The last time France played a European Championship semi-final on home turf, as they do this evening against Germany, the venue was also Marseille.
Michel Platini scored his eighth goal of a tournament that bears his stamp of quality to this day in the hosts’ 3-2 win over Portugal.
Back in the same port city tonight, France will again aim to reach a final, this time against an opponent with whom they share a storied history.
Thirty-four years ago tomorrow Patrick Battiston was the victim of one of football’s most notorious fouls when he was knocked unconscious by a flying challenge from West Germany goalkeeper Harald Schumacher.
Battiston lost two teeth – they later spent a spell on display in a Berlin museum – and suffered three broken ribs.
Schumacher was not even booked. Insult was added to considerable injury when West Germany won a pulsating World Cup semi-final tie on penalties. Although he and Battiston did years later shake hands, the goalkeeper showed little compassion in the immediate aftermath. “I will pay for the crowns,” Schumacher said upon hearing of Battison’s dental damage.
Even before this appalling indifference Schumacher was already assured his place in football’s rogues’ gallery.
So when West Germany lost the World Cup final to Italy and then failed to get out of the group stage at their next major finals, in France, it felt like justice. And it seemed particularly so given it was France who triumphed on home soil, inspired by the heroic Platini, whose through ball to his room-mate Battiston set in motion the appalling events of two years earlier.
Platini, scorer of nine goals in five games when France won the European title in 1984, would normally be expected to be present tonight. But although he is reported to be nearby, it isn’t thought he will go to Stade Velodrome. Indeed, it isn’t considered likely he will be watching at all, not even on television.
It would have seemed almost unimaginable, even one year ago, to suggest Platini’s reputation would one day become almost as sullied as that of Schumacher. But even in his own country, Platini is now regarded as something of a bogeyman – and a pariah.
It is extraordinary to consider that Platini, who not only lifted the trophy 32 years ago but did as much as anyone to ensure France hosted the tournament this year, is now in exile. If you can call it exile when he is sitting just 20 miles or so from Marseille, in his holiday bolt-hole in Cassis.
He has been ruined by the revelation, in September last year, that he received a £1.3 million “disloyal payment” in 2011 from Fifa, authorised by Sepp Blatter, for consultancy work services supposedly rendered almost ten years earlier. Suspiciously, Platini stepped aside later in 2011 to let Blatter run for president once more.
So while he has not been seen at any game to date during Euro 2016, it is his likely absence from tonight’s clash versus such an old enemy that feels particularly significant. He has been invited to attend the match by the France Football Federation as well as Uefa, despite the fact he is currently serving a four-year ban from football. So France will tackle Germany without their one-time talisman’s presence in the crowd. Les Bleus are attempting to post only a second-ever competitive victory over the world champions. As well as beating them on penalties in 1982, West Germany earned a more straightforward victory over France in 1986 in Mexico. Their last meeting at a major finals was just two years ago at the Maracana, Germany enjoying a narrow 1-0 victory in stifling conditions.
France’s only competitive win over (West) Germany remains a 6-3 third place play-off win at the 1958 World Cup. But they were victorious in a friendly last November that was completely overshadowed by the Paris terrorist attacks.
“We cannot change history,” said France manager Didier Deschamps yesterday, a comment that could also apply to Platini.
“But there are new chapters to be written – the players can write them here. The page is blank. They need to fill it tomorrow. I believe the players have belief in themselves but we need the crowd to get behind us as well. We know who the opposition are, they are still the best side in the world. But we will give it everything.”
Deschamps approves of tonight’s setting since he knows as well as anyone that a Marseille crowd is guaranteed to be more passionate than anywhere else in France. His last job before taking over at France was manager of Marseille; it did not end well, however. He left by mutual consent in 2012 after a tough season.
France played in Marseille against Albania in the group stage and were able to plunder two late goals to secure victory. But in order to preserve the pitch, France trained yesterday at La Commanderie, Marseille’s training complex. The possibility he might face some awkward encounters was put to Deschamps during a press conference beforehand.
“I am back…” he smiled. “I might not see the same people, unless they are hiding somewhere!”
But it is not Marseille officials deciding to make themselves scarce for a while that is most noteworthy. Rather, it is the need for Platini, who once described this tournament as “my child”, to remain in hiding which seems scarcely credible. It is Platini’s continued absence, as French momentum grows, which is most saddening.
But why this should be so is not difficult to understand, aggrieved though Platini clearly is. For one needs only take the short journey along the A50 autoroute to the coast from Marseille to inspect a fallen hero’s feet of clay.