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More than 300 goals in 500 games for club and country, 6 league titles, a Champions League winner’s medal and a Ballan d’or cemented Jean-Pierre Papin as one of the greatest French players of all time, up there in the realms of Platini and Zidane. 

But unlike those great creators of play, Papin’s currency was in goals – a shit ton of em!

“Whether you like it or not, I’m going to be a professional footballer”

Was the response a thirteen year old Papin gave his Mum when she asked him what he wanted to be when he was older.  It’s the dream for all kids growing up playing the game but for Papin it was already real, a tangible aspiration, a self-assured belief. Just as real as working hard at school to become a lawyer – the profession his mother wanted for him. Needless to say she wasn’t best pleased, especially as his leg had been in plaster for the last fourteen months following a serious car accident. 

He’d been hit by a car going over 60 mph and was lucky to have escaped with only a broken leg. In an interview in L’Equipe he reflects on that accident “It was a true miracle, I wasn’t meant to play football again after that”. His determination and drive to succeed as a footballer was clearer than ever.

The ensuing years saw Papin playing for several sides as a junior and then as a semi pro, but it wasn’t until he was twenty one that his professional career started. A pro career that’s ascent was to become as rapid as his own acceleration away from clambering opposition defenders. Just two years later he’d be netting for France in a World Cup and five years after that awarded the Ballon d’or.

His first pro contract was with Ligue 2 side Valenciennes where he spent one season and scored a respectable 16 in 35 games. It wasn’t a massive haul but it was enough to secure a move to the Belgium top flight with FC Bruges, due to two reasons; one,  Valenciennes was close to the Belgium , and two, in the twelve Valenciennes games scouts watched Papin scored eleven times – the contract was in the post.  

The goals he went on to score the following season in Belgium, 32 goals in 43 appearances were enough to change things irrevocably – the Papin goal machine was rolling.

From there he was a surprise call up for the French World Cup squad for Mexico 86. He had played for the French u23s but it was still very much unexpected and was a contentious issue in France, a little known player plying his trade in Belgium given such a chance. It was proved to be well warranted though as Papin netted twice in the three games he played in, his second coming against Belgium in the playoff game to finish third overall. He had played alongside giants of the French game like Platini and Tigana and no doubt was given an insight into what was needed to progress to that next level.

The floodgates at Marseille

The next phase in his career truly defined the man as a prolific striker. His sole objective after the World Cup was to get a move back to his homeland and he signed a pre contract with Monaco. However the infamous Marseille chairman Bernard Tapie was able to “tap’ie him up” (sorry), away from the initial agreements with their Mediterranean neighbours. Papin believed in the ‘project’ Tapie spoke of and there was also some performance related pay that swayed his decision, so by the close season 86/87 Papin was wearing the renowned white and sky blue of L’OM.

Papin’s goal tally at Marseille from 86-92 reads like an unimaginative lottery ticket; 

16, 23, 33, 38, 36, 38.

Exceptional reading bar the first season which was his most challenging to date. As a young player coming from a foreign club he was under increased scrutiny irrespective of his efforts in Mexico. Critics were quick in writing him off but JPP simply describes this year as a “year of adaptation.” A reminder that footballers naturally need time to adapt, in the modern game of instant results and revolving management especially at top clubs with hopes of challenging for the European Cup, I’m not sure Papin would’ve been afforded the same time. The next season his goal tally steadily increased and then for four seasons after that he went flipping beserk.

Five seasons consecutive he was their top goalscorer and although his attributes; small, quick and strong made him perfectly equipped to be a poacher, he was more than that. He scored from all positions on the pitch, he was particular good at exposing a last defender with his pace and strength and ruthless finishing but he was also very technical scoring an unusual amount of volleys, one type becoming his spectacular trademark volley – La Papinade. It was during his time in Marseille the term was coined referring to his ability to react instinctively to a ball in the air. If you’ve not seen it, It’s the volley you attempt as a kid over the park, the balls lifted into the air behind you and you step back to readjust yourself and you swing a leg at it with your body side on other foot planted into the grass. Part scissor kick, part volley, the likelihood is you shank it or toe it back to the winger or miss it altogether and end up in a pile in the muddy grass. But Papin didn’t get this wrong, he scored plenty of them and La Papinade stuck. 

Was this spontaneity simply a gift for finding the back of the net or the result of hours of hard work? A combination of both Papin would argue. In an interview for Lavoixdunord.fr he explains “I had a talent for scoring, but without the work it would’ve counted for nothing”. He adds with an air of arrogance on SoFoot.com “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.”

That feeling of becoming natural is the kind of confidence and self-assurance that separates great strikers from good ones. The training was clearly fundamental but JPPs mentality helped him to become the full package. Something that would result in him being awarded the Ballon d’Or in 91.

Papin had scored 36 goals and had reached the Champions League final with Marseille that season so it wasn’t a surprise that he pipped Lothar Mattheas to the award but what was a surprise was his dedicating it to the L’OM reserve keeper Alain Casanova. The reason for this Papin explains on sofoot.com “I stayed long after training to practice my ranges, and every day for three years he (Alain) accepted to go in goal. He was our reserve keeper and my personal trainer (laughs). But above everything he was a friend, and that’s the most important thing”.

Camaraderie

His ability to acknowledge the benefits others had on his own game no doubt helped him to be an effective captain for club and country. Recognising that his form improved in correlation with the L’OM team strengthening year on year meant he always maintained a team mentality regardless of the amount of goals he scored and selfish nature of his position on the pitch.

In that first challenging season it was Alain Giresse whose mentoring helped him cope mentally with the harsh critique as a youngster. 

Even the greatest of strikers will be indebted to those who provide the service and in an interview for Sofoot.com he explains that he had the most affinity with was Chris Waddle, “We loved to play together…he understood me the most, our connexion 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.” Watching old footage of their connexion on the pitch is pretty enjoyable for the purist, that gliding finesse of Waddle, dribbling his way forward mullet blowing in the wind and playing the inevitable deft pass to Papin, for the quick and ruthless number 9 to power home.

Time and place

Those six seasons with Marseille proved to be Papin’s pinnacle because it was a mixed bag thereafter. He went on to win the Champions League and two Serie A’s with AC Milan and the UEFA Cup with Bayern but injuries and team selection didn’t see him settle into any kind of form or show his real potential for either club. 

In regards to missed opportunities it was his career for France that was the most disappointing. It was a turbulent and toxic period in French football that saw them unable to qualify for two World Cups in 1990 and 1994 – this while Papin was at the peak of his powers. He did however bag another two in three at the 92 Euro’s. And more significant still even though he was denied that tournament game time he score 30 goals in 54 games for Les Bleus, that’s 0.55 goals per game in comparison to Thierry Henry 0.41 and Karim Benzema at 0.27.

Jean-Pierre Papin’s legend was really established in his six years at Marseille, with 184 goals, five top goalscorer titles consecutive, four Ligue 1 titles, a French Cup, and a Champions League final. His kindred relationship with L’OM was clearest the season he finally left Marseille and met them in the European Cup final as a Milan player. He watched most of the game from the bench and wasn’t able to make any impact when he did come on. 

But what proved most telling was his reaction when the whistle went at the end of the game and a jubilant Marseille bench charge the field, an emotional Bernard Tapie approaches him, and Papin gives a big celebratory smile whilst hugging him. He’s since commented that in that moment he had totally forgotten he was an opposition player, just happy for his old club and team mates.