“If we had had Jean-Pierre Papin up front, we would have won the World Cup in 1982!” It was a plaintive lament from, Michel Hidalgo, a frustrated coach, looking back. He had seen his team entertain and entrance, but lack that killer instinct, bereft of a striker with the gift of scoring, someone who would convert the footballing domination of his team into goals. He knew who the perfect fit would have been but, unfortunately for Hidalgo, Papin was still in the ranks of junior football at the time, with INF Vichy.
France still won the European Championships two years later with Michel Platini scoring the bulk of their goals as the strikers misfired again. Only in the final minutes of the final game did a forward find the back of the net, when Bruno Bellone notched the second goal in the final against Spain. Fourteen years later, the French achieved World Cup success. This time it was Zinedine Zidane delivering the goals from midfield, without much help from the strikers. Stéphane Guivarc’h went through the entire tournament without scoring. It was a feat repeated in 2018, when France won the World Cup again. This time, Oliver Giroud was the non-striking striker; a player whom out-of-favour France striker Karim Benzema would disparage as a ‘go kart’ striker.
Platini’s career with Le Bleus covered eleven years from 1976 to 1987, whilst Zidane represented France from 1994 to 2006. There’s a cruel irony that Jean-Pierre Papin, the striker who could have given so much more to the teams inspired by each of those magnificent players only briefly played with either. His career international career ran between 1986 and 1995. He crossed only briefly with the latter time of Platini, and the very beginnings of Zidane.
A French team prompted by either Platini or Zidane at the height of their powers, with the deadly striking power of Papin would have been formidable, and while Les Bleus had notable triumphs with Platini and Zidane, for Papin, despite him scoring 30 goals in a shade over 50 appearances for France, his time in international football enjoyed little glory. For all those considerations of ‘what could have been’ however, the career of Jean-Pierre Papin, and particularly his contributions to the success of Olympique de Marseille, mark him out as one of the outstanding strikers of modern times. Less a “go kart” more a Formula One machine.
Although a relatively late developer in the game by the time his opportunity with a professional club arrived, Papin’s commitment to succeed was resolute from an early age, and he was convinced of his ability to succeed. ‘I think that goalscoring is something that is born in a person – it’s in the blood.’ Given that his father had also enjoyed a reasonably successful career, it’s an understandable stance. ‘The question of who I would be when I grew up was never one I asked. My father also played football, and the love of the sport was in my genes.’
Single-minded from an early age, that dogged commitment and focused approach would serve him well. Some reports even suggested that he would often fake illnesses to be excused from school so that he could practise his skills with a football instead. If his academic education may have suffered, his footballing literacy flourished. Skipping school was hardly something to be applauded, but it delivered due rewards when he joined the French Federation’s National Football Academy. His progress would be disrupted when a divorce for his parents meant a move away from Vichy to northern France. In typical determined fashion, however, Papin would not be distracted from his target, and he used the move as a positive indication that he should now find his first professional club.
When 21 years old, he made his professional first team debut for Valenciennes in Ligue 2. Ironically, the same club would later be embroiled in the controversy engulfing Olympique de Marseille. Netting 15 goals in 33 league games, for a club less than dominant in their division was sufficient to persuade Club Brugge of Belgium to invest in the player’s potential. It was a key moment in his career as Papin later identified. ‘Bruges is where it really all started for me. It will always have a special place in my heart as this is where my international breakthrough came.’
The move delivered ample rewards for both player and club. Not only did Club Brugge win the Belgian Cup with Papin netting seven goals in eight games to take them to glory, the club only missed out on a domestic double by the narrowest of margins, as Anderlecht lifted the title on goal difference. Papin delivered a highly impressive 32 goals in 43 games across all competitions in his single season in Belgium. It was sufficient to propel him into that international breakthrough, when Henri Michel selected him for the French squad travelling to the World Cup in 1986, despite only having a single cap to his name. He was the youngest player in the squad. The gamble was more than justified however as Papain scored two goals, including one in the third-place play-off game. It was clear that the French had a rare talent, albeit an unpolished diamond, in their midst, and Ligue 1 clubs began to cast covetous glances over the border into Belgium. With Papin keen to return to his native country, a move was always likely to materialise.
Despite originally signing an agreement with Monaco, after a legal wrangle, Papin eventually settled at Bernard Tapie’s ‘project’ along the coast at Olympique de Marseille. After joining the club in 1986, his scoring record was truly remarkable. In his first term, as he adjusted to the new club and league, he scored 16 goals in 44 games. It’s a not inconsiderable return, but from there the numbers were more than impressive. The following season, that number had risen to 23, but then grew from the 1988-89 season to 33, 38, 36 and then 38 again. Those totals made him Ligue 1’s top scorer for five successive seasons.
Inevitably silverware and recognition followed. As the goals rattled in so did the league titles. Four successive championships were garnered in those last four seasons, when Papin topped 30 strikes per season, including a league and cup double in 1988-89. The French Cup Final was a triumph over Monaco, the club Papin was slated to join after leaving Belgium. Papin rubbed salt into any remaining wounds by scoring three times to take the trophy to Olympique de Marseille. His first goal came after winning possession, beating his defender and scoring. The second was from a header, and the third was powerfully driven, in typical fashion, picturesquely crashing down from the underside of the crossbar and into the net. The hat-trick would only have increased Monaco fans’ feelings of regret that he had slipped through their fingers.
Two years later, Olympique de Marseille reached the European Cup Final, but lost out on penalties to Red Star Belgrade. That same year Papin became the first, and so far only, player to win the Ballon d’Or while playing for a French club. It’s an achievement that neither Neymar or Mbappé can match. The voting was overwhelming in favour of Papin, securing 141 votes, with three players, Lothar Matthäus of Internazionale, and Darko Pančev, together with Dejan Savićević, both of Red Star Belgrade, all tied in second place. All of their votes combined however, would still have fallen short of Papin’s total. Strange to say therefore that, despite being winning the award by such a wide margin, Papin is probably one of the least celebrated winners of the Ballon d’Or, widely regarded as denoting the best player on the planet. Perhaps his lack of major tournament success in the international stage mitigates against the respect he surely deserved, as French football’s inability to produce a team of the standard that both preceded and succeeded his time with Les Bleus, fatally compromised his opportunities for success.
France had won titles without a striker, but for Olympique de Marseille the arrival of Papin was key to their triumphs. What was it about a player who had hit the big time relatively late, and then blossomed so quickly? How did he score so many goals? As with all such questions, there is more than one answer. In this case, it was an inbuilt talent honed to a razor-sharp cutting edge by a dedication to exploit that natural talent to its fullest extent. In an interview with the regional newspaper, La Voix du Nord, he offered a simple explanation. ‘I had a talent for scoring, but without the work it would’ve counted for nothing.’
Goals came in all sorts and sizes, from distance, tap-ins, poaching, shots or headers. So long as the ball ended up in the back of the net, they all counted the same. Michael Jordan once famously said that, ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ Papin was an adherent to the Jordan philosophy of scoring. The more times you shoot, the more times you score. If scoring is about winning a raffle, Papin, bought a whole book of tickets. What made him so dangerous was his willingness to shoot, from any distance, from any angle. The odds were often stacked against him, the angle too tight, but Papin’s instinct was to shoot. He bought himself many tickets, but luck was the last thing he relied on.
Collecting his Ballon d’Or award, Papin offered an insight, dedicating it to Alain Casanova. a virtual unknown reserve goalkeeper at his French club. ‘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.’ Practise makes perfect. He would also say. ‘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.’ Sometimes his practise sessions with Casanova would go on late into the night, when everyone else had left, and only the headlights of the two players’ cars were available to illuminate the pitch, as Papin practised with unwavering dedication, and Casanova picked the ball out of the net. Michael Jordan would have approved.
As well as the quantity of goals, Papin’s output was marked by some strikes of stunning quality. He had a penchant for the spectacular goal, with volleying being his particular speciality. Often, it was the brute power with which his shots were hit that deceived the goalkeeper, rather than any accurate placing of the ball. By the time he had reacted to the shot, the ball was already past him and ripping into the net. Papin’s short stature also afforded him the ability to turn poorly crossed or diverted passes into goalscoring opportunities. Rocking back, he had the dexterity to quickly adjust the position of his body, allowing him to convert any ball that was too high to fire off an instant shot from a standing position, into an opportunity to shoot with a chest high scissor kick. Again, the power was undiminished and often the ferocity of the technique offered little time for any attempt at a save to be made.
Among the 300 goals scored in his club career therefore, plenty were remarkable ones, but one type of strike became his trademark. It came to be labelled as Une Papinade. Although there are a few variations in the goals that have been tagged with the name, there are some required elements as well. It needs to be a powerfully struck volley, preferably from distance or an acute angle. It can also be a scissor kick, or any type of similar acrobatic shot. Perhaps the definition is a little loose, but when you see one, you understand.
Une Papinade was christened by journalist Alain Pécheral, who had watched Papin score with a first-time volley from a tight angle in a game against Racing de Paris in 1996. When he scored a similar strike against Chamois Niortais, a couple of years later, there was no longer any possibility that the earlier goal had been a fluke. The technique was too perfect to merely have been a lucky shot. ‘The Papinade cannot be explained,’ Pécheral explained. ‘It cannot be planned and cannot be taught. It is something unique to this fellow, his neurons, this amazing feeling that he has with the ball that enables him to gauge, like a computer, the trajectory, speed and weight of the object before instantaneously working out the angle of the shot and the exact dosage to apply. In a Papinade there is magic, something unreal and, most of all, an accumulation of work and observation added to an explosive physique and a granite mentality.’ Perhaps Pécheral was correct that it could not be taught. But it could certainly be practised. Years later, Papin recalled the goal against Niortais that inspired Pécheral’s poetic appraisal. ‘There was nothing spontaneous about it. I had done it so many times while practising that I no longer had to wonder about taking the ball down, I could just hit it first time.”
Although Papin was destined never to win a major tournament with Les Bleus, some of his most memorable goals came when wearing his country’s blue shirt. What he described as his best goal arrived in a game against Belgium. A long cross came in from the right, with Papin positioned on the edge of the Belgium penalty area. With eyes glued to the dropping ball, the striker timed his move perfectly, hurling his body into an almost horizontal position to power the ball into the net. Why was it his favourite goal? Because, ‘it was the most impossible to score,’ Papin explained flatly and without a trace of irony. Perhaps for mere mortals, but not for someone with so many accumulated hours of practising the technique. It’s not clear whether Casanova was awarded with an assist for the goal however. It’s the sort of strike we all tried on the park as ten-year-olds, and shanked right into the ground, or missed completely as our mates all fell about laughing. We didn’t have an Alain Casanova to help – nor the dedication and talent of Jean-Pierre Papin of course.
Despite his rapacious hunger for goals, Papin was never greedy in hogging the limelight, or slow in acknowledging the contribution of others to his success. It was the sort of attitude that made his time as captain of the club so successful. As well as lauding the overtime dedicated by Casanova, for example, he also acknowledged the input of Chris Waddle and the chances that were created for him by the languid skills of the England international. ‘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.’ Waddle’s natural flair and unassuming ability to delight in creating for others made him the perfect foil for a striker like Papin.
Papin’s unfortunate ability to miss out on success on the biggest stages continued when he left Olympique de Marseille, with AC Milan offering a world record transfer fee of around £10million for his services in 1992. The following year, Olympique de Marseille would avenge the defeat against Red Star Belgrade two years earlier, and become the first and, so far only, French club to win European football’s premier competition. Ironically, Papin would be on the pitch at the end of the game, but his substitute appearance would be in the Rossoneri shirt of Milan, as his new team lost 1-0 to his old one in Munich. It would have been an evening of melancholy emotions for a player who had been so much a part of the French club’s success. There was a redemption of sorts the following term when Fabio Capello’s Milan destroyed Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona “Dream Team” to win the trophy. Although Papin had contributed goals to Milan’s run to the final, he missed out on selection for the squad of 16 for the game in Athens.
There were two Scudetto titles secured with Milan, before a move to Bayern Munich in 1994 brought Papin a UEFA Cup triumph in 1996 against a Bordeaux team featuring a young Zinedine Zidane. Ironically, Papin would join Bordeaux for the following season, just as Zidane was leaving for Juventus. The moves from Serie A back to Ligue 1 marked the steady decline in Papin’s career, just as Zidane’s was moving in the opposite direction, both on an upwards trajectory, and leaving France for Juventus. The stay in the Drôme department of south-east France would last two seasons, before a single term with Guingamp, and a short period playing on the island of Réunion with Jeunesse Sportive Saint-Pierroise, and a less than highly successful career in club management.
Perhaps France’s greatest striker of the modern era, Jean-Pierre Papin will always be fondly remembered at Olympique de Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. A place where his goals helped to take the club to the top of French football and so close to the summit of the continental game. He may have unfortunately fell between the two stools of the great eras of French international glory but, whereas Hidalgo was left to lament him being in his team in 1982, fans of Les Olympiens will always celebrate the fact that he played in theirs.
(This article was originally produced for the These Football Times ‘Marseille’ magazine).