers. Having been a well-known name in his neighbourhood, the local professional side came calling and, alongside a friend from school in Gustavo Perdomo, Francescoli took his first tentative steps into the professional ranks.

It was during his time at Wanderers that the nickname El Príncipe (The Prince) was given to Francescoli. It was a name that would stay with him throughout his career and was bestowed upon him by former Wanderers’ player Hannibal Ciocca, who thought that the name was appropriate for a player who displayed such elegance and grace on the pitch.

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Francescoli also freely admitted that the on-pitch gum chewing with which he was synonymous started during his early Wanderers career to avoid his mouth drying out. Conversely, so did his penchant for cigarettes – again a blasé acceptance by Francescoli that the five or six that he smoked each day did not harm his professional career.

Francescoli’s debut season saw the youngster help Wanderers to a second-place finish in the league, their highest position since winning the title in 1931. Francescoli featured in 26 league games, scoring three goals. The following season, Wanderers finished third, with Francescoli a regular in the side. Despite playing 22 league games, his goal tally for this second season increased to seven. Francescoli’s third and final season with the Montevideo side enhanced his already growing reputation, with the maestro scoring 10 goals in 26 league games.

During this tentative development stage of his career, Francescoli was a member of the Uruguay under-20 side, which won the South American Under-20 Championship. A further three appearances in the 1981 FIFA World Youth Championships drew attention from a wider audience to the emerging career of this most naturally gifted footballer.

In 1982, during his final season with Wanderers, Francescoli made his Copa Libertadores debut, as well as his senior international debut for La Celeste. It would be the start of an international career which would lead to the captaincy, as well as comparison with players who made up the greatest era for the number 10 position. Whilst World Cup success was destined never to materialise, Copa América success would be constant and immediate.

The 1983 Copa América would see the name of Enzo Francescoli become synonymous with Uruguayan success. Uruguay topped their group and progressed serenely to the two-legged final against Brazil. A 2-0 victory in Montevideo saw Francescoli open the scoring for La Celeste. A 1-1 draw in the second leg was enough to give Uruguay Copa success. On a personal level, the Prince was named the Player of the Tournament at just 21.

Francescoli’s head-turning performances for club and country inevitably led to the big boys of South American football to come calling. River, the team Francescoli opted to ignore as a 16-year-old, once again tried to secure the services of this emerging talent. After agreeing a $310,000 transfer fee, El Príncipe was making his way across the River Plate and beginning a love affair with the team from the red-half of Buenos Aries.

Despite a relatively low-key beginning to his club career in Argentina, which saw the Uruguayan fall victim to River’s staccato selection policy, the midfielder was crowned as the 1984 South American Player of the Year. The following year finally saw the fulfilment of potential that had been evident since his professional debut. Francescoli scored 29 goals to become the Primera División’s top scorer. Coupled with this, he became the first non-national to win the Argentine Player of the Year award.

The 1985/86 season saw the diminutive forward become the league’s leading scorer for the second time. This time his goals helped to seal the title for River. Francescoli’s influence was never more evident than in the final league game of the season, which saw Los Millonarios win 5-4 and El Príncipe scoring twice, including a by-now trademark bicycle kick.

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Not only had Francescoli made an indelible impression on the Argentine domestic scene, but 1986 saw him lead his country at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. Finally, the opportunity to compare this most elegant of footballer to the best in the world had arrived.

Uruguay’s reputation by the end of the tournament was one of brutality, coupled with an unwanted record of the quickest-ever recorded sending off in a World Cup match as José Alberto Batista was dismissed after 56 seconds against Scotland. Despite a comprehensive 6-1 defeat to the mercurial Danes, Uruguay still qualified for the knockout stages only to lose to rivals and eventual champions Argentina. Despite the violence and defeats, Francescoli was arguably the only Uruguayan to emerge from the tournament with their reputation intact.

Just prior to the tournament, Francescoli made the decision to leave South America and head to Europe after signing for Racing Club Paris, who had just been promoted to Ligue 1. In his first season, the Uruguayan guided his club to a respectable 13th-place finish as Le Prince carried his goal-scoring form across the Atlantic, finishing as the Ligue 1 top scorer with 14 goals.

On the international stage, La Celeste automatically qualified for the semi-finals as holders for the 1987 Copa América. Francescoli was desperate to banish the memories of the 1986 World Cup and the semi-final saw a rematch with the reigning world champions, including Maradona. Playing in his previous place of employment, Uruguay dispatched Argentina 1-0 at River Plate’s El Monumental. Another 1-0 victory in the final against Chile cemented Francescoli’s importance to La Celeste as he secured back-to-back Copa titles.

Le Prince stayed with Racing Club Paris until the end of the 1989 season, despite an offer coming in from Juventus during the 1987/88 season, who saw Francescoli as a ready-made replacement for Platini. The Uruguayan refused the approach from Turin’s Old Lady and, as a final gift to the Parisian club, he helped them avoid relegation in his final season.

Francescoli had been the French club’s leading scorer in each of the three seasons. In 1989, an offer from French giants Marseille proved too tempting. Francescoli would move to the south of France where he would, at the time unknowingly, have a life-changing effect on a future French superstar.

Francescoli only played for one year in Marseille, but it was a season of success as the languid, effortless style of the Uruguayan was symbiotic of the way Les Olympiens played the game. During his singular season in the south, Francescoli scored 11 goals, helping to secure the Ligue 1 title, as well as just falling short in the European Cup after a semi-final defeat to Benfica on away goals. The attacking threat of Jean Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle and Enzo Francescoli caught the imagination and attention of all Europe.

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During his sojourn at the Stade Vélodrome, Francescoli would leave an indelible imprint on a young Marseille fan. Future World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane was enthralled by the Uruguayan, later admitting to modelling his own playing style on the irrefutable playmaker, recalling: “He was my favourite player and I used to hang around to watch him train.” The French maestro would also name his first son after the Uruguayan superstar. As a youngster, Zidane had found a kindred spirit, a blueprint for how to play the game.

At the end of his season in Marseille, Francescoli once again led La Celeste into a World Cup finals. Francescoli’s exploits at various Copa América tournaments had raised expectations and the scene was set for the Uruguayan to emphasise his talents at the highest level, on the most public of stages. Alas, only a 91st-minute winner against South Korea in the final group game saw Uruguay just manage progression to the knockout stages. Again, that was as far as La Celeste would go, as they appeared to once again freeze on the big occasion, losing 2-0 to hosts Italy.

Ironically Italy was to be Francescoli’s next destination as he signed for Serie A side Cagliari. This time, El Príncipe would be joined by fellow Uruguayans Daniel Fonseca and José Oscar Herrera at the Stadio Sant’Elia. Francescoli was not afforded the attacking role that he had embraced to great effect for his previous clubs, playing in a system that negated Francescoli’s spontaneous playing style. No longer was the fleet-footed playmaker encouraged to provide attacking inspiration; the Rossoblu deployed Francescoli as a deep-lying playmaker and, as a consequence, his goal output suffered.

During his three seasons at Cagliari, Francescoli scored 17 goals in 98 appearances. To a neutral observer, this ratio would appear to be a moderate return for a player viewed by many as one of the world’s best. However, the Sardinians embraced Francescoli and, despite his goal-scoring return not reaching the expected levels, his performances endeared him to the Cagliari fans. Two seasons of mid-table mediocrity were replaced by a final season of relative success. Finishing sixth in Serie A and securing a UEFA Cup place was more than enough to see Francescoli selected in Cagliari’s greatest ever XI.

One final season in Europe saw the Uruguayan ply his trade with Torino. Again, Francescoli was employed in a deeper role, nullifying his goal-scoring potential. Despite an inauspicious start, Francescoli’s season with Il Toro mirrored his final season with Cagliari as he helped the Turin side to secure a sixth-place finish and a subsequent UEFA Cup place.

At the age of 33, Francescoli opted to return to his spiritual home. The year 1994 saw El Príncipe once again charm and bewitch the fans at El Monumental, electing to once again put on the red stripe of River Plate. Believed to be now past his best and winding down his career, this most enigmatic of footballers was about to experience a phenomenal and elongated end to his career.

His first season back at River resulted in an unbeaten league campaign, the first in River’s illustrious history, and another championship medal. Once again employed in his preferred position further up the field, Francescoli returned 17 goals in that unbeaten season. If the Uruguayan’s first season was successful, 1995 would prove to be the confirmation – if any were needed – that Enzo Francescoli deserves to be recognised as an icon of the game.

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Twelve years after his first Copa América victory with La Celeste, Francescoli once again led his side to South American glory. Playing in his home nation, Francescoli led by example, scoring in two of the group games and leading his team to a final against the reigning world champions, this time in the shape of Mário Zagallo’s Brazil. After a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Centenario, Francescoli stepped up to take the first penalty, dispatching it calmly and coolly, as his persona would often dictate. The captain had set the tone as Uruguay scored all their penalties to once again lift the Copa América.

As in 1983, Enzo Francescoli was named Player of the Tournament. At the age of 34, El Príncipe was also named South American Player of the Year for the second time, 11years after his first award. Francescoli played in four editions of the Copa América, making the final in every one, winning three of them. Zico and Maradona, the barometers by which all South American number 10s are seemingly measured, didn’t win a single Copa América between them.

Francescoli’s determination to escape the clutches of time saw him add further league titles with Los Millonarios, and finally in 1996, the player who was doubted for being too slight and fragile for the professional game added the Copa Libertadores to his palmares. Approaching 36, Francescoli led an incredibly talented but inexperienced side to victory in South America’s premier club competition. Players such as Hernán Crespo and Ariel Ortega would have the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest footballers of his generation.

An Intercontinental Cup final against Juventus saw Zidane take the field against his idol. The protégé was about to take the mantle from the master. A 1-0 victory for La Vecchia Signora did not prevent Zidane eulogising once again over the sublime talents of his footballing inspiration: “When I saw Francescoli play, he was the player I wanted to be. He was the player that I saw and admired at Marseille, my idol when I played against him when I was at Juventus. Enzo is like a God.”

A final season with River would provide another league title and a Supercopa Sudamericana. What would be the pinnacle of most player’s career was more of an additional footnote in the long and illustrious career of Enzo Francescoli. Eventually, time and retirement would catch up with the midfielder. In 1999, a farewell fixture was played at El Monumental, and such was Francescoli’s influence in Argentina and Uruguay that the presidents of both countries were in attendance to show their appreciation to the skinny smoker from Montevideo.

The French author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, wrote the famous children’s book Le Petit Prince. Within the pages there lies a quote that sums up perfectly the player who always played the game in the correct manner, with a languid style and grace that made the game look effortless. ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’

To love football is to love players like Francescoli, to see beyond the prejudice of club loyalties and acknowledged perceptions of a perfect footballing physique. Take a moment to open your heart and embrace the sublime talent of Enzo Francescoli, truly a prince amongst men.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

Art by Federico Manasse @feddewap

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