The France team from 1996-2001 is one of the great teams ever assembled. Helping to lead the charge on that defense was Marcel Desailly, whose presence was so formidable on the soccer field that he was known simply as “The Rock.”
Born as Odenke Abbey in Accra, Ghana to 2 Ghanaian parents, his name was changed to Marcel Desailly when his mother remarried to the head of the French Consulate. When Desailly was 4, his family relocated to France, and it’s where he got his start playing soccer.
He came up quickly through the ranks, joining the academy at FC Nantes, where he played alongside Didier Deschamps, who he would go on to play with on the French national team. Nantes brought him up to the senior roster in 1986, where Desailly made his debut. He played at Nantes for 6 years before he moved to Olympique de Marseille, where he was reunited with his close friend Deschamps. That year, he helped Marseille to win the UEFA Champions League.
He moved quickly to AC Milan, where he again won the Champions League in his first season there. He became the first player to win the Champions League two years in a row with different clubs. Milan also won the league and Supercoppa that year. In 5 seasons with Milan, Desailly won 5 trophies.
His move to Milan coincided with the time when he finally made his international debut with France. Despite also having eligibility with Ghana, he mentioned that he had “no other choice” than to accept the call up from France since he had established himself on the youth international scene. It took him a few years to move into the starting lineup, but he was able to solidify his position either as a centerback or as a defensive midfielder.
And it was his physical style of play along with his consistent strength that led him to be nicknamed “The Rock.” He excelled in aerial duels, and his anticipation seemed to always place him in the right place at the right time. Besides his smarts in the air and his anticipation, he also had great technique on the ball, and he always felt he could win every 50-50 ball, every aerial, every duel. That confidence was contagious, and it flowed to the rest of his team as they continued to play together.
That confidence carried France into the 1998 World Cup, which they were hosting. They had one of the top teams in the tournament, but it had been a while since a team had won the World Cup on home soil. France did just that. With Marcel Desailly commanding the back line, France won the 1998 World Cup, beating defending champion Brazil 3-1 and sending the entire nation into delirium. Desailly was a World Cup champion.
Desailly moved to Chelsea FC in 1998, where he won the UEFA Super Cup and then helped the Blues to the FA Cup in 2000. 2000 was also a great year for France, as The Rock and France continued their torrid pace into Euro 2000. There, with the target on their backs as World Cup champions, they held off Italy to win the title. It solidified that team as one of the greatest in soccer history.
France followed that win up with a 2001 Confederations Cup title, which secured them as the prohibitive favorites in 2002. Desailly then took over as captain from his close friend Didier Deschamps. However, a shock upset to Senegal in the opening match of the group stage led to France being eliminated in the group stage as one of the worst teams.
After the 2002 World Cup, France regrouped. With new focus, the team hosted the 2003 Confederations Cup, where they looked to re-establish themselves as the top team in the world. They won that Confederations Cup, beating Cameroon in the final.
Marcel Desailly will go down as one of the best defenders in the history of soccer. In 2004, Pelé named him to the FIFA 100, which was a list of the greatest 125 players in soccer history. His skills brought consistency to the defense on his teams, and his teammates will forever remember him as that player who, no matter the time, place, or weather, could be counted on to be solid as a rock.
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