“With hindsight, I think I should never have left Milan because I could have given more to the team. Years later, I met Capello and he told me I had rushed my decision.” – Jean Pierre-Papin
There is a belief that the failure to ever be content is the reason some achieve greatness. For others, the ability to be content is greatness itself. Jean Pierre-Papin certainly falls into the first category, and whilst he looks back on his career with considerable pride, he also laments what could have been. Some of the decisions he made have come back to haunt him, creating a man who regrets his career as much as he celebrates it.
As the Olimpiastadion in Munich erupted on the final shrill whistle of referee Kurt Rothsliberger, Papin put his hands over his face and dropped to the floor in painful slow motion. Marseille President, Bernard Tapie, went over to him and tried to alleviate some of the pain. It was a poignant moment for the ‘L’OM’ chief as his team had just won the Champions League. But he understood immediately the effect it was having on the Milan striker, who was distraught.
Papin knew what it was like to lose a European Final. He had done so in 1991, and what is worse, he had done so with Marseille as they lost to Red Star Belgrade on penalties in Bari’s Stadio San Nicola. The Frenchman had scored from the spot that day but it wasn’t enough and his dream of winning the European Cup seemed to have passed him by. He had won the Ballon d’Or in 1991 and a year later, he moved to Milan to continue his quest of winning Europe’s biggest prize. Now laid out on the turf in Bavaria, he peeked through his fingers to see players in white and blue celebrating with his friend and winning goal scorer Basile Boli. He was watching his old team mates erase the nightmare of Bari, in turn, ensuring Munich became Papin’s latest.
The striker from Boulogne-Sur-Mer had joined Milan for two reasons. The first was to play alongside the iconic Marco van Basten, and the second was to lift the European Cup. He had earned the right to play amongst such exalted company. His 134 goals in 215 games for the French club had seen him win individual accolades, but also made him one of the most sought after talents in Europe. His pace matched by his superb close control made him dangerous in the area, as well on the break. And his finishing was almost as predatory as the Dutchman with whom he long to play.
His specialty was his volleying technique, so much so that his spectacular efforts saw French journalists nickname him, and his technique, ‘Papinade’. His goal against Porto on the way to that 1993 European Final, or his finish against Sweden in Euro 1992, embodied the Frenchman’s class.
Whilst the defeat in Munich should have been a launchpad for Papin’s Milan career, it signalled the beginning of the end. It also proved the final swansong for the iconic Rossoneri squad of the late 1980s and early 90s. Frank Rijkaard announced he was returning to Ajax, Ruud Gullit went to Sampdoria and van Basten was carrying injury problems that would ultimately finish his career.
The Rossoneri would enter a new era under Capello, earning more success during the following seasons. With the additions of Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly and Dejan Savicevic, they returned to the European Cup final in 1994 and thrashed the ‘Dream Team’ of Barcelona 4-0. Papin, however, did not feature and despite being on the pitch at the game’s end, he was in a suit and took little pleasure in holding the cup aloft.
Restless and in search of more playing time, Papin was transferred to Bayern Munich in 1994. He was not out of favour with Capello and arguably could have had more success if he had stayed in Milan. He had notched up an impressive 31 goals in 63 games for the club but with Van Basten still getting playing-time despite his injury, and Marco Simeone, Florin Raducioiu and Daniele Massaro all competing for the forward spots, he decided to leave.
In hindsight, Papin could have displaced all the above strikers – whether down to injury or a lack of success on their part – but instead he left for pastures new. In an era when Milan were arguably the best club side in the world, it is easy to forget the Frenchman amidst the names that came before and after him. It seems this is something he will always struggle with, and yet in context, he should be immensely proud.
Instead, two Serie A titles, a Super Coppa and a Champions League plague him, believing these throphies should have only been the tip of the iceberg. “At that time in Milan, I looked around and just thought the players are all such high calibre” he said. When Calcio ruled the World, Papin was having a crisis of confidence despite being as deadly as the very best.