They Could Have Been One Of Football’s Greatest: Jean-Pierre Papin

Part ten of this series looks at an ex forward who was once named European Footballer of the Year. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Papin was a striker and captain of the Olympique Marseille side that were dominant in the French League and had success in Europe too in the late 80’s and early 90’s. However after leaving his native France for Italy and Germany, he could never quite recapture the same form and success that had previously seen fans give his volleys the nickname “Papinades” in his honour.

For parts one to nine please click on the links below. For criteria please see part one.

P1 Robin Friday   P2 Dean Ashton     P3 Kieron Brady

P4 Jason Koumas     P5 Brian Clough     P6 Freddy Adu

P7 Frank Worthington     P8 David Bentley     P9 Gianluigi Lentini

They Could Have Been One Of Football’s Greatest: Jean-Pierre Papin

Born in the Northern city of Boulogne, France, Papin began his career at French club Valenciennes scoring 15 goals in 33 appearances in his only season with the club. His scoring potential caught the eye of Belgian side Club Brugge who signed the forward in 1985. He went on to score an impressive 20 goals in 31 appearances in just his second season as a senior professional. He was also selected for the French squad for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. He played four times scoring twice as the reigning European Champions came third. With his stock now rising it was no surprise when he left Club Brugge after just one season.

Marseille Success

Olympique Marseille signed the striker in 1986 for a reported £1.35 million. Even in the more demanding French Ligue 1, Papin still netted 13 goals in his debut season. This was just the beginning. In six seasons he scored 134 goals, was captain of the side that won four championships in a row, a league and cup double and also reached the 1991 European Cup Final. In the same year he won the European Footballer of the Year award. Stats like these do not go unnoticed in world football and it wasn’t long before one of the world’s biggest clubs came calling.

Move To AC Milan

In 1992, Papin moved to Italian giants AC Milan for a then world record fee of £10 million. He spent just two seasons with the Rossoneri, scoring a very respectable 27 goals in all competitions. However, injuries, problems adapting to life in Italy and never fully establishing himself as a first team member didn’t help. His time in Italy is looked back on as disappointing after things had looked so much more promising. Papin though, does have an opinion on one reason it didn’t quite work out in Milan, “If Capello’s system looks boring from the stands, it’s even worse to play in.” 

The French Fail

Papin was unfortunately part of the ‘cursed generation’ of French international football. It describes the sides between the 1984 European Champions and the 1998 World Champions. The French failed to qualify for Italia 90 and then worse still they failed to qualify for USA 94 after losing their final two qualifying games at home to Israel and Bulgaria. They led in both games too, losing both to very late goals. Alongside Papin, France had the likes of Eric Cantona, David Ginola and current National team manager Didier Deschamps, but it is a period many fans and players would rather forget.

Bayern Munich

After the disappointment of France failing once again to qualify for the World Cup and his time in Milan not going as many expected, he signed for German champions Bayern Munich for around £2 million. Just like in Italy he spent two seasons in Germany but due to injuries he scored just 6 goals in all competitions. After yet another short stay in another country it was time to move on again. This time back to his homeland.

Back to France

In 1996 he returned to Ligue 1 with FC Girondins de Bordeaux. Again he would spend just two seasons with a club but he did score a very respectable 22 goals in 55 appearances. Although he was linked with a move to England, France is where he stayed and he ended his career in 1998 playing for the then Ligue 2 side Guingamp. His time here lasted just 3 months after injuries forced his decision to retire. He continued to play at an amateur level until the age of 40 where he decided it was time to take the next step in his career.

Coaching career and outside of football

Papin has coached several clubs in his native France. His most successful time came when he was at Strasbourg, guiding them back to the top tier of French football. His last coaching role was at Châteauroux, a side he left in 2010. Outside of football he along with his wife set up the association “Neuf de Coeur” (Nine of Hearts). Its aim is to help and support families like theirs who have a child/children who suffer from brain damage.

Unlike many other French players such as Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona, Papin was never dominant in another country. If only he could have taken his form and success from the French league to Italy and Germany and continued to build his legacy. And if the French National side had qualified for the 1990 and 94 World Cups, Jean-Pierre Papin could rightly be regarded as one of the greatest ever. Even though his fans remember him fondly and rightly so, injuries, adaption problems and bad luck put him into the bracket of “They could have been one of football’s greatest”.

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