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When my kids ask me, as I hope they one day will, how best to strike a football, I will show them a goal Michel Platini scored against Sampdoria in Turin in about 1985.

I’m not certain of the year, just because he always scored against Sampdoria. Juventus scored four goals in four games against the Genovese in the mid-eighties, and he scored all four of them.

Sampdoria hated Michel Platini, his Notts County shirt and regular knack of undermining them.

It came from a defensive mistake, one that goes against all the common stereotypes about Italian football, but that, truthfully, happened all the time back then. A centre-half screwed a clearance straight to the number ten’s feet as he timed his run towards the edge of the box with unerring, and utterly-bloody-predictable precision. But the ball was travelling at pace, ascending, and he was still a way out, probably the best part of thirty yards from goal.

He had plenty of time to take it down, if he deigned to. He could have always paused, taken a touch to think about all the options his gilded and gifted team-mates around the box were providing him with.

The crowd were miles away behind the goal, penned in behind the full curve of a ten metre grass strip, and brutal perimter fencing that wouldn’t look out of place on the edge of a demilitarized zone. The Stadio Communale was a barn, with endless dark and flat terraces. From the back of the one behind that goal the fans could barely make out the opposite end, let alone call a correct offside or spot a nudge on a centre forward from a wily centre-half.

Not that that would have stopped them, mind.

The Juve fans were no different to any others. They were preternaturally certain in their gifts of bionic sight mixed with an impossible, impartial infallibilty.

From the front it was even worse. From that angle all you’d get was vague impressions rendered in two dimensions, squeezed behind fences and flags. Caught between the devil and the deep green sea.

But, still, they were blessed. Though effectively blind, they could smell and hear and taste the genius in that Juventus midfield. Boniek, Bonini, Tardelli and Vignola started that game in midfield, behind Paolo Rossi up front.

With Platini holding them all together as the lynchpin, ringmaster and conductor, all at once.

In the curve, from all that distance, they may not have been able to see much but they could still spit and scream dogs abuse down at all those motherfuckers who dared to come here to the beating heart of industrial Italy and her football. The likes of Napoli’s twin geniuses, Maradona and Careca, may have been more idolised around the world, but they, as every Juventus fan would tell you, couldn’t hold a candle to the Frenchman in their midst.

And, though not entirely convincing, their argument does have its merits.

For Platini, back then… Well, Platini was the business. He wasn’t as small as he immediately appeared, and he was as fast as lightning, but he’d play with his elbows out too. He sharpened them like the spikes on the chariots wheels in the climactic scene in Ben Hur. He’d had to learn all the tricks necessary to defend himself against constant attack.

And he had a fire in his belly, a point to prove, a belief in his own right to rule as he saw fit.

The first club he ever had trials for said that he had a weak heart. But ask a Sampdoria fan, now, in his or her fifties, about him back then and they’ll tell you about the strength of Platini’s heart.

He could pass the ball like a snooker player striking the cueball with just the right pace, the right spin, always with an eye for what would come next. And what would then come after that, too. Him and Giresse and Tigana and Hernandez, the magic square at the heart of the French midfield, would just move and move a ball around between themselves like it was made of fine china.

They would care for it, stroke it.

Then suddenly, as if of nothing, they’d be away, and Platini would appear like a ghost in or around the box, always in the right place at the right time.

Though he was naturally right-footed he didn’t really have a preference, left or right, whatever was best placed at the time would do as long as he scored. He’d score with his head, his instep or the outside of his boot. He’d chip goals and lob goals, floating them over a prone keeper the way a fly-fisherman sends out a line to a dumb trout, unaware of the danger attached to the morsel taunting it. He drove and rolled goals in. He volleyed and half volleyed and bent and scuffed them in. From the front post and back. From the halfway line to the goal-line.

But scoring goals was just what he did after he’d decided that it was time to stop having fun. It was his way of punctuating a sentence of play, an artful full stop. But the joy was always in crafting the sentence that preceded it.

Platini may have been born French, but his roots were Italian. His family had left a generation before in search of work in France, which they found, but as is the common denominator, along with everything they could carry, they also brought with them a passion for football.

It gave them something to cling on to, something that represented normality in a new world, something to talk about, and something to do to forget the back-breaking work and the rolling foreign tongues.

So when Gianni Agnelli – L’Avocatto, the lawyer, they called him – charmed Platini with his tales of grandeur, of continuing a dynasty, of fine wine and nice cars and beautiful women and football as if played in a dream, he knew that the other choice on the table – going to a dreary and dark London that couldn’t have felt less cosmopolitan to a man like Platini – was inconceivable.

He slid into life in the country of his forebears like a submarine diving, leaving barely a ripple behind on the surface.

Around the time he scored against Sampdoria he had been made European Footballer of the Year for the third time in a row. Platini was feted, the centre of attention, speaking fluently with a barely perceptible accent betraying him as one of the only two foreigners allowed to play for Juventus.

The other was Boniek, the best player Poland had ever produced, bought specifically to bring the best out of Platini. He did his job with grace, and with that was worth every Zloty paid and more.

Looking like he fronted a bland and bourgeois, disco-tinged pop group making music as smooth and hairless as his chest and arms, he appeared on an Italian TV panel show. Platini wore a pink sweater, chinos that rode up above the ankles, and aqua-marine socks. His leather espadrilles were hand stitched, the sun tan was just right to give him a glow. His hair was long enough to be louche, yet parted straightly enough to be sharp.

To watch that show now is to feel like meeting him for drinks on the top deck of a yacht you should never have been invited onto in the first place, heading westwards towards an achingly beautiful pink sun, setting imperceptibly over a flat sea that belongs only to Platini. Where the dolphins gambol at his command.

Si, Michel, I nod in agreement when he makes a point I don’t understand, speaking neither French nor Italian. I find myself raising a smile when he does. Tell me another story, Michel, I murmur to myself. Maybe the one about how you scored the opener in the final of the European Championships in Paris, with the worst, ungainliest shot you ever took. A free kick that squirted unfortunately through the arms of the Spanish keeper. A goal that should never be the crowning glory of a tournament you graced like few ever have done before or since.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Michel Platini recently, and what will eventually come to be regarded as either his last great hubristic folly, or his grandest gesture to a Europe in need of unity more than ever before.

A European Championships, the competition he won at home, spread across twelve nations.

A tournament that sums up the untold riches and delusions of grandeur in the highest echelons of the game. But one that also, somehow, displays a bold romanticism about the power of football to bring people together when they need it the most.

Whilst of course still betraying a somewhat gauche and wildly uncaring attitude towards those who actually pay to watch football, for they ceased to be of any great importance a long time ago.

Up until its probable cancellation a couple of days ago as I write this, the 2020 European Championships have been my sole focus. I’ve been trying to untangle the hundreds of threads coursing through them, trying to work out what is important here. Yet, at the end of every road I walk down, I couldn’t escape the thought that he – He, Platini! – was the intrinsic figure of it all.

Even now, as a panicky Europe battens down its hatches in fear of an unseen virus sweeping across the continent, untamed, unchecked and ruining the plans for a pan-European championships, it is the strings that Platini pulled a long time ago that matter, when it comes to football. And maybe to how we see ourselves as a continent. He and his grandiose, foolish vision that has exposed all of our weaknesses, our luxuries, our probably ill-founded belief in a simple game as healing force for 800 years worth of wounds barely healed.

Yet Michel Platini is still as uninvolved in football today as he was a fortnight ago when all of this seemed inconceivable.

Were the European Championships even to begin in Rome on June 12th, he, the man who sent out the invites and booked the caterers, would be stuck outside the front door in the rain, sniffing pathetically at the door of the party.

He is persona non grata. He remains a bad memory. An unwelcome reminder of the corruption that never left football, to those who pretend with all their might still today that it did.

Platini has said he is determined to prove his innocence, that he has no regrets. But the wind seems to have gone out of his sails, somewhat. He said that the extra million quid or so stashed away in his bank account really was just a delayed payment for services rendered to FIFA. That Sepp Blatter had just wanted to make good on a gentleman’s agreement.

For they were nothing if not gentlemen. His career proved that.

But no-one is listening any more. The new power brokers of UEFA are pretending that now he’s gone, everything will be alright, even though it probably won’t be, because the people are terrified, and fed up, and there is a danger that the people watching on TV and paying their wages, might also start to realise that without fans in the stadia, football is really nothing.

Platini seemed to know that. Sometimes he talked as good a game as he played.

But the truth is that he had already lost that fragile beauty that defined him as one of the finest footballers you could ever see a long time ago. I sat not more than five metres away from him a few years ago at the Women’s Champions League final in Berlin. He swanned in with a squadron of security, a phalanx of lackeys, a whiff of truffle oil on the breeze, and Angela Merkel lookin for all the world like she was just another one of his advisors, lucky enough to be invited up to the top table for once, there to laugh at his jokes and to remind him what everybody’s names were and what they did.

As I saw it, he sat in court, plumpened, glistening, and rounded-edged. He looked like a king, once beloved, but now cosseted and spoiled, and who had finally had lost touch with the desires of his people.

It was one of the saddest sights I’ve seen in a long while. I couldn’t look at him, though many did. I wanted a drink, but UEFA banned the serving of alcohol to anyone who isn’t the president a long time ago. So I just watched the football.

And when his fall came it was a blessed relief. He would go down with the whole rotten ship, leaving us two final gifts. One may have been a catastrophe, viruses aside, anyway. That was a truly European Championships, to remind us of a romantic Frenchman whose Italian purred like a kitten, who had a Pole by his side in that great Juventus team, and who believed in the continent as a whole, its people and their game, the one that he could play as well as almost anyone who ever lived.

The second, though, was that he had bequeathed us his goals. His perfect hat-trick against Yugoslavia in ’84. His winner in the French cup final before he went to Italy. His goal against Napoli when Maradona himself tore a strip off his team-mates for not picking him up in the box. And his masterpiece against Sampdoria.

He took the belted clearance on his chest, letting the ball drop in front of him as he rolled back his shoulders, breathed and smiled, waiting for it to reach shin height on the bounce. He hit it cleanly, his right leg moving in a perfect arc, continuing its swing after the ball had already been struck the way a batsman follows though after a cover drive, a tennis player does after a cross court passing shot.

Platini held an almost gymmnastic pose. A statuesque, perfect vision of balance and poise, with his head back, a smile in his eyes and his chest hiding the fact that his heart was racing at a hundred miles an hour.

The ball exploded like a rocket propelled grenade, and if it hadn’t been stopped by the top corner of the Stadio Comunale’s rounded goal netting then it would still be going now, across the continent quicker, even, than a virus ever could.

Image By Caio Brandão Costa and unknow – Tapa de El Gráfico n 3453 (original photo), Public Domain,

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