MICHEL PLATINI: THE JUVENTUS YEARS

Michel Platini’s football career is often forgotten due to his corrupt actions since leaving the pitch, but it’s worth mentioning that when football was a sport that he enjoyed on a weekly basis rather than something his greed sought, he was amongst the greatest to kick a ball.

Platini was a unique footballer, one whose brilliance shown wherever he played – whether that was in France or in Italy, where Juventus saw the very best of him.

Prior to his move to Italy in 1982, the Frenchman was a goalscoring midfielder. His record was exceptional, and he was able to consistently put up good numbers wherever he played. At his first club, Nancy, he scored a decent 98 in 181 appearances, following that up with 58 in 104 for Saint-Étienne and even 41 in 72 for his country. These were numbers that forwards aimed for, but Platini was pulling it off from further down the pitch, only exemplifying his greatness and showing what he was truly made of.

Platini’s arrival in 1982 was met with great expectations. He was set to be the direct replacement for Liam Brady, the Irishman who had entertained the Bianconeri for the previous two seasons. At the time, he was still an unpolished star. At 27-years of age, he had done well on different platforms, but there was still a hint of inconsistency that left doubt in the minds of many. Nevertheless, this was the player Juventus took a punt on and this was what they were to stick with.

It was only two years prior that the doors had been opened for foreign players to play in Serie A, and this was set to be a new era for Juventus. In addition to Platini, the Turin outfit filled their foreign quota with the signing of Polish icon Zbigniew Boniek. The contracts were signed at the end of April, but the club wanted to keep quiet on the deal in order to keep the departing Brady in high spirits as they chased the title. They failed to do so, but Brady maintained his professionalism as Juventus would go on to win their 20th Scudetto anyways.

The initial weeks were difficult. Despite coming to a star-studded team which included many players from Italy’s World Cup-winning side over the summer, as well as Poland’s Boniek, who finished third and France’s Platini himself, who finished fourth, the first few weeks in black-and-white didn’t go as planned. Integrating Boniek and Platini to create an adequate attacking line was proving to be a complex task for coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

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Platini opened his account with a goal in the Coppa Italia against Pescara in just his second match. Juventus were doing well in the cup, but that form wasn’t replicated in the league. They started with defeats against Genoa and, rather ironically, Sampdoria, where Brady was playing, and he starred in that game. There were doubts raised over whether Platini was the right fit, and while the whole squad was far more inferior than what had been expected of them, the blame mostly went to the two new foreign signings.

The fact that a groin strain had constantly troubled the Frenchman didn’t help matters. Early rumours arose that Platini was intent on leaving the club and moving back to France after just half a season, but those were quickly squashed. In November 1982, there was a turning point for both club and player. Putting on a strong display is always a good way to endear oneself with the local fans, and Platini took that opportunity in a match against Torino amidst his home fans.

With a strong line-up, Juventus showed their true mettle and were untouchable against their local rivals. Platini scored the only goal of the game, coming in the 35th minute as he scored the rebound after a save. Juventus stood strong and held on for a win that would boost the morale of this inconsistent team greatly. In the winter, Platini would return to France for further tests to aid his injury concerns, and when he returned, he was at his very best.

Juventus’ poor start and bizarre run of six draws and one defeat over the winter period meant that the title was too far for them. But when that run ended, Platini went on one of his own, scoring 14 goals in the next nine games. This streak included strikes against the likes of Inter Milan, Roma and Fiorentina. While the league was far off, Juventus were efficient in the cup competitions, going all the way in the Coppa Italia – amazingly beating Hellas Verona 3-2 on aggregate in the final after losing the first-leg 2-0. Platini netted twice in the comeback win.

The upturn in form came as a result of a plea from both Platini and Boniek to change their roles in the team. Trapattoni obliged and gave Platini more freedom as the focal point of the team, giving him the keys to the midfield and a chance to show off his creativity. The results were evident afterwards, as Juventus only got better.

Their main focus was on the European Cup. The Bianconeri were strong when competing in Europe’s biggest cup competition and it was here that the Platini-Boniek duo clicked best. In the quarter-final at defending champions Aston Villa, the Polish forward struck a crucial winner late on to give his side the advantage in the home leg. In the return match a fortnight later, Platini was in top form, netting twice to take the tie away from the Birmingham side and make Juventus the top favourites.

In the semi-finals, Platini would find himself on the scoresheet once again, netting a late equaliser in the second-leg against Polish side Widzew Łódź to send Juventus through to the final in Athens against Hamburg after a 4-2 aggregate win. Italy’s most prestigious domestic side had the chance to end their season by winning the European Cup for the first time in their history. With an in-form Platini in the side and the rest of the team finally clicking together, the chances of them winning were very high.

It wasn’t to be, however. In a rather dull final, Felix Magath scored in the ninth minute of the game and Hamburg held on. A persistent Juventus were unable to break this stern German backline and missed the opportunity to make history in Greece. With the talent at their disposal and the overall strength of their side, they knew this wasn’t to be their last chance.

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The following season came with great expectations, and rightly so. Their star player took his time, but eventually settled and got to grips with Italian football. They started the season as they meant to go on: Platini contributed two in Juventus’ 7-0 win over Ascoli and this side made their intentions clear. With a much-changed team from the previous season having let go the likes of Dino Zoff, Roberto Bettega and Giuseppe Furino, this side kept the same winning mentality and kept moving forward.

By Christmas, they were league leaders and there was further pride for them as Platini had won his first Ballon d’Or, crowning him as the finest player in Europe. This was an incredible accolade considering just 12 months prior, there was chatter of his discontent in Turin and that he was contemplating leaving the club. The good season continued from there, and Platini’s form in front of goal was exceptional: an eight-game scoring streak in the league meant that Juventus finished 1983 on top of the league and top favourites to bring the title back home.

The European Cup Winners’ Cup was another key objective for the club. Seeing as this was the highest continental honour they could achieve, they would put full focus behind it. In the first few rounds, Lechia Gdańsk, Paris Saint-Germain and Finland’s Haka were all dispatched with ease. A semi-final against Manchester United was another obstacle in a glorious phase: in the same month, Juventus were crowned champions after a goalless draw against Roma. United were beaten too, and Juventus had the shot at a double if they beat Porto in Switzerland.

The big occasions saw Platini raise his game. Over the course of the season, he had scored in important matches such as those against Inter Milan, AC Milan, Torino, Roma and it was only natural that in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, he would play an important role. Beniamino Vignola [set up by Platini] and Boniek were on the scoresheet, but Platini was making noise as well as Juventus added their second trophy of the season and the third over the previous two years.

For the second successive year, the Frenchman was the top goalscorer in the league as Juventus were crowned champions and he went into the European Championships of 1984 in full confidence. The Euros, hosted in his home country, saw the very best of Platini. He scored a record-breaking nine goals throughout the tournament as France went all the way to win their first-ever major international honour. It was the cherry on the top of another excellent year for the creative genius.

The 1984-85 season brought contrasting fortunes. For Platini, there was success: he was the league’s top scorer in the previous two seasons and his glory at club and international level saw him win the Ballon d’Or once again at the end of 1984, becoming only the fourth player to win the prize in consecutive years. Juventus, though, were in a terrible patch of form at the start of the season and were floundering in the depths of the division.

Dropped points against the league’s lesser sides saw Juventus at a disadvantage in their bid to win the league once again, as all of their focus shifted to Europe and bringing their first European Cup home. At the continental stage, they were dominant, overcoming Finland’s FC Ilves 6-1 on aggregate in the first round, with Platini scoring thrice across the two legs. A similar fate awaited Switzerland’s Grasshopper Zurich in the second round, as Platini contributed to two of Juventus’ six goals to take the Bianconeri to the quarter-finals of the competition.

Despite being in poor form domestically, Platini’s magic didn’t wear off: he scored some wonderful goals, especially one deft lob against Atalanta earlier in the season, but the club’s inconsistencies meant that the title was too far away from them, even as they hit a good run over the winter months. In the quarter-final of the European Cup, Slavia Prague were set aside as Juventus were at their sparkling best once again. Bordeaux awaited them in the penultimate round, and this was Platini’s stage to shine.

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In the home leg, Boniek and Massimo Briaschi did the damage to the French champions, but 20 minutes before the end, Platini scored one of the best goals of his career. As the ball was crossed in from the left side, a charging Platini whacked the ball with a first-time volley with his right foot to net Juventus’ third and take the tie away from Bordeaux. The French side gave Juventus a scare in the second leg, even scoring twice, but the tie was taken away from them in the first leg, as the Turin club reached their second European Cup final in three years.

With the league season finishing in an embarrassing sixth-place finish, a win over Liverpool in Belgium would erase all domestic woes. The two sides had already met earlier in the season in the Super Cup, with Juventus running out 2-0 winners on a snowy day in Italy. With the psychological edge, Juventus came into this match with confidence, but the events prior to kick-off dampened spirits.

The disaster before kick-off took the lives of 39 fans and left hundreds more injured. The match itself was an intense affair and was settled by a spot-kick, the awarding of which was controversial. A charging Boniek was believed to be fouled just outside the box, but the penalty was awarded nonetheless. Platini, cool as ever, slotted it well into the bottom left and that was to be the only goal.

The post-match coverage was rightly aimed at the events before the game, but no one could deny that Juventus had won the first European Cup in their history, and Platini was their most influential player. In a team of world champions, the Frenchman shone and etched his name in the sport’s folklore, emerging as one of the game’s greatest players. For three straight seasons, Platini was their top scorer despite not being a forward, and he now led them to their most elusive honour, thus establishing himself as one of the club’s finest in history.

It was a given that Platini would retain his Ballon d’Or for a second time, but the second half of 1985 was a wholly different contrast from the previous three seasons. Platini added the Intercontinental Cup to his and his club’s honours list – even scoring in the match against Argentinos Juniors in Tokyo, but after the European Cup final, this era felt like a different version of Le Roi.

He was still finding his name on the scoresheet constantly and Juventus were back on top of Serie A, but there was constant chatter that the Frenchman would leave the club. Barcelona were a widely-touted destination, while a return to France is also mentioned. In the end, however, much to the relief of the Juventus faithful, Platini agrees to extend his stay in Turin. The league title follows, as this extraordinary Juventus side who lost just thrice all season, return to Italy’s pinnacle.

As expected, there were further moments of pure genius from this incredible footballer. In a game against Bari early in the season, Platini netted a hat-trick, and the third goal encapsulated all his qualities. He received the ball from just outside the box, confidently cut it inside to send a defender trailing and then coolly slotted it home. Platini even scored a wonderful free-kick against local rivals Torino to win the Derby della Mole, much to the pride of the black-and-white side of Turin.

The European Cup run ended against Barcelona in the quarter-final, but Platini left with his mark on the competition that season. He scored a goal at home with a fine finish, but by then, the tie was already taken away from them. Juventus would end the season with just the league title as Platini went off to chase world glory in Mexico with France. That, however, would be the last success Platini would taste. France finished third in the World Cup, and when he returned to Italy, he was piped by the same man that did the magic in Mexico: Diego Maradona.

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The Argentine’s Napoli side swept the rest in Italy in the 1986-87 season, while Juventus were once again let down in Europe by another Spanish side: this time it was Real Madrid. Trapattoni’s departure also affected the team, as Rino Marchesi’s side were unable to build on the success of the past. This would be Platini’s last season in football and he left the game with the adulation of the Juventus supporters.

Whether it was the league titles or the European Cup or the famous goals on the biggest occasions, it could be said that Platini is arguably the most influential player in Juventus history. The likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon and Cristiano Ronaldo came after him, but Platini perhaps outdoes all of their legacies for the impact he had in such a short space of time is unrivaled. Platini is a legend in Turin, and a large part of Juventus’ appeal is owed to the work the Frenchman did in his five years at the club.

BY KARAN TEJWANI