The Premier League has been blessed with flamboyant Frenchmen over the years. Arguably the most dynamic of all time is Thierry Henry, scorer of 174 league goals in 254 games, beating Gunners legend Ian Wright’s impressive total with dinks and belters such as this classic against Manchester United.
During that era, Anelka, Vieira, Petit, Desailly and Makelele all graced the Premier League taking it to the next level and, in doing so, leaving their mark as some of the greatest to cross the channel to ply their trade.
But listing these calm, assured almost metronomic professionals in your top Gallic imports would be dull. I’m thinking more of the mercurial talents who brought a slightly nutty brand of je ne sais quoi to the league, iconic illusionists hidden in the smoke from one of their own Gauloise. Which of these stood out?
For me, Eric Cantona, or King Eric to the Old Trafford faithful, tops the list. Cantona was a player capable of the sublime and the kung fu. David Ginola is up there for his goal at Barnsley or that volley for Newcastle, followed by a shampoo ad to make Joe Hart jealous. Few keepers grab the headlines like Fabien Barthez did throughout his career. Barthez has a plethora of worldies, calamities and psyching out Muzzy Izzet to look back on in his retirement. Then there’s Christophe Dugarry who rocked up at Birmingham City on loan, became prolific for the first time in his career, saving the club from relegation with skill fans would happily pay money to see. In the current game, Samir Nasri is eighth on the all-time list of top scoring Frenchmen in the Premier League, combining goal scoring with public spats with Arsenal fans while his wife takes on Didier Deschamps.
Each of these ‘personalities’ bar Ginola have something in common, Marseille. A city which was the European Capital of Culture in 2013 but polarised by the haves and have nots, the ethnically diverse latter literally fighting for territory in the city’s impoverished quartier. “Disputes that would once have been settled with a punch are now being resolved with a Kalashnikov.” says one source, “The only time Marseille stops being a disaster zone and the capital of delinquency, it’s thanks to Olympique de Marseille says another. A city of extreme vice appears to have rubbed off on the football characters it has attracted.
While not all of the five were born in Marseille, and indeed nor is everyone who has played for Marseille on the spectrum, the city has been home to some of the most mercurial talents of their generation. Frank Ribery is another, third in the 2013 Balon D’or, despite a manic temper born at the opposite end of the country, but still made it to Marseille.
The club itself had its day in the sun when winning the 1993 Champions League. Soon after it was embroiled in a match fixing scandal and soon relegated. It did recover, producing the likes of Nasri and Ribery who have honed their talents to be consistent performers through successful coaching since moving away from the Stade Velodrome.
With the growing emphasis on athleticism and tactical acumen in the modern European game, are we likely to see another mercurial talent emerge from the mean streets of France’s second city? Hatem Ben Arfa was giving it a good go at Newcastle before being Pardewed, but it’s doubtful we’ll see another ‘on his day he was untouchable’ mercurial talent arriving via Marseille for at least another generation. In the meantime, we have YouTube.